Home PageComparative Individual PsychologyThe theorical and practical model

The theorical and practical model


Individual Psychology is part of the field of psychodynamic theories and today plays an important role in the comparison with the developments in psychoanalysis, self psychology, and other theoretical trends.

Ellenberger underlined how Adlerian ideas not only predated many of the themes that are important today in psychosocial sciences, and proposed working models and suggested directions for studies now investigated by contemporary research; but they also grasped the basic theoretical and ethical needs that make up the current individual and social crisis.



The full name coined by Alfred Adler for his theoretical and practical concept of dynamic and depth psychology in 1911 is Comparative Individual Psychology.

The term “individual” is used in the etymological sense derived from Latin “individuus”, meaning indivisible; this means each person is an indivisible whole, even though he or she may have different somatic, mental and social aspects. The “comparative” adjective emphasises the need to connect each person with other individuals within a sociocultural dimension.

These three somatic, mental and social dimensions constitute the premise, even epistemological, that enables Individual Psychology to be a complex, interdisciplinary “open model” that continually interacts with the surrounding environment.

Cultural matrixes:

The Adlerian model builds on theories that predate Adler’s meeting with Freud.

Several philosophy-based roots helped to shape the body of theory behind Individual Psychology:

Significant contributions include stoicism due to the concept of courage as a virtue; Leibniz, for the indivisible unit of a being; Kant, for the pragmatic-anthropological aspects of understanding man and for the ethical-practical aspects; and Bachofen, for the ideas on feminism, “masculine protest” and community feeling.

Furthermore, Adler is also indebted to other schools of thought: Darwin’s theory of evolution; Bentham’s positivistic utilitarianism; Nietzsche’s concept of “will to power” (even though Adler uses this in a different way), and Hans Vaihinger for “The Philosophy of ‘As if’.”

After 1924, Adler became interested in the “holistic-vitalist” theory of Jan Christian Smuts and Henry Bergson’s school of thought on “élan vital”, and the American cultural and pragmatic movements. He was also very interested in the theory of the philosophy of science put forward by Karl Popper, from which he drew some ideas for a critique of the Individual Psychology model.


One of the starting points for Adlerian metapsychology is that each thing in the psychic life occurs “as if” certain facts were axiomatic, i.e. self-evident and true.

The main theme involves an endless quest to find the meaning of the individual in terms of the diversified biological, psychological, social and cultural whole.

Every gesture, every action, and every psychopathological and/or psychosomatic symptom can be added to a guideline in a movement towards an end through conscious and unconscious dynamism. When working with the human system one tries to study not only the causal aspects but also the goals, bearing in mind that the concepts of determinism and finalism do not assume herein meanings of a “substantialist” nature (i.e. directed at rigid causality or causality of final goals), but are put forward as soft causalism and finalism, i.e. “as if” individuals could choose goals and plan the appropriate actions to achieve them.

In order for us to understand the nature of the Adlerian model we need to refer to Hans Vaihinger’s “as if” (Als Ob) philosophy (1911) and to the logical theory of fictions, which distinguishes these from hypotheses.

Fiction is a rhetorical figure, a practical tool, a concept that that can be used in Individual Psychology as a guideline for reaching individual goals and guiding human behaviour and is consequently classed among the motivational mechanisms, together with causality and finality on a genetic-constitutional-temperamental basis.

Key concepts:

In Adler’s early work (1906), which was still within the sphere of psychoanalysis, he dealt with organ inferiority: he considered the plastic abilities of the brain in overcoming organ inferiorities by means of compensation.

The Adlerian concept appears consistent and compatible with the modern biopsychosocial model, a century before it was introduced.

In his later work (The Neurotic Character, 1912) Adler considers the subjective feeling of inferiority, and no longer actual organ inferiority.

The subjective feeling of insecurity and inferiority is the starting point for the human experience in that it accompanies the existence of humans from the very first moments of life: human offspring are not self-sufficient for a very long time after birth.

The feeling of inferiority is therefore an ontological condition of the human being: not only for his or her survival from a biological standpoint but also, and more importantly, for the possibility of psychologically existing.

The feeling of inferiority, inadequacy in life, and imperfection permeates the existence and subjective experience of man.

Individual Psychology also rests on two basic needs, which are not similar to Freudian drives and take the form of needs rooted in character.

The first need is the will to power or striving for superiority which is partly innate and partly a way of compensating for the feeling of inadequacy.

It drives man on both a conscious and unconscious level towards goals that are not necessarily destructive, but also offer protection and self-affirmation.

Therefore aggressiveness is not viewed as a by-product of the death instinct, instead it is a need implicit in psychic and behavioural manifestations directed towards the environment or ourselves, with conscious and unconscious motivations which are not only harmful or competitive but are also self-protective and productive. [2; 3]

The second basic need is community feeling/social interest.

This stems from a primary emotional-social bond and establishes a “need” for cooperation and emotional sharing with fellow human beings.

In the dynamics of the psychic life the community feeling acts at times in synergy and at other times in contrast with the will to power. [2]

Individual Psychology includes the notion of the unconscious, including the mechanisms of symbol formation, in its principles.

The unconscious assumes an important meaning in Individual Psychology: it becomes that which we have not fully understand about ourselves, “the un-understood”, which integrates with consciousness and possesses remarkable potential for creativity.

In Individual Psychology the ideal of the individual is a fictional goal, which also however represents a unifying principle and, as such, is an integral part of the individual and consistent with Creative Self. [2; 4; 5]

The unified and consistent Creative Self is simultaneously an autopoietic function of the psyche and structure that encourages the lifestyle towards creatively adapting to environmental demands.

It is responsible for the uniqueness of the individual, governs the structure of the personality, and interprets experiences and makes them meaningful. [6]

Individual Psychology therefore proposes a notion of the individual that constantly interacts with the environment.

In fact, one of the fundamental principles of Individual Psychology is that life is movement and it tends to constantly adapt to the environment. [7]

Heredity endows him (the individual) with certain abilities. Environment gives him certain impressions.

These abilities and impressions, and the manner in which he “experiences” them, i.e. the interpretation he makes of these experiences, are the bricks he uses in his own “creative” way to build his attitude toward life. His individual way of using these bricks, in other words, his attitude toward life, determines his relationship to the outside world.

He meets entirely different problems from his forebears, and views them from a perspective of his own creation. He sees the environment which trains him with his own self-created perspective, and accordingly changes its effect upon him for better or worse. [8]

The unity and indivisibility of the human being, in terms of his or her originality and unrepeatability and the internal consistency and unity of the personality, constitute the idiographic criterion that must inevitably be present in a process of evaluation and diagnostic classification.

A symptom cannot be considered out of the global context of the personality which expresses it and the same symptom takes on different meanings according to the context in which it presents.

So in Individual Psychology the study of the psychopathology begins with a diagnostic approach that considers various factors of etiopathogenetic importance of the disorder, evaluating the role played by different factors on a case by case basis: biological vulnerability, i.e. the altered processing methods of the cerebral functions; psychosocial vulnerability, i.e. defective or conflictual early experiences experienced by the subject; the incidence of significant life events; the quality of the individual response to the pathogenic noxa, which can be described in terms of defence mechanisms, coping mechanisms and compensatory mechanisms (dynamic organisation of personality). [9]

By starting with a diagnostic understanding whose goal is the possibility of grasping “the fil rouge” [10] that links and gives meaning to the different manifestations of the patient’s psyche and of his or her suffering, the Adlerian clinician has a theoretical and practical model of reference that enables him or her to focus attention on the single unique and unrepeatable individual, and on his or her specific (adaptive or dysfunctional) methods for tackling the suffering and problems of life. [11]

This approach to providing initiatives is rooted in the Adlerian notion of a “network model” and a “network of models” which is intended as a conceptual and operational tool between different multimodal and interdisciplinary paradigms. It facilitates compatibility between the different techniques and treatments used and the different languages (Rovera et al., 1984), and supports the operational approach of techniques and treatments even when different professions are involved. [12]

Areas of intervention:

Individual Psychology can therefore be applied in many clinical, rehabilitative and psychoeducational settings:

  • Psychotherapy and Analysis
  • Psychiatry
  • Liaison psychiatry and psychology
  • Cultural and intercultural psychiatry and psychotherapy
  • Counselling
  • Psychoeducation
  • Educational psychology
  • Rehabilitation



  1. Ellenberger H.F. (1970) La scoperta dell’inconscio, Boringhieri, 1972
  2. Rovera G.G. (1992): La Psicologia Individuale . In: Trattato Italiano di Psichiatria, III. Masson, Milano
  3. Rovera G.G. (1979): Sulla psicodinamica dell’aggressività e della violenza. In: La violenza interpretata, a cura di R. Villa, Il Mulino
  4. Schaffer H.: La psychologie d’Adler. Masson, Paris, 1976
  5. Parenti F., Pagani P.L.: Dizionario alternativo di psicoanalisi. Quaderni di Psicologia Individuale, Saranno, Milano, 1984
  6. Bianconi A., Simonelli B. (2012): Voce: Sè creativo. In: Nardone G., Salvini A.: Dizionario internazionale di psicoterapia, Garzanti
  7. Rovera G.G. (1979): Il sistema aperto della Psicologia Individuale. Quaderni della Rivista di Psicologia Individuale, n° 4
  8. Adler A.(1935): I concetti fondamentali della Psicologia Individuale. “Introduzione” al n. 1 Vol. 1 dell’International Journal of Individual Psychology, N.Y., 1935; trad. it. in: Rivista di Psicologia Individuale, n° 33: 5-9, 1993
  9. Ferrero A. (2009): Psicoterapia psicodinamica Adleriana (APP): un trattamento possibile nei Dipartimenti di Salute Mnetale. Centro Studi e Ricerche in Psichiatria Ed., Torino
  10. Adler. A. (1929): Problems of neurosis. A book of case-hstories. Kegan Paul, Trench, Truebener & Co., Londra
  11. Ferrero A. (2010): Il lavoro sulle finzioni in psicoterapia: significato del setting. In: Rivista di Psicologia Individuale, n° 68: 81-94
  12. Rovera G.G., Fassino S. et al.: Il modello di rete in psichiatria. Rassegna Ipnosi Minerva Medica, 1984, 75, 1-9