Adlerian Theory vs. Freud’s Personality Theory


Understanding human behavior is a complex task that demands a critical insight. Thus, it is not surprising that many theorists have investigated the subject of personality and related human aspects. Freud and Adler are among the authors who shared their perspectives on personality. Despite the difference in views, their theories postulate that an early life has a noteworthy influence on lifelong development. Whereas Freud saw sexuality influencing the personality, Adler believed that an inferiority complex was a significant driver of human behavior. However, the latter stated that people have the capacity to change, although their early life is a major determinant of further behavior. Therefore, it is important to analyze the main similarities and differences between psychoanalysis and the Alderian theory.

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Background and Nature of the Theory’s Developer

Freud developed the pillar of psychoanalysis providing explanations referring to sexuality. Ernst Brucke and Charles Darwin largely influenced Freud, although the most influential figure for the theorist was Jean-Martin Charcot, whose use of hypnosis proved pivotal. Freud heard Charcot referring to a female patient who had hysteria symptoms, which he attributed to genitals. The instance was among the driving forces that persuaded Freud to link sexuality to personality. Based on the theorist’s analysis, a connection existed between the unresolved sexual concern and neurosis.

While in Paris, Sigmund Freud marveled at Charcot’s application of hypnosis to treat hysterics. However, after returning to Vienna, he examined hypnotherapy and found it ineffective in terms of advancing long-term treatment. Freud decided to work with Josef Breuer who at the time was using a cathartic treatment method to hypnotize hysteria patients before asking them to recall their initial symptoms. Allowing the patient to relive his or her experiences facilitated the expressing of repressed emotions. After the catharsis, the symptoms often disappeared. The treatment proved to be more effective than hypnotherapy. The experience gained allowed Freud to come up with the study of psychoanalysis.

Beliefs about Human Nature

As Freud continued refining the area of psychoanalysis, the theorist was becoming persuaded that neurosis was linked with a sexual conflict. Freud relied on the connection to advance the child development theory. The latter includes the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages of development. Based on the views of the theorist, the five stages were influential in structuring the human mind.

Freud stuck to his personal path as he took a deterministic position having contended that heritage dictated the choices individuals made. The time when psychiatric illnesses were acute was of particular concern. During that period, Freud suffered from phobia, fear and related emotional issues. It explains why most of the author’s theories are based on self-analyses. The reference to the self is the main reason why Freud’ theories come under heavy criticism. Understood differently, a personal experience cannot be used to generalize human behavior.

Based on the psychoanalytic theory, human beings are largely influenced by early experiences and psychic energy. Unconscious conflicts and motives play a central role in the present conduct of individuals. Freud believed that the strength of irrational forces implied that aggressive and sexual impulses drove peoples’ behavior. The theorist underscored the role of the early life in shaping the personality. Thus, understanding an individual requires one to trace his/ her childhood conflicts.

Normally, character development is a result of a successful resolution and assimilation of various psychosexual development stages. For Freud, abnormal personality development results from an inadequacy in resolving issues at any of the development stages. Anxiety is also one of the outcomes of repressing basic conflicts. In addition, unconscious processes relate to an individual’s present behavior.

Whenever a conflict arises, the use of therapy should be sought  by a person. The goal is to introduce conscience thoughts into subconsciousness with a view to reconstructing the primary personality. It is also noted that the role of the theory can help people to relive their early life experiences. Hence, theorists can assist in handling previous conflicts that patients/clients have faced. The theory is also critical in creating both emotional and intellectual awareness. When developing treatment plans, analysts remain anonymous allowing clients to project or forecast. The central point is to reduce resistance, which emerges when working on issues bordering on emotional control. Clients undergoing a long-term analysis are allowed to engage in free relationships so that they uncover conflicts. Analysts rely on interpreting and teaching emotionally distressed people.

According to Corey, Freud’s early thoughts supported the position that the human being comprised the conscience and unconscious minds. After some time, Freud came up with the id, ego and the superego. Based on the ideas of the theorist, organisms act with a view to improving survival and reproductive chances in addition to other needs. These include the need for food, sex, and the need to avoid thirst and hunger or pain among others. The id pursues immediate satisfaction irrespective of the circumstances. On the other hand, the ego attempts to assist by seeking the attainment of satisfaction based on the instincts of the id. The superego focuses on perfection. A conflict that emerges between the superego and id may lead to anxiety or guilt. In a bid to keep inner peace, the human mind must devise defense mechanisms.

While responding to the sexuality conflict, some of the defense mechanisms include projection, intellectualization, displacement, rationalization, sublimation denial and love. The theory helps in demonstrating that other motives and biological drives influence human beings. For instance, the past traumas and societal factors directly affect people by shaping their behavior. The theory on the human mind has led to the conclusion that making compromises is the best approach to settling life’s conflicting demands.

Adlerian Theory

Background and Nature of the Theory’s Developer

Adler’s early life was characterized by an illness and feelings of inferiority and inadequacy in comparison to his siblings. The experience weighed Alder down. The initial life influenced his thinking, as he believed that the inferiority complex was a motivating factor for human behavior. It is indicated that Adler was a second-born son in his family. He was treated ill because of his poor health as compared to that of his elder brother. Adler was unhappy about the state of affairs and decided to compensate his unflavored position by hard work at school.

Beliefs about Human Nature

According to Adler, the basic neurosis element facilitated the feeling of inferiority. Individuals pegged back by the phenomenon required much time trying to overcome the associated negative feelings. The theorist believed that if the symptoms began at an early stage of life, part of adult behavior would continue demonstrating the age at which a person stopped developing. An inferiority complex is viewed as a stage at which one becomes unable to compensate his or her retardation in development. Under the theory, it is assumed that the social interest motivates people to pursue goals and deal with life’s tasks. An individual’s positive capacity to cooperate while residing in society forms the theory’s central idea. It is understood that people have the competence to create, influence and interpret events. At any stage, every person is capable of creating a unique lifestyle, which tends to be relatively consistent throughout one’s life.

The unity of individuality is among the primary concepts of the theory. Examining people from the subjective perspective and considering the significance of life objectives in giving a direction to life are major factors. The pursuit of goals is critical to giving one a certain level of fulfillment. The social interest also adds to enriching individuals’ lives. Striving for superiority and significance, developing a distinct lifestyle, and comprehending families’ constellation are some of the fundamental aspects that the theory explores. Regarding extending treatment, the provision of encouragement and assistance in altering one’s cognitive perspective and conduct is the main factor.

Using Adler’s theory to counsel people, the primary goal is to challenge the basic premises and personal goals. The theory underscores the need to provide encouragement in order to advance socially useful goals and develop an individual’s sense of belonging. Emphasis is put on shared responsibility or equality. Thus, the identification, exploration, and disclosure of mistaken goals or faulty assumptions are helpful in redressing issues. According to psychologist Adler, what drives people underlies motivation that propels individuals through various circumstances. The ‘striving for perfection’ captures the desire to fulfill an individual potential or realize a given set of ideals. It is similar to self-actualization. In psychology, the pursuit of perfection is problematic given that it is ambiguous as a term and largely unattainable. Those who seek self-perfection end up frustrated, which may result into aggression.

Adler used compensation to refer to the striving process, which also denoted a striving for overcoming individual’s inherent limitations. Based on Adler’s views, each person has some shortcomings, which influence personality development in the manner in which people compensate for challenges. Although the theorist partly rejected the idea, he incorporated it by proposing that problems determined who one became.

The idea of “masculine protest” is also featured in Adler’s theory. After spotting differences in cultural expectations from girls and boys, a scenario emerges where boys are viewed as a strong and aggressive sex. Adler eschewed the subjectivity that indicated that men’s assertive behavior and success emerged from bizarre innate superiority. According to the theorist, the phenomenon can be explained based on the encouragement boys receive to be assertive, while girls desist from demonstrating such traits.

The Adler’s theory is also known as the “striving for superiority” model. It is linked to the Nietzsche’s theory based on the need to spur human motivation differently viewed as neurotic striving, which borders on unhealthy/destructive competition. This behavior is reflective of acts of the pursuit of superiority.

Fisher acknowledged that Adler did not spend much time on researching neurosis, as he identified a number of personality types. A distinction between personalities lays in variations in manifested energy levels. Categorization is not absolute, although Adler demonstrated heuristic functions. The ruling type is the first category, under which people are characterized based on the tendency of aggressiveness and domineering over others. Individuals in the group have immense energy to overwhelm anybody or anything that comes on the way. Although people are not always sadists/bullies, some redirect the energy inwardly in a manner that is harmful to the self. The case of drug addicts, alcoholics and people who commit a suicide fall into this category. The leaning type is also another group explored by Adler. Persons within the category are sensitive and often erect barriers around themselves for protection. Despite such measures, they end up being reliant on others to see them through life. These individuals lack the energy to fight. Thus, it is not surprising that they are affected by phobia, obsessions, anxiety, dissociations and compulsions. The avoiding type of persons also exists. Under the category, people display limited energy as they recoil internally and conserve their feelings. Such individuals adopt an avoidance strategy as they stay away from other people or activities. In extreme circumstances, victims develop psychosis, which may result into total retreat. Adler’s final category is a socially useful group. Individuals falling into the group are healthy persons who possess adequate energy, although they do not have an overbearing social interest. Such individuals are not influenced by the sense of inferiority and can seek help from others in cases of concern.


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Comparison and Contrast

Whereas Sigmund Freud believed that the human instinct and many concerns people faced were traceable to their sexual-based conflicts, Adler was of the opinion that the human personality was a social construction with birth order playing a major role in influencing development. Freud relied on a free association with patients leading to his finding that memories could be traced back to childhood. According to the theorist, repressed feelings bordered on sexual issues.

The theories of Freud and Adler differ in a number of ways too. One of the differences is that the first differentiated constituents of the personality, while Adler viewed the individual as a whole. In the reasoning of Freud, conscience and unconscious parts were distinct. Additionally, Freud was of the view that the unconscious mind was beyond control. Thus, it is not surprising that he felt that an analyst needed to use a free association and related techniques to identify needed information from the unconscious mind. On the other hand, Adler held that the conscious and unconscious minds worked harmoniously. The theorist clarified that whereas consciousness represents what is understood, the unconscious mind is what to be understood yet. Further, Adler believed that the two could alternate any time.

After the revision of Freud’s theory, three new rigid divisions, the id, ego, and the superego, emerged. They often conflict shaping personality. If not handled well, the disagreement can result into neurosis. However, Adler insisted on viewing an individual as a whole rather than parts. It is observed that he often disagreed with Freud on how to asses a person. Freud emphasized sexuality, while Adler zeroed in on social and cultural factors. The latter also based his theory on own childhood experiences. Adler opined that inferiority, as well as birth order, influenced personality in reference to a social interaction.


Although Adler’ theory is not exciting as Freud’s one given the absence of sexuality, it is practical, influential and applicable to understanding human behavior. Despite notable differences between the theories, it is evident that they both focus on the underlying issues facing individuals in life. The theorists were seeking to diagnose and treat different psychological illnesses. Irrespective of the different approaches, Freud and Adler remain fundamental in the history of psychology.