Alfred Adler (1870-1937), the founder of Individual Psychology, created the Society for Individual Psychology in 1912. He was notorious for being a showman, often working with clients in front of large audiences. Alder believed that the requisite for a good life rested on a sense of superiority and control. Adler believed that we have five goals that needed to be addressed in a life, which he labeled life tasks: love, work, friendship, self, and spirituality. Adler indicated that these needs were based on our role in the community and upheld the notion that people need to engage with others to feel fully at peace and to fulfill these needs. His work became so popular that by 1952, the Adler Institute in Chicago was founded.
In 1965, William Glasser wrote his first book entitled Reality Therapy and opened his first institute under his own name three years later. Glasser was influenced by the ideas of Adler and theories related to internal control and motivation. Today, reality therapy is now called choice theory or choice therapy. Choice theory’s foundation centers on basic needs that we all desire: survival, love, belonging, power, freedom, and fun. Glasser indicated that love and belonging were primary. According to Glasser, each person is responsibility for fulfilling these needs in his or her own life.
While Adler and Glasser disagreed on how to actually get these needs met, they did agree that we must lose the idea that things “happen” to us. Rather we needed to begin to think that we happen to things – that we have control and choices over our lives, not the other way around. We are responsible for our own choices. We are responsible for getting our own needs met.
Glasser believed all responsibility of choice lay within the individual, whereas Adler acknowledged that, sometimes, options can feel, and actually can be quite, limited (Petersen, 2005). Sometimes, it is hard to see the choices, but they are there. One thing we simply cannot do is blame others for those choices. Both Adler and Glasser claimed that the notion of passing off blame just simply didn’t help.
Mental illness is seen by both Adlerian and Choice theories as simply behaviors of inferiority and unsatisfied needs. Wary of any sort of actual labeling, both Adler and Glasser considered mental illness a choice by the client, whether subconscious or conscious, that actually benefited the client. Such illnesses are used as a tool to get whatever we need or want at the time. In this respect, such things as anxiety, depression, and mania are purposeful and needed. Yet, they are also ineffective and tend to cause more harm than good. Very controversial theories, indeed. But they raise some interesting thoughts.
At the time of Adler’s newfound theory, not much was known about abnormal behavior – it was considered simply a neurosis. Today, so much more is known about the genetic and hereditary links to abnormal behaviors, yet Glasser holds fast to the idea that it is still a choice of sorts, insisting that medicinal interventions are not needed (Corey, 2005).
Glasser’s choice therapy works toward treatment goals that teach clients to make substantial choices in order to satisfy their needs and relationships in a productive manner. Adler’s theory does the same but with a much larger stress on social interactions. Both theories tout the need for defining relationships and working toward understanding our own specific needs. By recognizing what our needs and life tasks are and then working toward fulfilling them, both theorists believed that mental illness could be eliminated. Encouragement and education are seen as important parts of the process, as well as focusing on what the client needs in order to be well.
So, can we eradicate mental illness by focusing on life tasks and fulfilling our own needs? Adler and Glasser seemed to think so.
I have seen clients work hard to find their way back from depression, anxiety, trauma, and all sorts of illnesses, mental and physical. Some take medication and some do not. Does it eradicate the symptoms, the illness, the reason that they come seeking help in the first place? I cannot say with all certainly that it happens this way every time. People are different and to assume that they will all manage their symptoms the same way and that they all stem from the same place is not quite fair.
What I do know with all certainty is this: Adler and Glasser were on to something. When a client comes to see me, they often are overwhelmed, exhausted, unsure, and want to change something.
Because something doesn’t feel right, doesn’t seem right, doesn’t look right.
Something is off.
How we discover what that is is by focusing on those needs that are unfulfilled, those life tasks that have gone unmet, the thoughts and choices that they are making now as well as then and how they have affected their past, their present, their future. Often, the real work is figuring out what a client needs. Some clients have never given themselves an opportunity to consider this.
Once that work begins – discovering their needs, taking choice into their own hands, finding out what needs to happen, and how to get it – well, that is when and where symptoms start to drop away.
A wonderful thing begins to happen. They find that life is not happening to them, they are happening to life.
Corey, G. (2005). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy. (7th ed.) Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.
Petersen, S. (2005). Reality therapy and individual or adlerian psychology: A comparison. International Journal of Reality Therapy. 14(2), 11-14.