Alfred Adler was an early member and president of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, but he never considered himself a follower of Sigmund Freud. He strongly disagreed with Freud’s emphasis on sexual desire in the development of personality, focusing instead on children’s striving for superiority and the importance of social relationships. He began to address the psychology of women as a cultural phenomenon, as opposed to Freud’s view that women are fundamentally incapable of developing a complete and healthy personality. Adler also addressed issues of education, an individual’s unique perspective on the world, and family therapy. Adler provided a perspective in which the striving of individuals to improve themselves is an essential characteristic of personality development. Most importantly, he believed that personal improvement and success are best achieved in cooperation with others, and that culture is an important factor in determining how that can be accomplished.
It has been suggested that Adler may have had an even greater influence on the overall development of psychiatry and psychology than Freud himself, and that theorists such as Sullivan, as well as Karen Horney and Erich Fromm, should be recognized as neo-Adlerians, not neo-Freudians (Ellis, 1973; Kaufmann, 1992; Mosak, 1995; Watts, 1999). Indeed, a reviewer of one of Karen Horney’s books once wrote that Horney had just written a new book by Adler (see Mosak, 1995). Albert Ellis suggested that Adler set the stage for the cognitive/behavioral psychotherapies that are so popular today (Ellis, 1973). Late in life, Adler encouraged the wife of a good friend to write his biography, and he gave Phyllis Bottome, who was herself a friend of Adler, a great deal of assistance (Bottome, 1957). He wanted to be understood. Perhaps, however, she came to understand him too well:
Adler was at once the easiest of men to know, and the most difficult; the frankest and the most subtle; the most conciliatory - and the most ruthless. As a colleague he was a model of generosity, accuracy and wholehearted integrity, but woe betide that colleague who dared to presume upon his generosity; or who was himself guilty of inaccuracy; or who failed in common honesty!
Adler never again worked with a person whom he distrusted; except when that person was a patient. (pg. 13; Bottome, 1957)
Adler also had the ability to make an impression on people who did not know him. When Raymond Corsini, a well-known psychologist in his own right, was 21 years old, he was invited by a friend to hear Adler speak at the City College of New York. During the question period that followed the lecture, an angry woman called Adler stupid, and berated one of the observations he had discussed. The young Corsini shared Adler’s perspective, and Corsini looked forward to hearing Adler’s “crushing reply.” However, something quite different occurred:
He seemed interested in the question, waited a moment, then in the most natural and careful manner, completely unruffled by her evident antagonism, spoke to her very simply…
He seemed so calm, so reasonable, so precise, and so kind, I knew we were in the presence of a great man, a humble and kind person, one who repaid hostility with friendship. (pg. 86; Corsini cited in Manaster, et al., 1977)
Harry Stack Sullivan extended Adler’s focus on the individual and social interest, believing that each of us can be understood only within the context of our interpersonal relationships. Like Freud, Sullivan focused intently on developmental stages, though he recognized seven of them, and believed that the primary purpose of development was to form better interpersonal relationships. In regard to his interest in relationships he can be closely associated with Adler, who believed that social interest, and its resulting social interaction, was the best way for an individual to overcome either real inferiority (such as in the case of a helpless newborn) or feelings of inferiority that might develop as part of one’s personality. Unlike Freud and Adler, however, Sullivan was born in America. Thus, he should be considered one of the most important figures in American psychology, particularly within the field of psychodynamic theory.