This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 13 table of contents.

Analysis of the Style of Life

Adler used several diagnostic tools in therapy. He considered early memories to be very important. Adler felt that they revealed a person's characteristic way of interacting with other people.

How did Adler analyze early memories?

Adler recognized that first memories reported by people might not be accurate, and they might not be the oldest memories a person had, but that did not matter. What was important was the fact that a person selected this memory as the earliest and preserved it through a lifetime of experience.

Adler looked first at the social relationship expressed in the earliest memory. He asked, "Is it an 'I' or a 'we' situation?" In other words, is the individual alone with his or her own thoughts, or interacting with other people? Adler felt such patterns could persist into adulthood.

Sometimes only one parent or guardian would be in the memory. Then Adler might ask, "What about the other one?" Sometimes a sibling (brother or sister) would be present in the earliest memory. Then, Adler believed, it was likely this brother or sister played a pivotal role as friend or competitor in the child's life.

A man who remembered sitting in his living room with his mother, watching men build a house across the street, was seen as taking a passive attitude toward life in which he was an observer while others acted. A person with a first memory featuring whining and complaining might remain an adult who whines and complains. An adult whose first memory is an uncanny feeling alone in a meadow might still be a solitary type, focused on private feelings.

How did Adler analyze dreams?

Adler also used dreams as a means of diagnosing a person's feelings about his or her current situation. In general, Adler felt, dreams express a "feeling tone" such as being threatened, or being triumphant, or rallying oneself for an ordeal to come. Inferiority themes included missing trains (in Adler's day), confronting authority, or nightmares. These indicated a person felt insecure or under threat. Courage themes included flying, overcoming difficulties, or climbing mountains. These indicated a person was rallying to take on a challenge, or feeling healthy and successful.

Why were injuries and illnesses important, according to Adler?

Adler felt that childhood injuries and illnesses could have a big impact on a person's outlook. Body-related inferiorities (anything obvious to other people) could lead to defeatism or triumph, depending on how the child reacted. If a child had asthma that occurred during exercise, for example, the child might learn to avoid challenging situations...or just the opposite, the asthmatic child might develop a burning desire to overcome the disorder and triumph as an athlete. Adler called such extreme reactions against inferiority overcompensation.

Compensation could be a good or a bad thing, in Adler's system, and it could be based on fighting back against adversity or adapting to it. For example, a child who was physically small might learn to act brave and tough (compensating by fighting against smallness and weakness). Teddy Roosevelt had asthma and very bad vision as a child. As an adult, he was a boxer, champion swimmer, big game hunter, and president of the United States. This is one typical response to a felt inferiority. A person fights against it. On the other hand, a child who was physically small might learn to act unthreatening and kind to others. Either was possible, and either could be called a compensation.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.

Custom Search

Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey