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An Interview with Becky LaFountain, Ph.D. on Adlerian Psychology and Psychotherapy

David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: May 14th 2009

download this podcast read the transcript

Rebecca LaFountain, Ed.D.In this edition of the Wise Counsel Podcast, Dr. Van Nuys interviews Rebecca LaFountain, Ed.D. on the topic of Adlerian Psychotherapy. Adlerian psychotherapy is based on the work of Alfred Adler, who is best known as an early disciple of Sigmund Freud who broke away from the master to pursue his own independent line of psychotherapy theorizing. Adler is the originator of many psychological concepts that remain popular today, including the the idea that birth order is an important determinant of personality, and the "inferiority complex", although they are not always tightly identified as originating with Adler.

Dr. LaFountain is a licensed Psychologist in the state of Pennsylvania, a university professor, and a diplomate in Adlerian Psychology; a status conferred by the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology (NASAP) of which she is director. Counseling was not Dr. LaFountain's first love. She initially studied the French language but later became attracted to the study of counseling through various exposures including her interactions with a supervising language teacher. She went back to school and obtained masters and doctoral degrees in counseling psychology. Her interest in Adler's work blossomed after she taught a "theories of personality" class and found herself identifying deeply with Adler's vision.

Most people today encounter Adler as a footnote to Freud in a textbook. However, Adler was actually a very influential, innovative and forward-looking therapist who anticipated many modern psychotherapy and psychological developments. He did spend some time with Freud in Vienna, but was the first to break away from Freud when it became clear that their wordviews were incompatible. In the simplest sense, Freud's vision of mankind was essentially negativistic, emphasizing inborn instincts that compelled people to act in ways that were not to their benefit, which focused upon mental illness, saw problems as centered upon the individual, and which understood the therapist to be authoritatively superior to the patient. In contrast Adler had a more positive, optimistic view of human nature. Where Freud's psychology was individualistic, Adler's was social and ecologically oriented; he was focused on the individual as embedded in and shaped by the group, anticipating what we would today call systems or family-systems theory. Where Freud focused on illness, Adler was interested in health. He worked to understand and emphasize people's strengths rather than their weaknesses and to promote mental health more than to cure illness. Where Freud continued the medical model of being the authority to which patients looked up, Adler was one of the first psychotherapists to break with this hierarchical model and to take a more egalitarian posture towards patients, in so doing anticipating the person-centered psychology of the humanistic approach to psychotherapy that developed in the 1960s, some 40-50 years after Adler's time(!). A big part of Adler's approach involved helping people to recognize their strengths and make the best of their situations, whatever they might be. In a sense he was interested in helping people to learn to look on the bright side of life, or to make lemonade out of lemons; characteristics we today associate with the positive psychology movement.

Adler wrote his important books in German. Consequently, there was a process of translation that occurred when Adler's ideas were brought to the United States. Dr. LaFountain contents that some of Adler's key ideas were badly translated and that this resulted in many of his key ideas being misunderstood. For example, Adler's approach to psychology and psychotherapy is formally called "Individual Psychology" but this is a very misleading label. Dr. LaFountain contends that a better translation of the original German word would have been "Indivisible", and thus if the theory were being named today, it might have been translated more accurately as "Holistic Psychology". Adler is also associated with an emphasis on people's "lifestyles" which we today understand to involve things that people do like play golf or work too much. LaFountain contents that what Adler actually was talking about when using the term translated as "lifestyle" was "personality", and his intent was to draw attention to the way that societal and familial expectations influenced a person to take on certain roles which influenced their personality. The concept of the inferiority complex and the ideas of inferiority and superiority provide another example. Today, it might sound wrong to help a person strive towards "superiority". However, in LaFountain's view, what was translated as "superiority" might have better been translated as "completeness" or "significance"; what we would today understand through the lens of Maslow's hierarchy of needs with the idea of self-actualization appearing at it's top. The final example has to do with "common-sense", a term coined by Adler which he meant to mean something along the lines of "being invested in and thoughtful about the welfare of others". In other-words, a social conscience and an emphasis on helping others rather than on being self-focused. Adler saw self-focus as self-defeating, and emphasized his notion of common-sense as an important component of mental health.

Dr. Van Nuys asks Dr. LaFountain whether there is anything distinctive about the Adlerian approach to therapy other than its theoretical basis. She points out two techniques: the 'question', and 'early recollections'. Adler was in the habit of asking clients how their lives would be different if they did not have the issues they were experiencing. In asking this question, he was trying to ascertain whether their problems were circumstantial or more permanent. This form of assessment anticipated a similar technique used today by practitioners of Solution Focused Therapy known as the "miracle questions" (e.g., if a miracle happened tonight and took your issues away, how would your life be different).

Adlerian therapists will also ask their clients early on to describe several early memories that come to mind. The therapist looks for ways that these early memories may be related to the current issues the client is experiencing, on the assumption that because these particular memories came to mind (and not others) that they must be related to the issues that are currently causing pain. As described by Dr. LaFountain, these memories are used by the therapist as source material around which to look for strengths. The therapist is interested in teaching the client how to identify strengths.

As the interview draws to a close, Dr. Van Nuys asks Dr. LaFountain about the future of Adlerian psychology and therapy. She responds that membership in the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology is holding steady, but that there has been some growth of interest in Adler's work in Europe. Dr. Van Nuys asks where people can get Adlerian training or find an Adlerian oriented psychotherapist, and she suggests several resources (links below).

A further thoughts. In listening to this interview and writing this summary, I (Dr. Dombeck) see ways in which Adler's work anticipated several modern movements in psychotherapy, including positive psychology, family systems theory, and humanistic psychotherapy, yet few of these movements acknowledge Adler as an influence. It seems that he did not have a very good publicist (grin!) and got stereotyped in with the Freudians. This is unfortunate since he obviously had little in common with that crowd.

Links Relevant To This Podcast:

  • Anyone interested in Adlerian theory or therapy ought to check out the website of the North American Society of Adlerican Psychology (NASAP), which Dr. LaFountain helps coordinate. NASAP is a source for information, training programs and an Annual Adlerian Psychology Conference (coming up in June in Tucson, AZ). You can also contact them for referals to qualified Adlerian therapists (although there is no clear link to this on their website!)

  • Formal training in Adlerian psychology can be had through the Adler School of Professional Psychology with locations in Chicago and Vancouver. Apparently there are also qualified Adlerian faculty working at Georgia State University and Florida Atlantic University.

About Rebecca LaFountain, Ed.D.

Rebecca LaFountain, Ed.D.Dr. Rebecca LaFountain is a licensed psychologist and diplomate in Adlerian Psychology. The latter is a recognition awarded by the North American Society of Adlerian Psychology, of which she has been the Executive Director since 2002. She is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Penn State Harrisburg, and previously was a Professor in the Department of Counseling, Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.

She has authored approximately twenty articles and two books, one of which is "A School with Solutions" which presents solutions in schools based on Adlerian and Solution-focused theories. Additionally, she has a part-time practice called "Counseling on West Chocolate" located on West Chocolate Ave. in Hershey, PA.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    Adlerian Collaboration - Clara Silva - Oct 4th 2009

    Dear Adlerian Colleague: Congratulation for your website! I invite to visite www.centroadleriano.org and collaborate between both institutions.

    Best regards,

    Dr. Clara Silva

    Clearly informative and encouraging - Mary Hughes - Jun 9th 2009

    My first try at entering a comment siad the website is too busy! (GREAT NEWS!) I hope they are all listening to this podcast.  I esp. appreciated these discussion points:  how "Individual" Psychology got it's misnomer in America with how the translation from German to English lost the original intent of how we as humans are not able to be piece-mealed but are "indivisible"; the clarification of  "inferiority/superiority" between what Adler meant and how it is interpreted; and the wonderful background on how encouragement means to "give heart to."  Reminding me of "the question" and the importance of "early memories" in Adlerian Psychology was also refreshing! Thanks, Becky, Mary

    keep learning Adlerian Psychology - SusanXu - Jun 5th 2009

    Thanks Becky for sharing her path to Adlerian Psychology.  I feel very lucky that my interest on Adler's theory lead me to know NASAP and to know Becky.

    I feel strongly from my heart that Adlerian Psychology points to the nature of human being. It's like a finger pointing to the beautiful Moon.

    Susan from China

    Cultural Applications - Dr. Michael C. McDonough - Jun 3rd 2009

    I am finding many of Adler's concepts are translating well while working in rural Ireland.  I enjoyed this review a lot.  Great Summary!!

    Congratulations, Becky - Pius Gatt - Jun 3rd 2009

    I am so hapapy for having invited Becky as your guest exponent of (Adlerian) Individual Psychology. Her words could serve as a good introduction to would-be students of IP. It is thanks to eminent scholars like Becky that I undertook studies in IP many years ago. On my return to Malta after completing my Master's degree in Chicago I was so enthused by what I had discovered that I founded M.A.P.A. (Malta Adlerian Psychology Association) in 1989, which Association is still growing stronger and influencing more parents, teachers and other professionals on the Island. 

    Adler School in Minnesota - Catherine H. - Jun 2nd 2009

    There is also a graduate school in Minnesota, called the Adler Graduate School. It's located in Richfield Minnesota alfredadler.edu. It offers graduate degrees, certificates and workshops, all Adlerian based.

    Very Informative! - Brad J - May 27th 2009

    I will be going back to listen to this one again, for sure. 

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