Sunday, June 14, 2009

Individual Psychology versus Existential Psychology: A Typology Approach

Another paper written for my psych class.

Individual Psychology versus Existential Psychology: A Typology Approach

When a client first presents in the consulting room, there are many impressions a therapist might develop that can help determine the most suitable approach to be taken with that client in devising a therapeutic plan. Among the most important might be specific symptoms leading them to therapy, apparent developmental stage (pre-conventional, conventional, or post-conventional), and typology. Yes, typology is an important consideration. Among the many typology measures, Myers-Briggs is the most widely available tool for use in an intake inventory. More importantly, determining whether a client is an extrovert or an introvert can offer unique perspectives on the type of therapeutic intervention that might be most applicable. One such instance that will be examined here is the choice of Adlerian Individual Psychotherapy or Existential Psychotherapy for dysfunctions presenting in those who are in transition from the F-4 (rule/role) to F-5 (individuation) developmental stages, and even into the F6 (self-actualization) developmental stage (Wilber, 2000, p.99). Each of these theories—along with the Humanistic approaches of Rogers and Maslow, to name only two—is well-suited to these stage transitions, although each looks at the struggle through its own unique lens.

While Adler’s therapeutic approach helped contribute to the existential psychologies of Viktor Frankl, Rollo May, and Irvin Yalom, and while both rely very heavily on the subjective experience (interiority) of the client, there is one distinct difference in the approaches that makes them more or less suitable to individual clients. Specifically, Adler’s Individual Psychotherapy is more focused on a feeling of belonging in community, a sense of interpersonal connectedness as a primary need for mental health (Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington, n.d.). On the other hand, the existential therapies are more directed toward an individual’s own sense of meaning, as developed from an interior attempt to makes sense of existential issues. What follows is Irvin Yalom’s definition of existential psychology:

The existential position emphasizes . . . a conflict that flows from the individual’s confrontation with the givens of existence. And I mean by “givens” of existence certain ultimate concerns, certain intrinsic properties that are a part, and an inescapable part, of the human being’s existence in the world. (Yalom, 1980, p. 8)

Yalom goes on to name four basic concerns—death, freedom, existential isolation, and meaningless—as the primary existential issues human beings must confront.

In essence, then, Adlerian psychotherapy is best suited for extroverted clients who make sense of their world through relationships and interpersonal experience, while existential psychotherapies might be better suited for those who are introverted and make sense of their world through self-reflection and intrapersonal experience. Obviously, this is a simplified explanation of the two theories, so it will be beneficial to look at each of them more in-depth.

Each theory has a unique set of concerns that informs its therapeutic approach. For Adler, the sense of inferiority (retained in modern practice as the inferiority complex) is the uniting factor for all infants, and the drive to superiority (becoming the superiority complex in neurotics) is the resulting adaptive behavior (Uytman, 1967, ¶ 3). These drives are normal and healthy in most people, but become pathological in the absence of a clear “fictive goal” and “guiding fiction,” or more generally a clear “fictional finalism.”

Adlerians use the term fictional finalism to refer to an imagined central goal that guides a person’s behavior. Adler was influenced by the philosopher Hans Vaihainger’s (1965) view that people live by fictions (or views of how the world should be). … The fictional goal represents an individual’s image of a perfected position, for which he or she strives in any given situation. (Corey, 2001, p.110)

The term superiority is used here in a very specific way by Adler to mean transitioning from a felt-sense of inadequacy to a felt-sense of competence, and for Adler this was a major factor contributing to the development of community among people. The obvious downside of this drive might what Nietzsche called “the will to power,” when one becomes consumed with irreparable feelings of inferiority (Dickinson & Ashby, 2008, ¶ 1), rather than the healthier “will to meaning” of Viktor Frankl (1988).

According to Frankl’s Logotherapy, the will to meaning is greater than mere self-interest and includes self-transcendence (Frankl, 1988, p. 50). Frankl does not mean this in the sense that we may now come to think of self-transcendence (since the advent of transpersonal psychology), as a quest for non-dual experience, or the collapse of the self-other split. Rather, Frankl believed that being human requires a self-object tension (and by object, he is using the term as the object relations people do, meaning an object of consciousness).

Those authors who pretend to have overcome the dichotomy between object and subject are not aware that, as a truly phenomenological analysis would reveal, there is no such thing as cognition outside of the polar field of tension established between object and subject.” (Frankl, p. 50-51)

So while Adler stressed the importance of the self as a socially embedded entity, Frankl was more interested in how the individual relates to the objects of consciousness and, in that relationship, how he or she forms meaning. According to Frankl, this meaning arises from idealism and enthusiasm, which is what he seems to mean by self-transcendence. This fits with the concerns expressed in Yalom’s version of existential psychotherapy (Yalom, 1980, 439), where self-transcendence takes a on a meaning closer to Maslow’s self-actualization or Jung’s individuation, which is the F5 (individuation) task to be resolved.

Another striking difference between the two approaches is in how each views meaning. To elaborate on what was said above, for Adler meaning was constructed through a combination of internal experience and social experience, but primarily as it relates to one’s social embeddedness. Those who lack what Adler referred to as social interest (a concern for and connection to the well-being of others) and community feeling (one’s attitudes toward being part of the social world) would find themselves discouraged and lacking meaning (Corey, 2001, p. 111). Adler’s reliance on the interpersonal element contributed to his definition of a meaningful life as the ability to connect with and empathize with others—his own version of self-transcendence. The existential approach recognizes the interpersonal realm as important, but it only does so in terms of how one conceives of those experiences as an object of awareness. The essential difference between the two theories is that Adler was working more with the socio-emotional intelligence line of development and the existentialists were working more with the intrapersonal/cognitive lines of development (as defined by Wilber, 2000, p. 28). This might seem like a minor distinction, but it has huge implications in how a therapist might approach a treatment plan for the client.

Finally, the therapeutic approach of each model would be very different. Adler suggested a very structured approach to therapy, with twelve distinct stages (Stein & Edwards, 1998) that guide the therapist through the process. Conversely, the existential approach is more open-ended and client-centered, without a specific plan laid out for therapists to follow. This structural difference results in part from the fact that existential therapy is less a model than it is a philosophical approach with many different theorists contributing their ideas to the theory. However, based on what has been presented above, it can be said that the Adlerian approach will be more concerned with the socio-emotional line of development in the client while the existential approach will be more concerned with the intrapersonal/cognitive developmental line of the client.

Applying the Adlerian and Existential Approaches to the case of Audrie

Audrie Chenlee (Counseling Theories, 2003) is an 18-year-old female, Asian college student who was referred to counseling at her school by a friend concerned about her weight loss and diet habits, which include excessive exercise. Her body mass index (BMI) of 16.9 marks her as malnourished, a key indicator of an eating disorder, most likely anorexia nervosa. She will not talk about her diet and exercise habits, but she freely talked about her controlling parents (they call her daily) and her own stress at meeting everyone’s expectations for her. Her parents want her to be a doctor, while she has no interest in medicine and expresses an interest in interior design. Part of the parents’ desire to know where she is at all times might be traced back to the death of her younger brother when she was three-years-old. Her mother was depressed for several years, and when she came out of it, she focused all of her attention on Audrie.

Neither of these approaches is particularly well-suited to treating an anorexic young woman. Adler’s issue-focused approach would rightly recognize and work with her need for perfection (the striving for superiority gone wrong) and the consequential unreal expectations she has placed on herself. However, this approach will not adequately get to the underlying issues surrounding the death of her brother and the resulting dominance of her parents in directing her life. In the deeper 12-stage model of Adlerian therapy, “role-play, guided imagery, or eidetic imagery” can be used to reprogram the faulty imprinting acquired in childhood (Stein & Edwards, 1998, ¶ 55). These tools would seem to offer the best approach to treating her eating disorder, which is by far the most troubling symptom with which she has presented.

Conversely, the existential approach might attempt to examine her relationship to the idea of death that became a part of her psyche following her brother’s death and her mother’s ensuing depression. Anorexia can often be a way for the client to kill herself as a passive-aggressive act of rebellion against controlling “others.” By deconstructing Audrie’s feelings around the idea of death, the therapist might be able to change her self-destructive tendencies and reframe her self-concept. If Rollo May were the therapist, he may attempt to clarify her intentionality for life, and in doing so seek out her will to live (May, 1969).

In May’s view, the daimonic, “the entire system of motives, different for each individual” (Boeree, 2006, ¶ 17), composed of individual motifs referred to as daimons, is the basis for motivation. When one daimon takes over the psyche, in this case it might be argued that thanatos (death) has become the controlling daimon in Audrie’s psyche, the system becomes dysfunctional. May would work to activate her will, her capacity to be goal-directed (in this case, getting well), in order to overcome this daimon and get her focused on living again.

Although each of these models offers a way of approaching the issue, neither is sufficient to help her in my opinion. If Audrie were my patient, I would employ the Internal Family Systems Model (IFS) as developed by Richard Schwartz (Schwartz, 1995). His model was developed specifically for working with highly traumatized eating disorder patients who had not responded to the traditional family therapy model. The IFS model is unique in that neither developmental stage, typology, nor any other consideration is relevant in how one approaches the client. IFS postulates that we all have parts (subpersonalities in Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis or the Stones’ Voice Dialogue) which operate as an internal family, with managers, exiles, and specialized parts called firefighters that activate (in the form of addictions, cutting, or other pain redirection activities) when the managers fail to keep the exiled parts in exile. The exiles in this case would be Audrie’s vulnerable child parts that reacted to her brother’s death and her mother’s depression in such a way that the self-system felt threatened and exiled them. Her managers are perfectionists and pushers, which act almost as introjects of her controlling parents. The firefighters in her case are the parts that compel her to exercise twice a day and to restrict food. In their reality, physical exhaustion and hunger pangs are preferable to emotional pain.

To treat her, one would begin working with the managers to allow access to the exiles with the intention of relieving their burden (the trauma of the brother’s death and mother’s depression). The same thing would be done with the firefighters and the managers over time. Through active imagination led by the client—who often finds it easy to identify her various parts—and assisted by the therapist, the client would slowly work toward repurposing the managers to supportive and creative roles. Just as the goal in family therapy is rebalancing the relationships, the goal of IFS therapy is to rebalance the internal system of parts.

Finally, it is worth noting, as Ken Wilber points out, that most therapies are out of their element when applied to pathologies outside of their narrow vision of reality.

[I]n focusing on one or two levels, most forms of therapy increasingly lose their effectiveness when applied to more distant realms. All too often, one particular psychotherapeutic approach (psychoanalysis, Gestalt, neurolinguistic programming, holotropic breathwork, Transactional Analysis, biological psychiatry, yoga, etc.) is used for all types of pathologies, often with unfortunate results. (Wilber, 2000, p. 97-98)

This is an important point to consider in all cases with all clients.


Alfred Adler Institutes of San Francisco and Northwestern Washington (n.d.). Classical Adlerian Psychology. Retrieved June 13, 2009, from

Boeree, C. G. (2006). Rollo May. Retrieved June 13, 2009, from

Corey, G. (2001). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Dickinson, W. L., & Ashby, J. S. (2008). Inferiority Complex. In W. Darity, Jr. (Ed.), International encyclopedia of the social sciences (Vol. 4, pp. 18-19). Retrieved from Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Frankl, V. E. (1988). The will to meaning. New York: Penguin Books.

May, R. (1969). Love & will. New York: W. W. Norton.

Schwartz, R. (1995). Internal family systems therapy. New York: Guilford Press.

Stein, H. T., & Edwards, M. E. (1998). Classical Adlerian theory & practice. Retrieved June 13, 2009, from

Uytman , J. D. (1967). “Adler, Alfred (1870–1937),” Encyclopedia of philosophy. Available from

Wilber, K. (2000). Integral psychology. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Yalom, I. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books.


~C4Chaos said...

i see you cited Wilber in your paper. so is mainstream academia taking Wilber's work seriously now in the domain of psychology? :)

speaking of existential psychotherapy, i remember it being the basis of the "existential memoir" writing class i attended many years ago. it got me started with blogging :)

good luck with your class. go kick ass :)


william harryman said...

Hey ~C,

Glad for whatever got you blogging. :)

Nah, Wilber isn't mainstream. I have a very transpersonally oriented teacher this time around, so all of my papers for her have been integral psychology based - in general I'll stick with Kegan.


Azam Mansha said...

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand your own emotions and those of people around you. Emotional intelligence is sometimes referred to as emotional quotient or emotional literacy. Individuals with emotion intelligence are able to relate to others with compassion and empathy, have well-developed social skills and use this emotional awareness to direct their actions and behaviour.

Clare Mann said...

A very interesting discussion. It is interesting that you say individual psychology is more relevant to extroverts and existential more relevant to introverts. I think this has some weight and yet I see a range of clients (introverts and extroverts - if we choose to use the labels like this), who respond well to the existential paradigm I work within. I think an integrative appraoch with an existential overlay potentially serves all clients (as we all face existential givens) - and might even seen as assisting them further on the path to individuation.

Clare Mann

Henry T. Stein, Ph.D. said...

The Classical Adlerian Psychology web site address has been changed to Please correct the older link ( as it is no longer active.

Also, please change "The Alfred Adler Institute of San Francisco" to "The Alfred Adler Institutes of Northwestern Washington and San Francisco."

Anonymous said...

Your mentioned scenario about Audrie Chenlee is cited but not referenced at the end.