Social Interest, its Role in Healing,
and some geeky history about the counseling field
If you are someone who has ever endured graduate school for a counseling degree, you have been asked the ever-present question about your “theory,” the guiding principles that you have chosen to utilize in your counseling practice.
So what’s your theory? is the opening line of every peer conversation for literal years of a counseling student’s life. It is like the sorting machine for lunch tables of the helping field, but instead of name-brand clothes and extracurricular activities dividing students into groups, it is the interventions deemed most appropriate for depression and varying definitions of healthy functioning. As students, we had better know how to answer this all-important theory question by Thanksgiving of our first year.
Choosing a theory is a badge of first-semester survival and of professional self-appraisal. And let me tell you, those first few years of associating oneself with a theory feels like absolute magic. We wear them as sparkly nametags, almost.
Wait, hold up. Stop the presses. This sounds big. Am I supposed to know my counselor’s theory?
Nope. Not at all. Unless you just want to.
Come to find out, few actual clients ever ask us questions about our theory unless they are likewise trained in the helping field, or their therapist friend told them to ask. So usually, after years of delving into research papers and relentlessly defending our choice of theory, we later only end up describing our theoretical background in super plain terms to clients to help them visualize what it will be like to work with us and what we believe about the therapeutic process.
Our counseling theories are mostly for ourselves to better understand how to help you. Plus, we steal content from other theories all the time, because we want the best for you and we are lifelong learners.
For me, the concept of social interest ignited the spark that spurred me toward Adlerian theory, otherwise known as Individual Psychology. Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud but with very different philosophies about the human experience, believed that social interest was not just something good to exemplify as a personality trait, but an actual marker of mental and emotional health .
Don’t worry, there is no test about this later. And I am also not here to tell you that your therapist absolutely must be Adlerian. So put the phone down; there is no need to fire her immediately.
Healing can be reached by working with many types of theoretically diverse, empathetic counselors.
Besides, counselors of many theories believe in the importance of social interest because Adler, an early pioneer of the counseling field, informed many other schools of thought. We Adlerians do not hold the monopoly on the idea of social interest. We just really like the guy who started it.
But I digress. Let’s do some talking about social interest.
What is social interest anyway?
It is inevitable that you are probably connecting this phrase to the idea of social justice. It’s a culturally hot-button term, after all, and not completely unrelated, but still not the exact same thing as social interest.
Social interest is just as it sounds: a desire for the common good, and a sense of “belonging to and participating in” the betterment of your social environment . A person with social interest is able to look outside of themselves; they have empathy and compassion for others and are likely to have a more balanced and healthy perspective of their place in the world.
“One needs to think not what will this person give me? but, rather, what can I give to this person? That is commitment to the community.” – from Adler’s The Courage to Be Disliked
Social interest requires active participation in our communities, and it comes with a ream of benefits such as the following [2,3,5}
- Social interest can be a protective factor for people who are depressed or suicidal
- It builds the strength of the community at large
- It allows someone to feel part of something and experience a sense of belonging
- It creates social connectedness, which combats loneliness and isolation
- It reminds individuals to consider the common good and it decreases selfishness
- It helps to make meaning of the world around us and better understand ourselves
Mother Theresa famously said,
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.”
Social interest is about this common belonging we have. It is not the totality of Adler’s work or theory, nor the only marker of mental and emotional health. It is, however, a stark reminder that healing often begins when we climb out of our own darkness to place ourselves in a specifically-shaped hole in our communities that was made just for us. When we can admit that we need others and are likewise needed, breakthroughs can begin.
A couple of other famously-Adlerian terms are feelings of inferiority and discouragement. Ok, so: Adler did not create these words themselves, but he coined their specific use in the context of the counseling world . Someone with feelings of inferiority is struggling to feel fully functional or confident in their daily activities. They are discouraged in their life roles.
Adler believed that social interest, or our connectedness to others, helps decrease feelings of inferiority and discouragement. . It builds us up to feel more fully ourselves and connected to the world around us.
Some of the best news on this topic is that social interest can grow [3, 4]. It is not a static personality trait or something only gifted individuals inherently exhibit. It is a learned way of thinking and being that we can all strive to utilize.
As for Christians, a focus on social interest is a no-brainer. The New Testament is wrought with calls to take care of one another with our individual resources, to live as a supportive community with each other, and to welcome the strangers among us.
After all, Christ Himself “did not come to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10: 45, ESV).
I am reminded of a friend who once shared that her grandmother would often say, If you are sad, go serve someone. While service, manifested from a person’s social interest, is not the singular antidote to feelings of inferiority, it can be a strong starting point for helping someone begin the climb from their darkness.
Each of us has a community whether we are currently participating in it or not. What does increasing your own social interest look like?
Let’s go out there and make Adler proud.
1. Alfred Adler history. Adler University. (2021, October 21). Retrieved March 22, 2023, from https://www.adler.edu/alfred-adler-history/
2. Carlson, J., & Englar-Carlson, M. (2017). Introduction. In Adlerian psychotherapy (pp. 3–9). essay, American Psychological Association.
3. Clark, A. J. (2017, September 4). What the world needs more: Social Interest. Psychology Today. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dawn-memories/201709/what-the-world-needs-more-social-interest#:~:text=Social%20interest%2C%20a%20term%20introduced,Adler%2C%201964%2F1933).
4. Johnson, P., & Smith, A. J. (n.d.). Social Interest and Differentiation of Self. SocialInterestandDifferentiationofSelf.htm. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.shsu.edu/piic/SocialInterestandDifferentiationofSelf.htm
5. Kent, H. (2021, October 16). Overview of the great psychologist Alfred Adler – Part 2. Hudson Kent. Retrieved March 21, 2023, from https://hudsonkent.com/overview-of-the-great-psychologist-alfred-adler-part-2/