Susan Pye Brokaw

Adlerian Network Founder, LMFT & ADHD Specialist 

Alfred Adler viewed behavior as having a use or a purpose.  Behavior can be used in a useful way or a useless way.  The question to ask is what is the outcome that the person is trying to achieve with the use of this behavior.  Sometimes when a person verbally attacks another person,  the outcome is that they win or get their way.  Most have heard the term “water works”.  This means that some people use tears to get attention, sympathy or to get what they want. 

Rudolf Dreikurs talked about power struggles.  I knew a woman who cried every time she got into trouble.  She would tell a sad tale, those involved would feel sorry for her and they let her off without having a consequence.  This was so useful to her, that she had no trouble doing things that were wrong because she knew how to get away with it. 

Why do children engage in a power struggle?  They want to be the boss, win the argument and get their way.  Some people might claim helplessness or be forgetful when they are expected to take care of a responsibility. 

As therapists we must ask ourselves what purpose it could serve for clients to behave as they do.  I once knew a woman who became hysterical every time there was a serious problem in her life.  She would fall apart for a day and then would at times pull herself together and handle the problem.  We had to explore what purpose could be served by the hysterical behavior and it was to get people to take care of her problems because she didn’t think she was capable of handling them.  I pointed out that she was able to solve her problems because she solved them a day or so later.  I suggested that she skip step one in her problem-solving process and go directly to step two. 

The next time she had a problem, she solved it without the hysterics.  She was very pleased with herself because she realized her capability and handled the problem by herself.