Psychodynamic therapy can help people improve their quality of life by helping them gain a better understanding of the way they think and feel. The idea is that this will improve their ability to make choices, relate to others, and forge the kind of life they would like to live.
When most people think of therapy, the thoughts and images that come to mind tend to be those related to psychodynamic therapy. This is because psychodynamic therapy is based on the work of Sigmund Freud, who many people know as the “father of psychoanalysis.”
Although the American Psychological Association identify five general categories of therapy — with many more subtypes — most types have roots that are traceable to Freud’s groundbreaking work.
Keep reading to learn more about psychodynamic therapy, including its origins, how it works, and its potential benefits.
What is it?
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Psychodynamic therapy is a talking therapy. This means that it is based on the concept that talking about problems can help people learn and develop the skills they need to address them.
It is an approach that embraces the multifaceted aspects of an individual’s life. It strives to help people understand the sometimes unknown or unconscious motivations behind difficult feelings and behaviors.
Having this insight can lead to symptom relief, help people feel better, and allow them to make better choices.
How does it work?
Psychodynamic therapy is based on the following key principles:
- Unconscious motivations — such as social pressure, biology, and psychology — can affect behavior.
- Experience shapes personality, which can, in return, affect an individual’s response to that experience.
- Past experiences affect the present.
- Developing insight and emotional understanding can help individuals with psychological issues.
- Expanding the range of choices and improving personal relationships can help people address their problems.
- Freeing themselves from their pasts can help people live better in the future.
Transference and countertransference are also important. With this approach, the client will transfer their feelings toward someone onto the therapist, and the therapist will redirect these feelings back toward the client. It can take place without the client’s awareness, and many therapists have varying approaches to this concept.
In psychodynamic therapy, the relationship between the therapist and the client is very important. It provides a container in which people can gain insights into themselves, their pasts, and their feelings. They can develop a better understanding of how they see the world and the ways in which all these factors affect their experiences.
With the help of a therapist, people undergoing psychodynamic therapy will work to understand their feelings, beliefs, and childhood experiences. The goal is to help people recognize self-defeating patterns, explore new ways of being in the world, and help people feel better.
A psychodynamic approach to therapy can work with individuals, couples, families, and in group therapy situations.
Because its focus tends to be on relationships and understanding thoughts and feelings, which people may have avoided confronting, psychodynamic therapy can be time consuming.
Short-term psychodynamic therapy generally lasts for 25–30 sessions over a period of 6–8 months, while long-term psychodynamic therapy — according to one study — may last for longer than a year or span more than 50 sessions.
History and origins
Psychodynamic therapy grew out of the theories of Sigmund Freud. However, it has evolved considerably from the 19th-century model.
Early leaders in the field who contributed to the development of this approach include Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, and Anna Freud.
In its earlier stages, therapy could last for years, with a person even having several therapy sessions per week.
Practitioners typically had a medical background and a paternalistic approach.
Is it effective?
Measuring the impact of treatment for psychological issues can be complicated. That said, there is evidence to suggest that psychodynamic therapy works for the following conditions:
- Depression: Studies indicate that it can help people address recurring life patterns that play a part in their depression.
- Social anxiety, social phobia, and panic disorder: Studies have found promising results and improved remission.
- Anorexia nervosa: Strong evidence suggests that it promotes recovery from anorexia nervosa.
- Pain: Unexplained chronic and abdominal pain respond well to this therapy, data suggest.
- Borderline personality disorder: Studies have found structured, integrated, and supervised treatment to be effective.
- Psychopathological issues in children and adolescents: Researchers have found psychodynamic treatment to be effective overall in reducing symptoms of psychopathological issues in children aged 6–18 years.
Experts report that psychodynamic therapy can also improve people’s lives by helping them:
- strengthen their self-understanding to break self-defeating cycles
- address issues with avoidance
- improve their understanding of relationship dynamics
One of the most intriguing benefits of psychodynamic therapy, according to multiple studies, is that they keep on coming.
What this means is that individuals who undergo this kind of treatment continue to show improvement months after they complete it.
Vs. other forms of therapy
Although there is variety in the results, most studies have found psychodynamic therapy to be roughly as effective as two of the most common other forms of therapy: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication.
CBT is a popular form of therapy that focuses on helping people adopt healthier ways of thinking and acting by enhancing their awareness of their choices.
Antidepressants and other medications have proven effective in treating depression and other mental health conditions.
Anyone who thinks that they may be experiencing a mental health condition should speak to a doctor to determine which type of antidepressant is most suitable for them.
Although psychodynamic therapy can be an effective form of treatment for many mental health conditions, the researchers behind one report found that it may be less effective for the following conditions:
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- drug addiction
Psychodynamic therapy can still be effective for PTSD in some cases, though there is no strong evidence for this.
That said, this same report points out that results from many of the studies into various treatments for mental health conditions tend to lean toward the author’s “theoretical orientation,” or to coincide with the author’s affiliation.
Therefore, the researchers call for more systematic evidence around these treatments. They also highlight the fact that the effectiveness of psychodynamic treatment can greatly depend on the psychiatrist themselves.
Overall, it is clear that more studies into various forms of psychotherapy are necessary. This will help determine which type might be best suited for which individuals and which psychiatric conditions.
Psychodynamic therapy is a form of talking therapy that has proven effective in helping people dealing with depression, anxiety, pain, and relationship issues.
This treatment approach helps people see what is behind their problems by giving them a better understanding of their unconscious feelings, thoughts, and past experiences.
Developing these psychological skills helps people make better choices and feel better in the long-term.
The Psychodynamic Approach
By Saul McLeod, updated 2020
- The psychodynamic theory is a psychological theory Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and his later followers applied to explain the origins of human behavior.
- The psychodynamic approach includes all the theories in psychology that see human functioning based upon the interaction of drives and forces within the person, particularly unconscious, and between the different structures of the personality.
- Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis was the original psychodynamic theory, but the psychodynamic approach as a whole includes all theories that were based on his ideas, e.g., Carl Jung (1912), Melanie Klein (1921), Alfred Adler (1927), Anna Freud (1936), and Erik Erikson (1950).
- The words psychodynamic and psychoanalytic are often confused. Remember that Freud’s theories were psychoanalytic, whereas the term ‘psychodynamic’ refers to both his theories and those of his followers.
- Freud’s psychoanalysis is both a theory and therapy.
Sigmund Freud (writing between the 1890s and the 1930s) developed a collection of theories which have formed the basis of the psychodynamic approach to psychology.
His theories are clinically derived – i.e., based on what his patients told him during therapy. The psychodynamic therapist would usually be treating the patient for depression or anxiety related disorders.
Our behavior and feelings are powerfully affected by unconscious motives:
The unconscious mind comprises mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgments, feelings, or behavior (Wilson, 2002).
According to Freud (1915), the unconscious mind is the primary source of human behavior. Like an iceberg, the most important part of the mind is the part you cannot see.
Our feelings, motives, and decisions are actually powerfully influenced by our past experiences, and stored in the unconscious.
Our behavior and feelings as adults (including psychological problems) are rooted in our childhood experiences:
Psychodynamic theory states that events in our childhood have a great influence on our adult lives, shaping our personality. Events that occur in childhood can remain in the unconscious, and cause problems as adults.
Personality is shaped as the drives are modified by different conflicts at different times in childhood (during psychosexual development).
All behavior has a cause (usually unconscious), even slips of the tongue. Therefore all behavior is determined:
Psychodynamic theory is strongly determinist as it views our behavior as caused entirely by unconscious factors over which we have no control.
Unconscious thoughts and feelings can transfer to the conscious mind in the form of parapraxes, popularly known as Freudian slips or slips of the tongue. We reveal what is really on our mind by saying something we didn’t mean to.
Freud believed that slips of the tongue provided an insight into the unconscious mind and that there were no accidents, every behavior (including slips of the tongue) was significant (i.e., all behavior is determined).
Personality is made up of three parts (i.e., tripartite): the id, ego, and super-ego:
The id is the primitive and instinctive component of personality. It consists of all the inherited (i.e., biological) components of personality present at birth, including the sex (life) instinct – Eros (which contains the libido), and the aggressive (death) instinct – Thanatos.
The ego develops in order to mediate between the unrealistic id and the external real world. It is the decision making component of personality.
The superego incorporates the values and morals of society which are learned from one’s parents and others.
Parts of the unconscious mind (the id and superego) are in constant conflict with the conscious part of the mind (the ego). This conflict creates anxiety, which could be dealt with by the ego’s use of defense mechanisms.
History of Psychodynamic Theory
The History of Psychodynamic Theory
- Anna O a patient of Dr. Joseph Breuer (Freud’s mentor and friend) from 1800 to 1882 suffered from hysteria.
- In 1895 Breuer and his assistant, Sigmund Freud, wrote a book, Studies on Hysteria.
In it they explained their theory: Every hysteria is the result of a traumatic experience, one that cannot be integrated into the person’s understanding of the world. The publication establishes Freud as “the father of psychoanalysis.
- By 1896 Freud had found the key to his own system, naming it psychoanalysis. In it, he had replaced hypnosis with “free association.”
- In 1900 Freud published his first major work, The Interpretation of Dreams, which established the importance of psychoanalytical movement.
- In 1902 Freud founded the Psychological Wednesday Society, later transformed into the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.
- As the organization grew, Freud established an inner circle of devoted followers, the so-called “Committee” (including Sàndor Ferenczi, and Hanns Sachs (standing) Otto Rank, Karl Abraham, Max Eitingon, and Ernest Jones).
- Freud and his colleagues came to Massachusetts in 1909 to lecture on their new methods of understanding mental illness. .
Those in attendance included some of the country’s most important intellectual figures, such as William James, Franz Boas, and Adolf Meyer.
- In the years following the visit to the United States, the International Psychoanalytic Association was founded. .
Freud designated Carl Jung as his successor to lead the Association, and chapters were created in major cities in Europe and elsewhere. .
Regular meetings or congresses were held to discuss the theory, therapy, and cultural applications of the new discipline.
- Jung’s study on schizophrenia, The Psychology of Dementia Praecox, led him into collaboration with Sigmund Freud.
- Jung’s close collaboration with Freud lasted until 1913. Jung had become increasingly critical of Freud’s exclusively sexual definition of libido and incest. .
The publication of Jung’s Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (known in English as The Psychology of the Unconscious) led to a final break.
- Following his emergence from this period of crisis, Jung developed his own theories systematically under the name of Analytical Psychology. .
Jung’s concepts of the collective unconscious and the archetypes led him to explore religion in the East and West, myths, alchemy, and later flying saucers.
- Melanie Klein took psychoanalytic thinking in a new direction by recognising the importance of our earliest childhood experiences in the formation of our adult emotional world. .
After becoming a full member of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society in 1923, Klein embarks upon her first analysis of a child. .
Extending and developing Sigmund Freud’s ideas, Klein drew on her analysis of children’s play to formulate new concepts such as the paranoid-schizoid position and the depressive position.
- Anna Freud (Freud’s daughter) became a major force in British psychology, specializing in the application of psychoanalysis to children. .
Among her best known works are The Ego and the Mechanism of defense (1936).
Psychodynamic Approach Summary
It has given rise to one of the first “talking cure,” psychoanalysis, on which many psychological therapies are now based.
It could be argued that Freud was the first person to highlights the importance of childhood in mental health and this is an idea extensively used today.
The Psychodynamic approach takes into account both sides of the Nature/Nurture debate.
Freud claimed that adult personality is the product of innate drives- i.e., natural motivations or urges we are born with- and childhood experiences- i.e., the way we are raised and nurtured.
Ignores mediational processes (e.g., thinking)
The psychodynamic approach places too much emphasis on the psychological factors, without considering the biological/genetic factors that influence and contribute to mental health problems.
Too deterministic (little free-will)
Unfalsifiable (difficult to prove wrong)
Case Studies – Subjective / Cannot generalize results
Simplifying the human mind into the id, ego, and superego and the five psychosexual stages make the approach reductionist.
Issues and Debates
Issues and Debates
Free will vs Determinism
It is strongly determinist as it views our behavior as caused entirely by unconscious factors over which we have no control.
Nature vs Nurture
The psychodynamic approach recognises the influence of social factors as it argues that we are driven by innate biological instincts, represented by the Id (nature), but the ways these instincts are expressed is shaped by our social and cultural environment (nurture).
Holism vs Reductionism
The psychodynamic approach is determinist as it rejects the idea of free will. A person’s behavior is determined by their unconscious motives which are shaped by their biological drives and their early experiences.
Idiographic vs Nomothetic
Freud argued that human behavior is governed by universal processes that apply to everyone e.g. the tripartite structure of the mind (nomothetic).
However, he also proposed that the ways in which these processes manifest themselves in the individual is unique (idiographic).
Are the research methods used scientific?
The concepts proposed by Freud cannot be tested empirically. The theory is not falsifiable as if people behave in the way predicted by the theory it is viewed as support, if they don’t it is argued that they are using defence mechanisms.
The psychodynamic approach has given rise to one of the first “talking cure”, psychoanalysis, on which many psychological therapies are now based. Psychoanalysis is rarely used now in its original form but it is still used in a shorter version in some cases.
The greatest criticism of the psychodynamic approach is that it is unscientific in its analysis of human behavior. Many of the concepts central to Freud’s theories are subjective, and as such, difficult to test scientifically.
For example, how is it possible to scientifically study concepts like the unconscious mind or the tripartite personality? In this respect, it could be argued that the psychodynamic perspective is unfalsifiable as its theories cannot be empirically investigated.
However, cognitive psychology has identified unconscious processes, such as procedural memory (Tulving, 1972), automatic processing (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999; Stroop, 1935), and social psychology have shown the importance of implicit processing (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995). Such empirical findings have demonstrated the role of unconscious processes in human behavior.
Kline (1989) argues that psychodynamic theory comprises a series of hypotheses, some of which are more easily tested than others, and some with more supporting evidence than others.
Also, while the theories of the psychodynamic approach may not be easily tested, this does not mean that it does not have strong explanatory power.
Nevertheless, most of the evidence for psychodynamic theories is taken from Freud’s case studies (e.g., Little Hans, Anna O).
The main problem here is that the case studies are based on studying one person in detail, and with reference to Freud, the individuals in question are most often middle-aged women from Vienna (i.e., his patients). This makes generalizations to the wider population (e.g., the whole world) difficult.
Another problem with the case study method is that it is susceptible to researcher bias. Reexamination of Freud’s own clinical work suggests that he sometimes distorted his patients’ case histories to ‘fit’ with his theory (Sulloway, 1991).
The humanistic approach makes the criticism that the psychodynamic perspective is too deterministic. Freud suggests that all thoughts, behaviors and emotions are determined by our childhood experiences and unconscious mental processes.
This is a weakness because it suggests we have no conscious free will over our behavior, leaving little room for the idea of personal agency (i.e., free will).
Finally, the psychodynamic approach can be criticized for being sexist against women. For example, Freud believed that females’ penis envy made them inferiour to males.
He also thought that females tended to develop weaker superegos and to be more prone to anxiety than males.
Is there a difference between psychodynamic and psychoanalytic?
The words psychodynamic and psychoanalytic are often confused. Remember that Freud’s theories were psychoanalytic, whereas the term ‘psychodynamic’ refers to both his theories and those of his followers.
What is psychodynamic in simple terms?
Sigmund Freud highlights the role of the unconscious mind, the structure of personality and the influence that childhood experiences have on later life. Freud believed that the unconscious mind determines most of our behavior and that we are motivated by unconscious emotional drives.
How to reference this article:
How to reference this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2017). Psychodynamic approach. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/psychodynamic.html
APA Style References
Adler, A. (1927). Understanding human nature. New York: Greenburg.
Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American psychologist, 54(7), 462.
Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.
Freud, A. (1936). Ego & the mechanisms of defense.
Freud, S., & Breuer. J. (1895). Studies on hysteria. In Standard edition (Vol. 2, pp. 1–335).
Freud, S. (1896). Heredity and the etiology of the neuroses. In Standard edition (Vol. 3, pp. 142–156).
Freud, S. (1900). The interpretation of dreams. In Standard edition (Vols. 4 & 5, pp. 1–627).
Freud, S. (1909). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. In Standard edition (Vol. 10, pp. 153–249).
Freud, S. (1909). Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306.
Freud, S. (1915). The unconscious. SE, 14: 159-204.
Freud, A. (1936). The Ego and the Mechanisms off Defense. International Universities Press, Inc.
Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological review, 102(1), 4.
Jung, C. G. (1907). Ueber die Psychologie der Dementia praecox. Psychological Bulletin, 4(6), 196-197.
Jung, C. G. (1912). Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido: Beiträge zur Entwicklungsgeschichte des Denkens. F. Deuticke.
Jung, C. G., et al. (1964). Man and his Symbols, New York, N.Y.: Anchor Books, Doubleday.
Kline, P. (1989). Objective tests of Freud’s theories. Psychology Survey, 7, 127-45.
Stroop, J. R. (1935). Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions. Journal of experimental psychology, 18(6), 643.
Sulloway, F. J. (1991). Reassessing Freud’s case histories: The social construction of psychoanalysis. Isis, 82(2), 245-275.
Tulving, E. (1972). Episodic and semantic memory. In E. Tulving & W. Donaldson (Eds.), Organization of Memory, (pp. 381–403). New York: Academic Press.
Wilson, T. D. (2004). Strangers to ourselves. Harvard University Press.
How to reference this article:
How to reference this article:
McLeod, S. A. (2017). Psychodynamic approach. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/psychodynamic.html
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