Freud himself observed:
One might compare the relation of the ego to the id with that between a rider and his horse. The horse provides the locomotor energy, and the rider has the prerogative of determining the goal and of guiding the movements of his powerful mount towards it. But all too often in the relations between the ego and the id we find a picture of the less ideal situation in which the rider is obliged to guide his horse in the direction in which it itself wants to go.
– From the New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, 1932.
The super ego could be compared to a super parent, berating the ego, forcing it to comply with societal norms. So according to the theory, our self-concept is in constant conflict, with the poor old ego trying to balance the childish impulse of the id and the critical demands of the super ego.
Modern psychoanalysis was born out of Freud’s ideas. In the 1950’s Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne was working as a psychiatrist in Carmel California. He noticed in his patient’s district patterns of relating to life events.
Berne, who had been trained in classic psychoanalysis, took the main tenants of the theory and developed his own perspective on it, which he named Transactional Analysis (TA for short).
While there are many theoretical overlaps between the psychodynamic approach and psychoanalysis, there are differences in the practice of the two modalities.
Psychodynamic therapy is an approach that involves facilitation a deeper understanding of one’s emotions and other mental processes. It works to help people gain greater insight into how they feel and think.
By improving this understanding, people can then make better choices about their lives. They can also work on improving their relationships with other people and work toward achieving the goals that will bring them greater happiness and satisfaction.
Psychodynamic therapy is rooted in psychoanalytic theory but is often a less intensive and lengthy process than traditional psychoanalysis. While psychoanalysis tends to focus a great deal on the patient and therapist relationship, psychodynamic therapy also places a great deal of emphasis on a patient’s relationships with other people in the outside world.
What Is Psychodynamic Therapy?
Psychodynamic therapy is a form of talk therapy. It is based on the idea that talking to a professional about problems people are facing can help them find relief and reach solutions.
Through working with a psychodynamic therapist, people are able to better understand the thoughts, feelings, and conflicts that contribute to their behaviors. This approach to therapy also works to help people better understand some of the unconscious motivations that sometimes influence how people think, feel, and act.
This approach to psychotherapy can be helpful for dealing with mental or emotional distress. It can help promote self-reflection, insight, and emotional growth.
By better understanding your emotional patterns and their roots, you are better equipped to manage your problems and develop coping techniques that will help you both now and in the future.
While it is similar to psychoanalysis in many respects, it is often less frequent and shorter in duration. Like other forms of therapy, it can be used to treat a variety of mental health problems.
- Eating disorders
- Interpersonal problems
- Personality disorders
- Psychological distress
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Substance use disorders
Factors that may impact what type of treatment is used include cost-effectiveness, availability, patient preferences, and the severity of the symptoms the person is experiencing. While cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular and effective approach, evidence suggests that psychodynamic therapy can be just as effective for many conditions.
Online therapy is another option that you might consider. Some research also suggests that online psychodynamic therapy may be as effective as online CBT.
How It Works
Psychodynamic therapy helps people recognize repressed emotions and unconscious influences that may be affecting their current behavior. Sometimes people act in certain ways or respond to others for reasons that they don’t really understand.
Psychodynamic therapy helps people learn to acknowledge, bear, and put into perspective their emotional lives. It also helps people learn how to express their emotions in more adaptive and healthier ways.
Some important aspects of psychodynamic therapy include:
- Identifying patterns: Psychodynamic therapy helps people learn to recognize patterns in behavior and relationships. People often develop characteristic ways of responding to problems without really being aware of these tendencies. Learning to spot them, however, can help people find new approaches to coping with problems.
- Understanding emotions: Research has found that psychodynamic therapy is useful for exploring and understanding emotions. Through gaining insight into emotional experiences, people are better able to recognize patterns that have contributed to dysfunction and then make changes more readily.
- Improving relationships: Relationships with others are a key focus of psychodynamic therapy. In working with a therapist, people are able to understand how they often respond to others.
The therapeutic relationship itself can serve as a way to look into the relationships a person has with other people through a process known as transference. This gives people an immediate “in vivo” way to explore and then change their pattern of responses in order to improve their relationships.
How Effective Is It?
How effective is psychodynamic therapy and how does it compare to other forms of treatment?
Assessing the efficacy of psychodynamic therapy presents some challenges, but research does suggest that it can be useful in the treatment of a variety of psychological problems.
One reason that it may be difficult to assess the full efficacy of psychodynamic therapy is that many of the changes it produces can be tough to measure.
While it is relatively easy to measure changes in specific acute symptoms, it is much more difficult to measure underlying personality changes, noted researcher Jonathan Shedler in a press release by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Despite this difficulty, research supports the efficacy and use of psychodynamic therapy to treat a variety of conditions.
- One notable review published in the journal American Psychologist concluded that the evidence supports the efficacy of psychodynamic therapy.
- Another study found that psychodynamic therapy could be at least as effective as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
- A 2017 review published in the American Journal of Psychiatry concluded that psychodynamic therapy was as effective as other established treatments. However, the authors of the study suggested that further research was needed to determine who benefited the most from this type of treatment.
What You Can Expect
If you decide to try psychodynamic therapy, you may meet with your therapist weekly to a few time each week. Each session typically lasts for around 45 minutes and you will continue to see your therapist for several months. In some cases, you may keep having sessions for a year or longer.
During psychodynamic therapy, people are often encouraged to talk about anything that might be on their minds. This might include things they are currently experiencing or memories of things that have happened in the past.
One form of psychodynamic therapy known as brief psychodynamic therapy is designed to produce results more rapidly, often in 25 to 30 sessions. In this shorter-term form of treatment, people may initially determine a particularly emotional area where they want to focus on.
Long-term psychodynamic therapy may take a year or longer and involve 50 or more therapy sessions.
A Word From Verywell
If you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition, talk to your doctor or mental health professional. They can make a diagnosis and recommend treatment options that may be best for your individual needs. Psychodynamic psychotherapy may be a good fit for you.
Introduction to Psychodynamic Theory in Social Work
What is Psychodynamic Theory?
How psychodynamic theory differs from other types of therapy
The Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual
A Brief History of Psychodynamic Theory
1. Drive theory
2. Ego psychology
3. Object relations theory
4. Self psychology
Assumptions of Psychodynamic Theory
- All behavior has an underlying cause.
- The causes of a person’s behavior originate in their unconscious.
- Different aspects of a person’s unconscious struggle against each other.
- An adult’s behavior and feelings, including mental health issues, are rooted in childhood experiences.
- Both innate, internal processes and the external environment contribute to adult personality.
Goals of psychodynamic theory
- Acknowledge their emotions. Over time, clients can start to recognize patterns in their emotions and address them, which can lead to making better choices.
- Identify patterns. Clients can begin to see patterns in more than just their emotions, but also their behaviors and relationships. Or, if clients are aware of negative patterns in their life, therapy can help them understand why they make certain choices and give them the power to change.
- Improve interpersonal relationships. Modern psychodynamic theory helps clients understand their relationships, as well as patterns they exhibit with relationships.
- Recognize and address avoidance. Everyone has automatic ways of avoiding bad thoughts and feelings. Therapy can help clients recognize when they’re acting in a way to avoid distress and how to move forward addressing their emotions with healthy coping mechanisms.
Strengths and weaknesses of psychodynamic theory
How Does Psychodynamic Theory Apply to Social Work?
Types of psychodynamic treatments
Criticism of Psychodynamic Theory
Summary of Resources for Further Learning
- Mitchell, S.A., Black, M.J. (1995) Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought, New York: Basic Books.
- Moore, B.E. (1995) Psychoanalysis: The Major Concepts, New Haven, Yale University Press.
- Moore, B.E., Fine, B.R., eds. (1990) Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts, New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Gabbard, G.O. (2004) Long-Term Psychodynamic Psychotherapy: A Basic Text, Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press.
- McWilliams N. (2004) Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, New York: Guilford Press.
- Greenson, R. (1967) The Theory and Technique of Psychoanalysis, New York: International Universities Press.
- McWilliams, N. (2004) Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy: A Practitioner’s Guide. New York: Guilford Press.
- Rockland, L. (1989) Supportive Psychotherapy: A Psychodynamic Approach. New York: Basic Books.
- Lazar, S. (2010). Psychotherapy is Worth It; A Comprehensive Review of Cost Effectiveness, American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Shedler, J. (2010). The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, American Psychologist, 65, 98-109.
- Summers, R., Barber, J. (2009). Psychodynamic Psychotherapy: A Guide to Evidence Based Practice. The Guilford Press.
- Berzoff, J., L. M. Flanagan, and P. Hertz, eds. (2011) Inside out and outside in: Psychodynamic clinical theory and psychopathology in contemporary multicultural contexts. 3d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Berzoff, J., ed. (2012) Falling through the cracks: Psychodynamic practice with vulnerable and oppressed populations. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
- Brandell, J. R. (2004) Psychodynamic social work. Foundations of Social Work Knowledge. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
- Goldstein, E. G. (2001) Object relations theory and self psychology in social work practice. New York: Free Press.
- Sudbery, J. (2002) Key features of therapeutic social work: The use of relationships. Journal of Social Work Practice 16.2: 149–162.
- Greene, R.R., & Ephross, P.H. (1991) Classic psychoanalytic thought, contemporary developments, and clinical social work. In R.R. Green & P.H. Ephross (Eds.), Human behavior theory and social work practice (pp. 39-78). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.