What is Psychodynamic / Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy?

Psychoanalysis is arguably at the root of almost all Western psychotherapy, and goes back to Freud’s original definition made in 1895 of a system of working with people in order to treat mental disorders and conditions by making unconscious thoughts and motivations conscious. The term ‘psychodynamic’ accomodates psychoanalysis from the origins of Freud’s work but attempts to include more modern therotical positions. These include theoritical approaches from what is known as the Object Relations movement, where human subconscious functioning is understood as relationships between internal ‘objects’ that govern adult behaviours, to modern theoretical schemas proposing adult behavioural deficiencies due to trauma related to infants relationships and attachment to their primary care givers. Such approaches are to some extent incorporated into the psychodynamic approach while at the same time adapted into being more explicit modalities in and of their own accord.

The core principles of psychoanalytic or psychodynamic therapy is that the motivations for adult behaviours and in particular pathological adult behaviours are rooted deeply in the subconscious. Such behaviours and feelings are embedded in our childhood history and experience. Our conscious mind (the ego) is in constant conflict with parts of our subconscious mind (our instincts and urges) which constructs our behavioural defence mechanisms. Careful and attuned exploration and understanding of our life history and childhood experience can provide us insight into our behavioural patterns and the powerful pull of our subconscious, which for the psychoanalytic client facilitates change and development.

History of Psychodynamic / Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy

Freud originally termed the phrase ‘psychoanalysis’ in 1895, after treating neurotic patients with techniques he developed including dream anlaysis and free association. Freud became convinced, largely through his own dreams, that adult neuorisis was not only rooted in childhood experience but also childhood sexual experience, in particular in context of the sexual drive towards the parent of the opposite sex and the competitive charge towards the parent of the same sex. This ‘Oedipus complex’ became the basis for grounding psychoanalytic theory in the necessarily suppressed drives of the child that had behavioural consequences in the adult. Freud further developed his theories to define the triumvirate of mind: the id, the ego and the superego – the idea that human experiencing is largely understood through the lens of the human ego, an often quite fragile mechanism designed to balance the subconscious and animalistic urges of the id with the societal demands of the superego. Despite much initial scepticism, one of the reasons Freud’s theories have become so widely known and respected was because of their adaptation by his nephew, Edward Bernays, in introducing public relations and the engineering of consent after involvement in the propaganda campaigns of World War 1, that provided the foundations for the modern advertising we see to this day.

During the 1950s, opposition to Freud’s ideas grew and in particular the idea that the primary drive of human beings was for pleasure and sex and neurosis resulted largely from a supression of these needs. Theorists such as Melanie Klein developed concepts of splitting and internal objects, that in some ways consolidated but in others contradicted Freud’s work. Fairbairn developed the initial concept of object relating – understanding that a human’s primary motivational drive was to relate. These theoretical positions were fundamental in adapting the core roots of Freud’s psychoanalysis to become something more ‘psychodynamic’.

Key Terms in Existential Psychotherapy

  • The ego, id and the super ego
  • The Oedipus Complex
  • Splitting
  • Projection
  • Transference
  • Counter-transference
  • The paranoid-schizoid position
  • The depressive position
  • Good object / bad object
  • Cathexis
  • The death instinct
  • Repetition Compulsion

Where Psychodynamic / Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy is useful

Where clients may often be put off by Freudian concepts and language, and have little context outside of such, the benefit of Psychodynamic / Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy through the in-depth exploration of familial relationships, internal object relationships and subconscious patterns of relating can prove invaluable in understanding one’s position in the world and how and why one’s patterns of relating have come to be the way they are. In arriving at such understanding it becomes possible to change and adapt existing behaviours and discover new ways of thinking and relating. Because family systems are so personal and complex to any one individual, it is very difficult to view such with perspective and not only understand the context of one’s own life within it, but understand of where and in what one may have lacked in one’s natural development.

Where Psychodynamic / Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy  may not be useful

A common trap of Psychodynamic / Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy is to reduce adult functioning to solely the sum of one’s developing context and familial relationships. There is often little time to consider the existential pressures of the world, and therapy can become trapped in an exploration of the past rather than movement towards a positive future. Interpretation and analysis of causes of current pain and trauma may not be enough to release trapped and blocked emotional expression and facilitate change. A greater understanding of the impact of parental and familial settings also requires a great deal of care and attention beyond the simple analysis of cause and effect, which can often have a difficult and sometimes damaging effect on the client.

Further resources

The Freud Museum

Melanie Klein Trust

Institute of Psychoanalysis