History And Principles Of The Psychodynamic Model

Updated October 4, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you have heard of Sigmund Freud and his work, you may already know a bit about the psychodynamic model. Most broadly, the term “psychodynamics” refers to psychological forces believed to underlie human psychology. Psychodynamic psychology is an approach that focuses on studying those forces. Freud was the earliest to study psychodynamics, and he put forth a model to explain the human mind.

A Brief History Of The Psychodynamic Model

Freud is most associated with psychoanalysis and the psychodynamic model; however, he actually first got his idea for his model from an advisor he had worked under: Ernst Wilhelm von Brucke.  Freud took the idea and developed it into a full model. Freud's model is somewhat a product of his time.

One must keep in mind that Freud was working without the technology and scientific methods available today. He based many parts of his model on actual patients he was working with, which is challenging because the population tended to be wealthy white women who were having psychological problems. It should also be noted that many of those women had symptoms as a product of their culture and time.

When Freud developed his model, many others were intrigued and sought to study with him. He soon had a group of fellow psychoanalysts who were seeking to apply the psychodynamic theory in their own work. However, some of his students later saw issues in Freud's model. Many of them eventually broke away from his theory and began to suggest their own ideas, which also influenced the field of psychology.

Psychodynamic Structure Of The Mind

Psychodynamic psychologists believe that the mind is divided into various parts that relate to one another outside of one's immediate awareness. Further, psychodynamic psychologists believe that some knowledge, information, memories, and emotions are held outside of one's conscious awareness.

Freud proposed there were three levels to the human mind: the conscious that can be easily accessed, the preconscious that is just below awareness, and the unconscious. For him, the most interesting level was the unconscious. He believed that oftentimes people are greatly affected by the content of their unconscious but without realizing it. In fact, he believed this effect often causes psychological disorders.

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Further, Freud believed that people are driven by three different forces of "psychic energy" that govern personality. He called one of these the Id. In his belief, people are born with the Id, and it resides in the unconscious. He believed the Id drives instinctive behaviors for pleasure, such as sex and destruction.

Freud also believed that people could develop a moral center called the Superego. This component would grow through life experiences (with family, church, school, and society as a whole) that teach moral values. The Superego can operate in conscious or unconscious awareness.

Finally, Freud believed that people also have an Ego, which resides in conscious awareness. The Ego works as a sort of general manager for the other components. It observes what the Id wants, what the Superego suggests, and usually tries to find some balance between them.

Freud's Other Psychodynamic Principles

As noted, Freud believed that people are born with an innate energy that drives certain actions, usually to seek some form of pleasure. He also believed that as people develop, they move through five psychosexual stages. In each, the pleasure they sought would be found through a different body part. However, each stage would resolve, and through normal development, people would learn to direct their psychic energy toward healthy outlets. The five stages were: oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital.

Freud also believed that sometimes people could become fixated at a certain stage. Then they might develop unhealthy ways of behaving. For example, someone with a fixation in the oral stage might enjoy smoking cigarettes or chewing gum. He also proposed a conflict that occurs in the phallic stage: the Oedipus complex. It was Freud's belief that young boys were attracted to their mothers and jealous of their fathers. They would resolve that conflict by identifying with their father and growing up to be masculine.

Further, Freud believed that as people go through life, they sometimes have impulses and drives that do not match the moral direction of the Superego. In some cases, people would unconsciously use defense mechanisms to alleviate any anxiety that those drives might cause. The defensive mechanisms include responses such as repression, regression, sublimation, projection, and many others.

Finally, Freud believed that conflicts over unwanted feelings and unacceptable motivations often caused people psychological distress even if they were not directly aware of it. Those unconscious drives might appear as bad behaviors, disturbing dreams, or psychological symptoms. When he treated patients, he assumed that many of their problems were due to conflicts hidden in their unconscious.

Neo-Freudian Reactions To Freud's Theories

In many ways, Freud had a rather negative view of people. He saw most people as harboring dark drives that they were struggling to keep at bay. He assumed that when someone was having a mental health concern, it was due to their inability to deal properly with those drives. His theory did initially bring him students and followers who sought to use his techniques in their own work; as noted, many started to have new and different ideas. Those that broke away from him were called the neo-Freudians.

Freud's own daughter, Anna Freud, followed somewhat in his footsteps. She mostly agreed with his views and chose to focus her work on child development and child psychology. Some of her work was challenged by Melanie Klein, who disagreed with Freud's stages of psychosexual development.

Karen Horney and Alfred Adler can be credited with actually forming the neo-Freudian discipline. Both believed that people were driven by more than just an innate need for pleasure. Also, while Freud had said that women struggle with "penis envy," Horney argued women actually struggle with social inequality between the sexes. She also proposed that perhaps men experience "womb envy."

One particularly well-known neo-Freudian was Carl Jung. He developed his own psychodynamic theory called analytical psychology. Jung believed that people's minds are comprised of an Ego, Personal Unconscious, and a Collective Unconscious. The last of these houses shared cultural constructs, called Archetypes. Jung took a more positive view of people, believing that the psyche strives for wholeness.

Two psychologists, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, became more interested in the role that family and caregiver attachment might play on people's psychological development and functioning. They found that when children are not given proper loving care by their caregivers, it can cause psychological problems.

Using The Psychodynamic Model In Therapy

When Freud practiced therapy, he used an approach called psychoanalysis. This entailed having his clients come to his office regularly–usually 3 to 5 times per week. There, they would lie on a couch to relax and talk aloud. Freud often sat somewhat behind them and out of view. The goal was to give the clients a sort of open space, free from any influence he might have on them if he was in view. He also believed that clients would project onto him any unconscious feelings they had about other people in their life.

The clients were expected to talk aloud about whatever they wanted, and whatever came to mind. This process was called “free association.” Freud believed it would allow the client to discover information in their subconscious and even their unconscious. Freud also employed techniques for dream analysis during his therapy sessions. He believed that dreams could provide a view into the unconscious.

Psychodynamic psychology influenced the development of niche theoretical perspectives and therapy approaches that some psychologists and counselors now use. One psychoanalytic approach is object relations theory which focuses on how one relates to others. Generally, the goal of these psychodynamic therapy approaches is to help people become more aware of the conflicts and tensions they may be experiencing that may be causing various psychological symptoms or problems in their life.

Psychologists who practice more modern forms of psychodynamic psychology no longer use the approach that Freud did. Clients no longer lie on a couch. Usually, the client and therapist sit facing one another. The client may be asked to talk about whatever they want. Yet, often, they may also be directed in some way as the therapist takes a more active role in guiding the session and asking questions.

Status Of The Psychodynamic Model Today

Today, psychodynamic psychology and the psychodynamic model are seen as one way to explain human behavior and effectively address psychological problems in therapy. As noted, there are various specific therapy styles based on the work of the other psychologists that proposed edits and additions to Freud's theories. Moreover, the psychodynamic perspective is now just one of four main theoretical perspectives or schools of thought to explain psychology and methods for psychological treatment. The others include cognitive behavioral theory, humanism, and the biological perspective.

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If you struggle with mental health concerns and choose to seek therapy, you can always ask your counselor what theoretical orientation they use in their work. You might find some approaches more helpful than others. Many mental health providers do now use integrative approaches, where they incorporate many different practices and techniques, to provide clients with the best therapy possible.

Another obvious way therapy has developed relatively recently is to move to digital means of communication. Luckily, we have a good base of scientific research on how effective it is. As mentioned above, CBT is a common type of therapy and has been well studied. A recent publication looked over thousands of studies to determine that online CBT is as effective as traditional face-to-face CBT.

Online therapy is striving to answer some problems that have existed since Freud’s day. Online therapy tends to be less expensive than traditional therapy.

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