History And Principles Of The Psychodynamic Model

Updated January 21, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many are familiar with Sigmund Freud the work he contributed to the field of psychology. The psychodynamic model, founded by Freud, focused on theories that covered subconscious drives and human functioning. 

The model argues that the subconscious mind plays a major role in our psychological problems. Psychodynamic psychology is an approach that focuses on studying those forces. 

A Brief History Of The Psychodynamic Model

While Freud is known for the psychoanalysis theory and psychodynamic model, he was inspired by his former advisor, Ernst Wilhelm von Brucke. Freud took Brucke’s idea and formed it into a developed model

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 worked with, wealthy white women, which does not represent a more diverse population.

Additionally, many of those women had symptoms that were products of the current time and culture.

When Freud developed his model, many 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

Psychodynamic Structure Of The Mind

Psychodynamic psychologists believe that the mind is divided into sections that relate to one another outside of one's consciousness, including information, memories, and emotions.

Freud proposed three levels to the human mind: the conscious (easily accessed), the preconscious (below awareness), and the unconscious. For him, the most interesting level was the unconscious.

He believed that people are greatly affected by their unconscious without realizing it. He thought this effect often caused psychological disorders.

Are You Concerned With Your Mental Health?

Further, Freud believed that people were 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, which resides in the unconscious and drives instinctive behaviors for pleasure, such as sex and destruction.

Freud thought people could develop a moral center that he called the superego. This center would grow through life experiences (family, church, school, and society) and teach moral values. It’s important to note that the superego operates in both conscious and unconscious awareness.

Lastly, Freud proposed 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 a balance between them.

Freud's Other Psychodynamic Principles

Freud also created another psychodynamic model, the 5 stages of psychosexual development where he argued that people are born with an innate energy that drives certain actions derived from pleasure seeking. 

In each stage, a different body part would illicit pleasure for the individual. The five stages were: oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital. Through normal development, people would learn to direct their psychic energy toward healthy outlets. 

Freud believed that people could become fixated at any of the five stages. This fixation would lead to the development of unhealthy behaviors. For example, someone with a fixation in the oral stage might enjoy smoking cigarettes or chewing gum. He also proposed a conflict in the phallic stage: the Oedipus complex.

The Oedipus complex proposes that young boys are 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 can 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. Defensive mechanisms include responses such as repression, regression, sublimation, projection, and 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 destructive 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 Additions To Psychodynamic Psychology

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. Those that broke away from him were called Neo-Freudians.

Freud's own daughter, Anna Freud, followed in his footsteps. She 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 creating the Neo-Freudian discipline. Horney and Adler believed that people were driven by more than just an innate need for pleasure. 

For instance, Freud claimed women struggle with penis envy, while Horney argued women struggle with social inequality between the sexes. She also proposed that perhaps men experience womb envy.

It might be interesting to learn that Carl Jung was a well-known Neo-Freudian. Jung developed his own facet of psychodynamic psychology called analytical psychology. Jung believed that people's minds are comprised of an ego, personal unconscious, and a collective unconscious. 

The collective unconscious, Jung proposed cultural construct 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.

His clients were expected to talk aloud about 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 use today. One psychoanalytic approach is object relations theory which focuses on how one relates to others. 

Generally, the goal of psychodynamic therapy is to help people become more aware of the potential internal conflicts that may be causing various psychological symptoms or problems in their life.

Status Of The Psychodynamic Model Today

Psychodynamic psychology is seen as one way to explain human behavior and effectively address psychological problems in therapy. As noted, there are various specific therapy styles 

Different therapeutic modalities have been based on the work of psychologists that proposed edits and additions to Freud's theories. 

The psychodynamic perspective is 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.

Are You Concerned With Your Mental Health?

If you struggle with mental health concerns and choose to seek therapy, you can always ask your therapist what theoretical orientation they use in their work. You might find some approaches more helpful than others. 

Many mental health providers now use integrative approaches, where they incorporate many different practices and techniques, to provide clients with the best therapy possible.

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 in-person therapy. At BetterHelp, you can find thousands of certified therapists who practice across a myriad of theoretical foundations. Find one that fits your style through BetterHelp.


Sigmund Freud’s psychodynamic model has been a foundation of inspiration for generations of psychologists. The field of psychology continues to mold, shift and change the psychodynamic model into new theories. When we understand the history behind our current psychological therapies, we can gain a deeper perspective that can allow us to make the best choice for our care.

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