History And Principles Of The Psychodynamic Therapy Model

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated February 28, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Many are familiar with Sigmund Freud and the work he contributed to the field of psychology. The psychodynamic model is perhaps the most influential part of his legacy, parts of which are still used in psychology today. In general, it posits that the subconscious mind plays a major role in human behavior, including some psychological and emotional challenges an individual may face. The psychodynamic model guides a branch of psychology with the same name that examines these forces. Below is an overview of the model and its history.

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A brief history of the psychodynamic model

While the psychodynamic model is commonly attributed to Freud, his ideas on the subject were largely inspired by his former adviser, Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke. Freud molded von Brücke’s thoughts on the subject into a developed model. As he began publishing and speaking on elements of the model, many in the field were intrigued and sought to study with him. He soon amassed a group of fellow psychoanalysts who were seeking to apply the theory in their own work. In the following years, many found issues with or otherwise built on the theory—including his daughter Anna Frued as well as Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and others—resulting in the version of the psychodynamic model that is known today.

Key elements of Freud's original psychodynamic model

Let’s first look at a couple of the core pillars of the original Freudian version of the psychodynamic model.

Psychodynamic structure of the mind

The psychodynamic structure of the mind is one of Freud’s most well-known applications of his psychodynamic model. He originally proposed three levels to the human mind: the conscious (easily reached), 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.

Further, Freud believed that people are driven by three different forces of psychic energy that govern personality:

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.

The superego

The superego is a moral center which he believed operated in both the conscious and unconscious awareness. He posited that this center would grow through life experiences (e.g., family, church, school, and society) that teach moral values.

The ego

The ego resides in conscious awareness. The ego works as a sort of general manager for the other components, per his theory. It observes what the id wants and what the superego suggests and usually tries to find a balance between them.

The five stages of psychosexual development

Another well-known application of Freud’s psychodynamic model is the five stages of psychosexual development. In it, he argued that people are born with an innate energy that drives certain actions derived from pleasure-seeking.

In each stage, he posited, a different body part would elicit 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. However, Freud also believed that people could become fixated at any of these five stages, which could lead to the development of unhealthy behaviors. For example, someone with a fixation in the oral stage might come to enjoy smoking cigarettes or chewing gum.

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 theorized 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 generally assumed that their problems were driven by some such conflict in the unconscious.

The psychodynamic model in therapy: Then and now

When Freud practiced therapy, he used an approach that he called psychoanalysis. This entailed having his clients come to his office regularly—usually three to five 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. While modern psychoanalysis has many differences, the core tenets of offering the client a safe space where they can explore their thoughts and feelings with the aim of reducing psychological distress remains key to the practice.

Weaknesses of the psychodynamic model

Freud did most of his work in the late 1800s, meaning that he didn’t have reach to the technology or scientific methods that could’ve helped him test and refine his theories. He also based his models off of his patients—who were primarily wealthy white women—which meant that they didn’t apply accurately to the broader population. Finally, he seemed to have had a rather narrow and negative view of people, which his original model reflects. He saw most as harboring dark drives—especially psychosexual ones—that they were struggling to keep at bay. He assumed that when someone was experiencing a mental health concern, it was due to their inability to deal properly with those drives. 

Others in the field would go on to challenge many elements of his original model, taking what was useful, leaving the rest, and filling in the gaps with their own, more modern research. For example, psychologist Karen Horney pushed back against his idea that women experienced mental distress as a result of “penis envy,” suggesting instead that gender inequality in society was likelier to cause psychological challenges.

Other psychologists also went on to build off of Freud’s original ideas and produce theories that became more widely accepted. For example, Carl Jung developed his own branch of psychodynamic psychology called analytical psychology. He believed that people's minds are comprised of an ego, personal unconscious, and a group unconscious, but he took a more positive view of humans, believing that the psyche strives for wholeness. Later, psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth looked into how the care a child receives from their caregivers in their early years—rather than subconscious hang-ups about their own psychosexual development, as Freud believed—can affect their future emotional health and development. Bowlby and Ainsworth developed attachment theory to reflect this.

In other words, Freud’s work was important in that it laid the groundwork for many important psychological theories to come. Most of his personal and professional beliefs have since been discredited and replaced with more accurate findings based in the modern scientific method. However, he was right to have believed that human thought and behavior is at least somewhat driven by the unconscious mind—an approach still known as psychodynamic therapy—so he’s still recognized for having provided a jumping-off point for future psychologists and researchers whose work has been integral to psychological treatment in the modern day.

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Seeking the support of a therapist today

Though a therapy session today looks far different from one conducted in Freud’s day, the basic premise is the same: the therapist offers you a safe space in which you can express your thoughts and emotions in order to identify what may be causing you distress. If you’re interested in meeting with a therapist to address the challenges you may be facing, you can generally do so online or in person. For those who prefer to meet with a counselor from the comfort of home, online therapy is an option to consider. 

With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from home or anywhere you have an internet connection. Research suggests that online therapy can be as effective as in-person sessions in many cases, so you can generally choose whichever format is most comfortable for you. If you’re interested in online therapy, see below for client reviews of BetterHelp counselors.

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The psychodynamic model was originally proposed by Sigmund Freud and, in general, posits that the unconscious mind has significant power over an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Although much of Freud’s original work has since been discredited, this part has been built on and refined, and the modern form of it is still widely used today.
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