What Is Psychodynamic Psychology?

By Tiffany Bailey

Updated August 30, 2019

Reviewer Kristen Hardin

Psychodynamic psychology, or "psychodynamics," is the branch of study in psychology regarding the underlying factors affecting behavior in a person, especially the subconscious mind. Everyone has experiences in their lives and childhoods that affect their day to day lives, choices, and behaviors. This form of psychology focuses on those factors, how they intertwine in the development and mindset of individuals, and how these findings can be of use in therapy and understanding the human psyche in general.

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The Goals of Psychodynamic Psychology

Everyone has experienced situations and emotions in their upbringing and past that consciously and subconsciously affect their day to day choices, perceptions, and behaviors. The goal of psychodynamic psychology is to analyze these events and their impacts to understand the long-term effects of these various experiences. By doing so, mental health professionals can provide appropriate treatment in helping individuals understand themselves, overcome issues that may be of particular concern and deeply instilled, and provide the appropriate and specialized treatment for those struggling with delayed or impaired emotional development.

The Origin of Psychodynamic Psychology

Psychology has many different branches, but psychodynamic psychology stems from the work of Sigmund Freud. Freud conceived that a person's childhood experiences and development were a determining subconscious factor in their later behavior, perceptions, and personality. This is what is referred to as "psychodynamic psychology." This, however, originated from his initial work of psychoanalytic theory.

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Psychoanalytic Theory

Freud's psychoanalytic theory is the concept of an individual's behavior stemming from the three facets of the mind: the id, the ego, and the superego. These are non-physical components of the brain that develop at different stages throughout a person's life, and all come together to form the type of person we are and how we interact with and perceive the world around us.

The id, defined in simple terms, is an element of the mind that is considered instinctual and is present in an individual from the moment of birth, comprising of aggressions and drives attributed to a person's core. The ego is the label attached to the psychological component that mediates and provides a balance between the id and the superego. The superego encompasses an individual's concept of morality that determines that individual's conscience. These three elements combined, according to his theory, is what determines each person's personality.

The id is the part of our mind's workings that is present from birth and is instinctual, whereas the ego and the superego do not develop until later on in life. It is something ingrained in the unconscious parts of our minds and does not change as we grow older. It lies underneath the more "reachable" parts of the psyche and demands action based upon impulses, strongly affecting whether we are satisfied or displeased by achieving or acquiring the things we want.

It is only with the development of the ego and the superego that the id can be kept in check since it naturally has no concern for the concept of consequences. Think of it as the small, selfish, childlike part of your mind that demands what it wants and demands it immediately, whereas the later-developing facets are the maturity that forms over time to promote healthy and reasonable behaviors in reaction to those impulses caused by the id.

While the id is selfish and childlike, the ego is the mediator facet that processes the world through a filter of reason and logic. It seeks to satisfy the wishes and impulses of the id but does so by finding reasonable and logical approaches to the demands of the id without experiencing unpleasant consequences due to social and situational factors. This component comes along with life experience and increased maturity and focuses on ways to promote pleasurable emotions, but while also considering all outside factors to find the best possible course of action. The id may unconsciously make you want to get a new car (and by any means possible since it has no concern for anything but what it desires).

But the ego would decide that the quick act of simply stealing one would clearly be a terrible idea and therefore devise a strategy to save the funds necessary and maybe even find a way of getting a loan or financing to afford this new vehicle you want. Many individuals struggle with controlling the id component of their minds and consequently behave recklessly and make poor choices that result in unfortunate consequences. In these cases, the ego is not strong enough to overcome those natural impulses, and this is a situation that psychodynamic psychology addresses via its concepts regarding stunted emotional development. The ego embodies self-control and problem-solving on behalf of the three components of the mind.

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The superego can be described as the morality component and encompasses the values and morals one grows to have as they are influenced by the world and the people around them. Whereas the ego is a mediator between both the id and the superego, the superego attempts to impose a moral view upon the id and the ego in an attempt to modify both to meet personal and social standards. The ego may focus on problem solving and rationality, but the superego places even greater restrictions on what may be wrong or right, rather than just what may be the most plausible course of action. When the ego satisfies the id by choosing a certain path to reach an individual's goals that the moral compass of the superego conflicts with, it can then regulate this behavior (and future choices) with causing a sense of guilt in the person.

This is what is commonly referred to as a person's "conscience." This conscience (the superego) allows us to feel good when doing something that has a positive impact, and it also causes us to experience guilt and shame upon doing something we probably should not have done. As with stunted growth in the ego as well, having an underdeveloped ego can have significant negative consequences on a person's behavior and life choices, and this is something explained via psychodynamic psychology and addressed with psychodynamic therapy.

Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapy involves analyzing the subconscious and unconscious factors in a person's mind and behavior to understand better how it affects their personality, perception of the world around them, and present actions. Having an understanding of psychoanalytic theory helps you to see the three components at play within the mind and therefore be able to analyze them better and make adjustments via therapy when needed.

Though biological factors may play a part in some individuals, the main causes of stunted emotional growth (and by proxy the growth of the ego and superego) are generally attributed to trauma, abuse, or neglect while one is a child. Without the proper upbringing and opportunities for learning, testing boundaries, and social interaction, it's clear how the two factors determining problem-solving and the concepts of right and wrong would be limited and damaged in some way. When these psychological components aren't properly developed, there are not many options left in the way of keeping the id and its impulses under control once the individual has grown older. This can easily lead to poor choices that affect a person's relationships, their quality of life, and even lead to further mental illness and potentially incarcerations due to no concern for the social standards of the world we live in.

Psychodynamic therapy seeks to help an individual pinpoint the areas in which development has not taken place, address the issues that may have caused these problems, and work to find new strategies for daily life and how to process their urges, emotions appropriately, and consequently their behaviors from then on. This is handled with the standard counseling and therapeutic approach of talk therapy.

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The therapy itself generally starts with the professional and client deciding, rather early on, one primary concern that may be having the most significant lifelong effect within them and focusing on treatment for that main area or specific topic. The thought processes and responses of the individual in treatment will be taken into account and connections will be made regarding which events or experiences affected which areas of the brain and in what manner to cause the problems presently at hand. Many of the events that have caused this momentous of an impact on a person to affect their lives so significantly have deep roots in the unconscious and subconscious mind. The professional assisting in the therapy process will bring to the attention of the person in treatment the noted effects of their past issues on their development mentally and emotionally. The two will work together creating a plan of action for correcting these miswirings within the psyche and work towards coping with past trauma, as well as developing psychological maturity for a better future prognosis.

This may take months or even years to accomplish, depending upon the individual seeking treatment and the severity of the psychological damage. With consistent therapy, guidance from a licensed professional, and hard work on their part, it is possible that they can overcome the events of early life and further develop the emotional maturity to assist the ego and superego in functioning properly.

For additional information regarding Freud's theories on psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychology, there are many online and physical resources available for further study. The amount of research and literature on Freud and others' theories and perspective on the psyche and the various branches of psychology are extensive and easily accessible via the internet, libraries, and local book stores.

Where to Get Treatment

If you feel as though a psychodynamic approach to therapy may help you overcome your issues in regards to emotional development and would like to seek further help or information, you can search in your area for therapists who provide this type of therapy or you could try online therapy. BetterHelp's online therapy is a secure platform for online therapy with thousands of licensed, professional therapists. You can get started today- all you need to get started is an internet connection and access to a smart phone, tablet, or computer.


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