Psychodynamic Theory: Approaches and Proponents

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Psychodynamic theory is actually a collection of psychological theories which emphasize the importance of drives and other forces in human functioning, especially unconscious drives. The approach holds that childhood experience is the basis for adult personality and relationships. Psychodynamic theory originated in Freud’s psychoanalytic theories and includes any theories based on his ideas, including those by Anna Freud, Erik Erikson, and Carl Jung.

Key Takeaways: Psychodynamic Theory

  • Psychodynamic theory is comprised of a set of psychological theories that arise from the ideas that humans are often driven by unconscious motivations and that adult personality and relationships are often the result of childhood experiences.
  • Psychodynamic theory originated in the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, and includes any theory based on his ideas, including work by Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Erik Erikson. It also includes newer theories like object relations.

Origins

Between the late 1890s and the 1930s, Sigmund Freud developed a variety of psychological theories based on his experiences with patients during therapy. He called his approach to therapy psychoanalysis and his ideas became popularized through his books, such as The Interpretation of Dreams. In 1909, he and his colleagues traveled to America and gave lectures on psychoanalysis, spreading Freud’s ideas further. In the years that followed, regular meetings were held to discuss psychoanalytic theories and applications. Freud influenced a number of major psychological thinkers, including Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, and his influence continues today.

It was Freud who first introduced the term psychodynamics. He observed that his patients exhibited psychological symptoms with no biological basis. Nevertheless, these patients were unable to stop their symptoms despite their conscious efforts. Freud reasoned that if the symptoms couldn’t be prevented by conscious will, they must arise from the unconscious. Therefore, the symptoms were the result of the unconscious will opposing the conscious will, an interplay he dubbed "psychodynamics."

Psychodynamic theory formed to encompass any theory deriving from Freud’s basic tenets. As a result, the terms psychoanalytic and psychodynamic are often used interchangeably. However, there is an important distinction: the term psychoanalytic only refers to theories developed by Freud, while the term psychodynamic references both Freud’s theories and those that are based on his ideas, including Erik Erikson's psychosocial theory of human development and Jung's concept of archetypes. In fact, so many theories are encompassed by psychodynamic theory, that it is often referred to as an approach or a perspective instead of a theory.

Assumptions

Despite the psychodynamic perspective’s association with Freud and psychoanalysis, psychodynamic theorists no longer put much stock in some of Freud’s ideas, such as the id, ego, and superego. Today, the approach is centered around a core set of tenets that both arise from and expand upon Freud’s theories.

Psychologist Drew Weston outlined five propositions that generally encompass 21st century psychodynamic thinking:

  • First and most importantly, a great deal of mental life is unconscious, meaning people’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations are often unknown to them.
  • Individuals may experience conflicting thoughts and feelings towards a person or situation because mental responses occur independently but in parallel. Such internal conflict can lead to contradictory motivations, necessitating mental compromise.
  • Personality begins to form in early childhood and it continues to be influenced by childhood experiences into adulthood, especially in the formation of social relationships.
  • People’s social interactions are impacted by their mental understanding of themselves, other people, and relationships.
  • Personality development includes learning to regulate sexual and aggressive drives, as well as growing from a socially dependent to an interdependent state in which one can form and maintain functional intimate relationships.

While many of these propositions continue to focus on the unconscious, they also are concerned with the formation and understanding of relationships. This arises from one of the major developments in modern psychodynamic theory: object relations. Object relations holds that one’s early relationships set expectations for later ones. Whether they are good or bad, people develop a comfort level with the dynamics of their earliest relationships and are often drawn to relationships that can in some way recreate them. This works well if one’s earliest relationships were healthy but leads to problems if those early relationships were problematic in some way.

In addition, no matter what a new relationship is like, an individual will look at a new relationship through the lens of their old relationships. This is called "transference" and offers a mental shortcut to people attempting to understand a new relationship dynamic. As a result, people make inferences that may or may not be accurate about a new relationship based on their past experiences.

Strengths

Psychodynamic theory has several strengths that account for its continued relevance in modern psychological thinking. First, it accounts for the impact of childhood on adult personality and mental health. Second, it explores the innate drives that motivate our behavior. It’s in this way that psychodynamic theory accounts for both sides of the nature/nurture debate. On the one hand, it points to the way the unconscious mental processes people are born with influence their thoughts, feelings, and behavior. On the other, it emphasizes the influence of childhood relationships and experiences on later development.   

Weaknesses

Despite its strengths, psychodynamic theory has a number of weaknesses, too. First, critics often accuse it of being too deterministic, and therefore, denying that people can exercise conscious free will. In other words, by emphasizing the unconscious and the roots of personality in childhood experience, psychodynamic theory suggests that behavior is pre-determined and ignores the possibility that people have personal agency.

Psychodynamic theory is also criticized for being unscientific and unfalsifiable—it is impossible to prove the theory to be false. Many of Freud’s theories were based on single cases observed in therapy and remain difficult to test. For example, there’s no way to empirically research the unconscious mind. Yet, there are some psychodynamic theories that can be studied, which has led to scientific evidence for some of its tenets.

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