Psychodynamic Theory: Core Concepts, Limitations and its role in Eclectic Therapy

The psychodynamic theory includes all those theories in psychology which believe that human functioning is based upon the interaction of drives and psychological forces within the person, the unconscious factors and the interaction amongst the different structures of personality. 

Freud’s psychoanalysis was the original psychodynamic theory, but the psychodynamic approach includes all theories that were based on Freud ideas but modified by Jung, Adler, Erikson, Karen Horney, Erich Fromm and Sullivan.

All psychodynamic theories are based on certain basic assumptions. To understand psychodynamic theories, it is important to understand these assumptions first. These assumptions include:

Basic Assumptions of Psychodynamic Theory

  1. Unconscious motives affect our behaviour and feelings powerfully.
  2. As adults, our feelings and behaviour (including psychological problems) are rooted in our childhood experiences.
  3. Every behaviour has a cause (usually unconscious). Therefore, all behaviour is determined.
  4. Personality is made up of three parts i.e. The id, ego and superego. 
  5. Eros (the sex drive & life instinct) and Thanatos (the aggressive drive & death instinct) are two instinctual drives. Our behaviour is motivated by them.
  6. The conscious part of the mind (the ego) and the unconscious mind (the id and superego) are in constant conflict.
  7. Personality is shaped as the drives are modified by different conflicts at different times in childhood (during psychosexual development).

Before we go further, let us quickly talk about Freud’s personality theory. 

Freud’s believed that the human psyche (personality) has more than one aspect.

Tripartite – the id, ego and superego

psychodynamic theory

His personality theory looks at the psyche as tripartite or having three components – the id, ego and superego. 

  1. The id is the instinctual and unconscious part of the mind that responds directly and immediately to basic urges, needs, and desires. The personality of a newborn child is completely id. The id operates on –
    • the pleasure principle (every impulse should be satisfied immediately, regardless of the consequences). 
    • primary process thinking – primitive and irrational with no comprehension of objective reality, and is selfish and wishful in nature.
  2. The super-ego operates as a moral conscience. Its function is to control the id’s impulses, especially those which society forbids, such as sex and aggression. It also has the function of persuading the ego to turn to moralistic goals rather than simply realistic ones and to strive for perfection. The superego consists of the conscience and the ideal self. The ideal self is the aspiration self of how you ought to be. The conscience may punish the ego by causing guilt if the ego gives in to the id’s demands. The super-ego may also reward us through the ideal self when we behave ‘properly’ by making us feel proud. However, if a person’s ideal self is an extremely high standard, then anything the person does may represent failure.
  3. The ego is the realistic part that mediates between the unrealistic id and the moral super-ego. The ego operates by the reality principle – working out realistic ways of satisfying the id’s demands or compromising/postponing satisfaction to avoid negative social consequences. The ego engages in secondary process thinking or rational and realistic, thinking. If the ego fails to use the reality principle, and this results in anxiety, unconscious defense mechanisms are employed, to avoid unpleasant feelings (i.e., anxiety) or make good things feel better for the individual.

Defense Mechanisms

psychodynamic theory

You can think of defense mechanism as a way for the mind to protect us from being consciously aware of thoughts or feelings that are too difficult to tolerate or that will create anxiety. There are several known defence mechanisms. Let us quickly look at the more common ones.

The concept of the defense mechanism originated with Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and was later elaborated and conceptualized by other psychodynamically oriented theorists, notably his daughter Anna Freud (1895-1982).

She described ten different defense mechanisms: denial, displacement, intellectualization, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, regression, repression, sublimation, and suppression. Later researchers have added some more defense mechanisms to the list: compensation, dissociation, fantasy, identification, undoing, and withdrawal. 

We would be exploring each of these defense mechanisms in seperate posts.

Now that we have covered the basics of the psychodynamic approach, it is important to know that one of the primary objective of therapy in this approach is to enhance ego functioning and help the client test reality by thinking through their options.

Therapeutic Approach

One to one Coaching and Therapy Sessions based on integration of Hypnosis, NLP & CBT

With help from the therapist, the client is, first, encouraged to speak freely about the emotions they are feeling and identify any patterns in their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours.

The therapist helps the client find the significance of these patterns and their effects. They probe the client’s past, discuss their childhood and early life experiences to discover their impact on the client’s current issues.

In general, the therapist’s role is to help the client understand the connection between their past experiences and their current problems, and utilize their internal resources to address these problems.

While the Psychodynamic approach plays an extremely important role in therapy, especially in cases where clients may have deep-rooted issues stemming from trauma, suppression and childhood experiences, there are some limitations of this approach that may hinder a therapist’s ability to effectively work with clients. 

Let us quickly look at these limitations first and then we can discuss the best way to overcome the same.

Limitation of Psychodynamic Approach

  1. The First key limitation is that it is deterministic. The approach suggests that behaviour is predetermined and hence creates an impression that people do not have free will 
  2. The second limitation and criticism is that it over-emphasises childhood experience as the source of the abnormality. While this is true in some cases, it isn’t necessary to work with childhood experiences for most issues
  3. Third, the client, in most cases, needs to share their deepest darkest secrets with the therapist. This increases the chances of transference and counter-transference. While these are considered therapeutic techniques in this approach, the possible side effects and consequences may not be worth the benefits derived from the same.
  4. Fourth, the techniques used in this approach required interpretation on part of the therapist which can lead to the therapy process get influenced by therapists biases and beliefs that may not be applicable to the client
  5. Fifth, the amount of time required to work through clients problems using this approach is quite high. Some therapies may continue over a period of years. 
  6. And finally given the time and no. of sessions required, the overall therapy process turns out to be quite expensive for the client.

Therapist Niche

psychodynamic theory

Despite the limitations of the psychodynamic approach, there is no denying the fact that when done properly, the results achieved during this approach can be long lasting and lead to a very high degree of qualitative change in the client’s life.

This is why looking for ways to overcome the limitations of this approach while preserving the benefits can be very useful both from the point of view of the therapist and the client.

In my understanding, the best way to overcome the limitations of the Psychodynamic approach is by using it as a part of a more eclectic approach to therapy like Cognitive hypnotic Psychotherapy. 

Cognitive hypnotic Psychotherapy is an eclectic approach that seamlessly integrates all major approaches in Psychology (Psychodynamic, Cognitive, Behavioural and Humanistic) along with Hypnosis, NLP, Mindfulness and Metaphors to create natural, effortless and lasting change in clients.

Since Cognitive hypnotic Psychotherapy acknowledges and helps the clients identify and resolve problems at both the conscious and the unconscious levels, the client can consciously choose the change they want and apply that change naturally. 

Cognitive hypnotic Psychotherapy recognizes that a problem can exist at multiple levels or layers. These layers include:

  • Ongoing thoughts and emotions
  • Underlying beliefs, values, positive intentions
  • Suppressed emotions
  • Repressed memories

Thus, it allows the therapist to work with all the layers.

This also means that in cases where working with past and childhood memories is not necessary, we can just work with the required layers and help the client achieve their desired outcomes. 

Another reason to use the psychodynamic approach as a part of CHP is that hypnosis can help the client connect with the unconscious quickly, exploring repressed memories (where needed) becomes both easier and a lot faster. 

Since the therapist can also use hypnosis to ask the unconscious for interpretation of information where the recovered information is not clear also means the need for interpretation on part of the therapist is almost nil. This in turn more or less completely limits the influence of therapist bias on the therapy.

In short, the comprehensive CHP framework facilitates this process in a person-centric and brief manner without creating an internal conflict in the client. This ensures that the change is not just sustainable but also achieved a lot more quickly, generally within 8 sessions. 

If you are curious to know more about Cognitive hypnotic Psychotherapy, and how you can become a Cognitive hypnotic Psychotherapist, do check out the respective posts on the ICHARS website.

April 11, 2021

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