The psychodynamic theory explains how the unconscious mind causes certain behaviors. It is the oldest modern approach to therapy and is rooted in the theories of the famed neurologist Sigmund Freud. It focuses on the idea of human development and interactions and has been expanded on and adapted over time into various schools.

Freudian Psychology

Psychodynamic theory is rooted in focuses specifically on Freud's theories of the id, ego, and superego. Freud believed that the unconscious id is present at birth and drives primitive urges, seeking instant gratification for hunger, thirst, and sex.

The ego and the superego develop later as ways to control the id. The superego acts as a conscience, and the ego is the rational part of the personality. Freud considered the ego to be the true self. The ego's job is to balance the wants of the id with the judgment of the superego.

sculpture of Sigmund Freud


Imbalances Between the Id, Ego, and Superego

Freud believed that people who had a healthy ego could effectively balance the superego and the id, but that problems arose from imbalances. These problems include anxiety disorders, negative emotions, and more complex personality disorders, like narcissism. A dominant superego could lead to guilt and denying pleasure. Conversely, a weak superego could let the id take over, causing psychopathy.

person holding a brain in his hand


Ego Psychology

Another school of psychodynamic theory is ego psychology. Ego psychology builds on Freud's concept of the ego, expanding its capabilities into a way of processing reality and managing urges while maintaining one's morals. Many ideas overlap with Freud's, but the focus is more on the ego than the id and superego.

In this school of thought, the ego plays many significant roles, including protecting the person from anxiety and controlling impulsivity of the id. If a person's ego is weak or stressed, they will be affected in many ways.

woman meditating on her couch


Ego Health

In the ego psychology school of psychodynamic theory, mental health problems occur when the ego cannot properly regulate behavior. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a healthy ego has many jobs, including maintaining stable relationships, responding to and recovering from stress, regulating a full range of emotions, and integrating a healthy sense of morality into daily life. When the ego cannot perform these roles, personality disorders can result.

woman having an anxiety attack in public


Object Relations

Object relations is another approach to psychodynamic theory built around attachment from infancy. At first, the infant is essentially a part of the mother and has no individual self. In object relations, the infant develops an ego, attachments to the caregiver or internal objects, and connections between the ego and these objects.

The development of both internal objects and the ego lead to normal functioning. Any negative experiences with the caregiver can result in unhealthy object relations, stalling the maturation of the ego.

toddler crying for mother's attention


Fragmented Ego Strength

object relations approach to psychodynamic theory, an unhealthy or fragmented ego in childhood leads to issues later in life. This idea is very similar to attachment theory in that it is heavily rooted in the relationship between the infant and caregiver. Future relationships depend on the health of the ego, and a fragmented ego leads to a poor foundation for social interactions as an adult.

woman feeling anxiety in social situation


Self Psychology

The fourth school of thought in psychodynamic theory is self psychology. Self psychology centers on the idea that the perception of self depends on the level of self-esteem and how one relates to the boundaries and differences of those around them.

This approach focuses on the person's subjective experiences and point of view. Heinz Kohut, the doctor who developed this theory, believed that it tied into addiction as the ingestion of a drug gives the person a sense of self-esteem that they otherwise would not have.

woman looking into a broken mirror


Psychoanalysis and Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapy is similar to psychoanalytic therapy, but there are some distinctions between them. Both focus on understanding the person and use the same assumptions about how the mind works.

Psychoanalytic therapy focuses on the relationship between the patient and the therapist. Psychodynamic therapy centers on the relationship between the patient and the world around them. A program with a practitioner of psychodynamic therapy is typically shorter in duration, too, but not always.

man on couch talking to psychotherapist


Pros of Psychodynamic Theory

There are many upsides to the psychodynamic theory and the psychodynamic approach to therapy. Psychodynamic therapy focuses on exploring and expressing emotions and how to avoid bad feelings and thoughts.

The person works with the therapist to uncover recurring self-defeating patterns in their life and how to avoid them. This form of therapy also focuses on past experiences and interpersonal relationships, as well as exploring fantasies about their dreams, fears, and desires to determine how they view themselves and others in the real world.

psychology textbook that says Psychodynamic theory


Criticisms of Psychodynamic Theory

Psychodynamic theory is not without its criticisms. It is primarily based in personality, which is not always consistent. It does not have any procedure for changing personality, but it makes the person analyze their abilities and try to understand why they are different.

Many believe that psychodynamic theory is not based on scientific evidence and that is it insensitive to differences in race and gender.

man holding puzzle pieces that say theory and practice


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