Psychodynamic Psychology: Definition & Explanation

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Robert Turner
Psychodynamic psychology began with Sigmund Freud, who considered the unconscious forces and inner conflicts as the root of our motivations and conscious discomfort. Discover the definition of some of Freud's key concepts, check the explanation of his main ideas, and see how his theory of psychoanalysis gave birth to revised perspectives among people who styled themselves Neo-Freudians. Updated: 08/15/2021

What Is Psychodynamic Psychology?

All psychodynamic psychology theories focus on the idea that unconscious psychological forces impact the processes of human development. You've probably heard the expression, 'What you don't know can't hurt you.' The psychodynamic therapist would say, 'What you don't know (consciously) will definitely harm you.'

People establish defense mechanisms, which are mental defenses to protect themselves from unwanted memories and inner conflicts. Coming to terms with one's defenses is an important part of successful therapy. For example, uncovering a woman's suppressed hostility toward her mother can help her come to terms with those feelings and, perhaps, establish a more positive relationship with her mother.

Most of our deep-seated and largely unconscious conflicts arise during early childhood. For example, in Freud's theory, young boys suffer from an Oedipus complex. In a nutshell, that means a boy unconsciously lusts for his mother and resents his father. In the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, the protagonist slays his father and beds his mother, not knowing that the woman is his mother and that the man he killed was his father. When he learns the truth, he blinds himself.

Typically, through the use of free association, people's inner conflicts will gradually, or sometimes suddenly, be brought to consciousness and resolution by way of the relationship between the therapist and the patient. To understand free association, have a friend read you a list of words. For each word, speak the first word that comes to your mind. For example, she says 'apple' and you say 'pie.' Or, I say 'vital' and you reply 'vicious.' The latter tidbit may be a hint about your inner conflicts.

Our deep, inner conflicts are organized around our personal relationships. The relationships can certainly include relations of a child with his or her parents. But they may also involve siblings; lovers; friends; authority figures, such as teachers; or even those we hold as enemies. Any of these personal relationships will influence the way our personalities develop.

Insight is a vital component of successful therapy. Unlike behaviorist psychologists who have no interest in our inner lives, psychodynamic therapists feel that they must consult their intuition and personal feelings about their clients if they are to understand what motivates them.

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The Freudians and Neo-Freudians

Let's first look at the original Freudian: Sigmund Freud. For Freud, the idea of dynamic psychology was based on the idea that energy powered our psychology in much the same manner that energy drives the processes of any organism, including the human body. What he called the id is the source of our psychic energy. The id is amoral, instinct driven, and totally buried in the unconscious. It is driven by the pleasure principle. The id wants what it wants and it wants it now! A lot of what the id wants is expressed in sexual energy Freud called libido.

The superego mainly lurks in our unconscious but pokes its way into our conscious mind often enough to make us feel guilty about socially unacceptable behavior. What we normally call our conscience is stored in the superego. Finally, the mostly conscious ego is driven by the reality principle. It has the job of slapping down id-impulses and taking instructions from the superego, all the while trying to make the most of day-to-day life.

Now let's look at the famous and infamous Carl Jung. In Jung's analytical psychology the three parts of the psyche are the ego, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious that connects us to our ancestors. And, in contrast to Freud's perspective, Jung viewed the basic dynamic of the psyche as striving for wholeness. You can think of that this way: For Freud, the psyche is part of the organism and, therefore, mortal. Jung's use of the term 'psyche' derives from its original meaning in Greek, which was 'soul.' Since that idea implies life beyond death, Carl was accused of being a mystic.

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