What is Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

What is Psychodynamic Psychotherapy? By a Washington DC Psychoanalyst in full-time private practice

People often ask, What is psychodynamic therapy? Three cornerstones of psychodynamic psychotherapy include:

  1. The idea of a dynamic unconscious. That is, psychodynamic psychotherapists believe that thoughts and feelings that are outside of our conscious awareness drive us.
  2. A belief that people can grow and change throughout their lives. Consequently, psychodynamic therapy can be helpful at any developmental juncture.
  3. A recognition that every individual is unique. Each will be addressed in turn.

What is psychodynamic psychotherapy?

1. The idea of a dynamic unconscious

The idea, here, is that we are driven by thoughts and feelings that outside of our awareness; we call this, “the unconscious”. When our thoughts and feelings are unbearable to us, we (unknowingly) push them out of our awareness. For this reason, we don’t always know what drives our behavior.

Take for example, the outstanding college student who allows his father to choose his major. As he approaches graduation, he finds himself too anxious to study and begins to fail his courses. He may be unaware of how frightened he is of being on his own and growing up.

Likely he does not recognize how angry he is at his parents for making key decisions for him and thereby undermining his sense of his own capacities.

Thus, his symptoms serve dual functions: they allow him to avoid adulthood and they let him express, albeit indirectly, his anger and resentment toward his parents. So, what is the psychoanalyst’s role in psychodynamic therapy?

The Psychoanalyst’s Role to help make the unconscious conscious

In my role as a psychoanalyst, I work to help you to “make the unconscious conscious”. That is, I work to help you tune into your thoughts and feelings.

My goal is to help you to excavate thoughts and feelings that are buried. Specifically, I want to help you learn about those things, outside of our conscious awareness, that drive your behavior.  For this reason, I discourage homework or preparation for therapy. Instead, I encourage you to come as you are and to say whatever comes into your mind. I ask you to report day dreams, “flash thoughts” and fantasies. Also, I invite you to report your dreams.

Dreams, which Freud called, “the royal road to the unconscious” offer a window into those aspects of yourself that are outside of your awareness in your waking life. For this reason, analysts attempt collaborate with you to understand your dreams and help you to discover your hidden struggles.  As you come to understand your feelings, your feelings about yourself will shift. And you may be able to make decisions about your life with greater clarity and comfort.

Examples of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

A highly successful, attractive, man in his thirties would like to marry and have a family. He’s had several long-term relationships. Yet, each of the women are reluctant to make a commitment. He wonders, “why do I keep ending up with commitment-phobes”? There may be many reason for his difficulties. For instance, he may, unconsciously, he himself, may be afraid of intimacy.

Or, he may harbor, unconscious, guilt. In fact, he may feel that he doesn’t deserve the kind of relationship that he seeks. There are endless possibilities. In the context of psychodynamic psychotherapy or psychoanalysis, he may deepen his understanding of himself so that he can achieve his goal.

Here’s another example: A very bright, highly educated, young woman in her twenties is underemployed, working at a job that she hates. She’d like to make pursue an interesting and lucrative career but she can’t seem to identify a career goal. Her efforts to work with career counselors have failed. She seeks to psychodynamic therapy to understand why she can’t seem to identify her work-life goals.

2. A focus on human growth and development

As human beings we are always growing and developing throughout our lives. Therefore, psychodynamic therapists  believe that there is always a possibility of change.

3. A belief that every individual is unique

Like most psychoanalysts and psychodynamic therapists, I prize the uniqueness of every person. Therefore, I attempt to understand each person in the context of their unique history, culture, identity and current situation. The past influences the present. Like many of today’s psychoanalytic and psychodynamic psychotherapists, I place a heavy emphasis on what happens between us in the therapeutic relationship. While I value the importance of early childhood experience, I feel that recognizing the individual’s strengths as well as working in the “here and now” are equally important.

Finally, because of the emphasis on the uniqueness of the individual, psychoanalysts and psychodynamic therapists are devoted to developing a deep and abiding understanding of each person. For this reason, your psychodynamic therapist will want to get to know you very well and will encourage frequent sessions.

Read more about psychodynamic therapy:

Many are interested in research assessing psychodynamic therapy. Therefore, I have provided a list of articles in the professional and lay literature.

1. Psychodynamic Psychotherapy Brings Lasting Benefits through Self-Knowledge

The American Psychological Association says,”Psychodynamic treatments are effective”.

2. The merits of psychodynamic therapy

Similarly, Harvard Health touts its efficacy.

3. Chapter 7, Brief Psychodynamic therapy

The NIH summarizes more data confirming these assertions.

4. Psychodynamic treatments

In addition to the others, above, the Psychiatric Times asserts that this kind of treatment can be highly effective.

5. Effectiveness of Brief Psychodynamic Therapy with Children and Adolescents: An Outcome Study

In the same vein, Frontiers in Pediatrics affirms its success in working with Children and Adolescents.

6. Where and When should Mental Health Professionals offer Traditional Psychodynamic Therapy to Cancer Patients?

Likewise, the AMA Journal of Ethics addresses the use of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy with Cancer Patients.

7. What Good Psychodynamic Therapy is all About

In the Huffington Post, Wendy Jacobson, MD, Psychoanalyst and Psychiatrist, details how this sort of therapy works.

In conclusion, these articles suggest that psychodynamic therapy can be helpful to a diverse array of people.

Learn about psychoanalysis

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