Psychodynamic theory is an approach to psychology that studies the psychological forces underlying human behavior, feelings, and emotions, as well as how they may relate to early childhood experience. This theory is especially interested in the dynamic relations between conscious and unconscious motivation, and asserts that behavior is the product of underlying conflicts over which people often have little awareness.
Psychodynamics was born in 1874 with the works of German scientist Ernst von Brucke, who supposed that all living organisms are energy-systems governed by the principle of the conservation of energy. During this same year, medical student Sigmund Freud (Figure 1) adopted this new “dynamic” physiology and expanded it to create the original concept of "psychodynamics", in which he suggested that psychological processes are flows of psychological energy (libido) in a complex brain. Freud coined the term psychoanalysis, and later these theories were developed further by Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, Melanie Klein, and others. By the mid 1940s and into the 1950s, the general application of the "psychodynamic theory" had been well established.
Freud's psychanalytic theories
Freud's theory of psychoanalysis holds two major assumptions: (1) that much of mental life is unconscious (i.e., outside awareness), and (2) that past experiences, especially in early childhood, shape how a person feels and behaves throughout life. The concept of the unconscious was central: Freud postulated a cycle in which ideas are repressed, but continue to operate unconsciously in the mind, and then reappear in consciousness under certain circumstances. Much of Freud's theory was based on his investigations of cases of traumatic hysteria, where the behavior of patients could not be explained without reference to thoughts of which they had no awareness. Freud's theories also placed a great deal of emphasis on sexual development.
Freud’s structural model of personality divides the personality into three parts—the id, the ego, and the superego (Figure 2). The id is the unconscious part that is the cauldron of raw drives, such as for sex or aggression. The ego, which has conscious and unconscious elements, is the rational and reasonable part of personality. Its role is to maintain contact with the outside world to keep the individual in touch with society, and to do this it mediates between the conflicting tendencies of the id and the superego. The superego is a person’s conscience that develops early in life and is learned from parents, teachers, and others. Like the ego, the superego has conscious and unconscious elements. When all three parts of the personality are in dynamic equilibrium, the individual is thought to be mentally healthy. However if the ego is unable to mediate between the id and the superego, an imbalance would occur in the form of psychological distress.
Carl Jung was a Swiss psychotherapist who expanded upon Freud's theories at the turn of the 20th century. A central concept of Jung's analytical psychology is individuation - or the psychological process of integrating the opposites, including the conscious with the unconscious, while still maintaining their relative autonomy. Jung focused less on infantile development and conflict between the id and superego, and focused more on integration between different parts of the person. Jung created some of the best known psychological concepts including the archetype, the collective unconscious, the complex, and synchronicity.
Approaches to psychodynamic therapy
Freud's psychoanalytic system came to dominate the field from early in the twentieth century, forming the basis for many later variants. While these systems have adopted different theories and techniques, all have followed Freud by attempting to affect behavioral change through having patients talk about their difficulties (this is how psychoanalysis earned its nickname: "talk therapy"). Psychoanalysis itself has declined as a distinct therapeutic practice, despite its pervasive influence on other forms of psychodynamic psychotherapy.
Most psychodynamic approaches are centered around the idea of maladaptive functions that developed early in life (usually childhood) which are - at least in part - unconscious. These maladaptive functions may serve a purpose, but are generally interfering with the client's quality of life. Psychodynamically-oriented therapists will help the client to recognize and explore these functions by examining the client's past. Psychodynamic psychotherapy involves a great deal of introspection and reflection from the client.