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Psychodynamic Approach In Psychology

The psychodynamic approach in psychology emphasizes unconscious processes and unresolved past conflicts as influences on behavior. Rooted in Freud’s theories, it explores the interplay of drives, desires, and defense mechanisms in shaping personality and behavior.

The psychodynamic theory is a psychological theory Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and his followers applied to explain the origins of human behavior. The psychodynamic approach includes all the theories in psychology that see human functioning based upon the interaction of drives and forces within the person, particularly the unconscious, and between the different structures of the personality.

According to Freud (1915), the unconscious mind is the primary source of human behaviour. Like an iceberg, the most important part of the mind is the part you cannot see.
Our feelings, motives, and decisions are powerfully influenced by past experiences and stored in the unconscious.

Most of the content of the unconscious is unacceptable or unpleasant and could cause feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict if it becomes conscious.

  • For example, hysteria is an example of a physical symptom that has no physical cause though the ailment is just as real as if it had, but rather is caused by some underlying unconscious problem.

The unconscious is seen as a vital part of the individual. It is irrational, emotional, and has no concept of reality which is why its attempts to leak out must be inhibited.

The role of the unconscious mind is to protect the ego from this content. However, according to Freud, the content of the unconscious motivates our feelings, motives, and decisions.

Personality comprises three parts (i.e., tripartite): the id, ego, and super-ego. Parts of the unconscious mind (the id and superego) are in constant conflict with the conscious part of the mind (the ego). 

  • The id is the primitive and instinctive component of personality. It consists of all the inherited (i.e., biological) components of personality present at birth, including the sex (life) instinct – Eros (which contains the libido), and the aggressive (death) instinct – Thanatos.

  • The ego develops to mediate between the unrealistic id and the external real world. It is the decision-making component of personality.

  • The superego incorporates society’s values and morals, which are learned from one’s parents and others. It has two components: the ego ideal, which sets the standards, and the conscience, which produces guilt. 

To be mentally healthy, the ego has to be able to balance the demands of the ego and the superego. If the superego is dominant, the individual might develop a neurosis e.g., depression. If the id is dominant, the individual might develop a psychosis e.g., schizophrenia.

According to the psychodynamic approach, the therapist would resolve the problem by assisting the client to delve back into their childhood and identify when the problem arose.

Freud believed that the different parts of the personality can be in conflict, e.g. the id can be driven towards aggressive behaviour but the superego tries to impose morality. This conflict is presumed to cause anxiety. The role of the ego is to try to balance the desires of the id and superego.

Freud hypothesised that the ego tries to manage this conflict through several unconscious processes:

  • Repression: individuals are unaware of their own memories, feelings and motivations because they attempt to stop unwanted thoughts from becoming conscious.

  • Displacement: a negative impulse is shifted towards something or someone else, e.g. your partner makes you angry and you slam the car door.

  • Denial: blocking unwanted thoughts from conscious awareness, e.g. an alcoholic may refuse to admit that alcohol is bad for their health.

  • Regression: moving back in time psychologically when faced with stress, e.g. a toilet-trained child may show infant behaviours such as bed-wetting during a period of stress.       

  • Projection: attributing unwanted thoughts to another person, e.g. your superego may find it unacceptable that you feel hatred towards another so you project those feelings onto the other person and decide that they hate you.    

  • Sublimation: focusing an unwanted impulse or drive into another socially acceptable activity, e.g. focusing aggression into performing well on the sports field.

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