Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) is the founder of psychodynamic psychotherapy (sometimes called depth therapy). Its most central theory is that our behaviour and feelings are driven by unconscious forces and motivations. In other words, we do not know why we behave and feel as we do (even though we may think we do) because the majority of our mental life goes on in the unconscious and is generally not available to our conscious minds. To provide a simple example:
- A boy was thrown out of the house of his parents when he was thirteen years old; a few years later he is at a friend’s house with whom he has an argument – this culminates in the friend telling him to get out of his house and the boy who was thrown out by his parents hits him.
The psychodynamic explanation here may be that being told to leave his friend’s house unconsciously triggered the memory and associated pain of having been thrown out of his parents’ house, hence his (seemingly, on the surface) dramatic ‘over-reaction.’
It is true that Freud was unscientific in forming his theories (he himself accepted that much of his work was ‘speculative’). It is also true that very few psychodynamic therapists working today are strict Freudians. However, just because a proportion of his work may well be reasonably rejected as therapeutically unhelpful, this by no means implies that all of his insights should be dismissed.
Indeed, it was Freud who opened society’s eyes to the fact that our early life experiences (and, most especially, our early life relationship with our primary carers) have a dramatic impact upon adult lives.
Above : Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).
Other important ideas he had, which remain useful today include :
- the repetition compulsion : The theory of the repetition compulsion is that we are unconsciously driven to repeat painful experiences from our childhood (so, for example, a woman who was abused by her father as a child may be unconsciously driven, as an adult, to become repeatedly involved in relationships with abusive men).
Or, to take another example, a man who was rejected by his parents as a child may be unconsciously driven to sabotage all his adult friendships and relationships to a degree that ensures he will continue to be yet further rejected.
On the surface, the idea that we are unconsciously motivated to re-experience painful episodes in our lives seems odd, but you can read about the psychodynamic reasoning behind it by clicking here).
- the importance of dreams : Freud believed that by analysing the content of our dreams we could gain an insight into our unconscious mental conflicts; in fact, he described dream analysis as ‘the royal road to the unconscious’.
- early relationships with primary carers heavily influence our view of our adult relationships (e.g. if our parents rejected us we may believe, as adults, that we are completely unlovable and that we will inevitably continue to be rejected by others even though, in reality, this is not the case – psychoanalysts call this phenomenon ‘transference.’
- we use defense mechanisms in an attempt to avoid mental pain (to read my article on defense mechanisms, click here).
Modern day psychodynamic psychotherapists/ psychologists place far more importance on the relationship between the patient and therapist than was the case for strictly Freudian psychodynamic psychotherapy (strict Freudians barely interact with their patients, instead spending the majority of treatment sessions silently listening to what their patient says – more modern psychodynamic psychotherapists, on the other hand, are far less aloof and more informal).
Some individuals still opt for treatment by traditional, strict Freudian therapists, although this may involve several sessions per week and go on for years, hence it is extremely expensive. The American actor/writer/director, Woody Allen (now in his eighties) famously spent thirty years in this type of therapy but claimed it did him little good.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
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