Psychodynamic Theory ( Approach ): All you need to know

Introduction: The psychodynamic approach, often called the psychoanalytic theory, understands and examines personality and behaviour in terms of the unconscious psychological processes that take place. Many researchers have heavily criticised the approach for not having substance or empirical evidence to back up their claims, nonetheless, it has played a significant role in the development and understanding of the human psyche. The theory is closely associated with Sigmund Freud, a medical doctor who at the time wanted to systematically study the intangible aspects of human behaviour, such as the unconscious.


The approach has roots in Freud’s theories about human behaviour. It looks at the inner workings of an individual and understands that to be the drive or motivation for their behaviour. Freud formulated his theory of psychoanalysis in the 1890s in Vienna while trying to develop an effective treatment plan for hysteria. Freud worked with Joseph  Breuer, a Viennese physician- on the case of Anna O. The patient had shown symptoms of hysteria and found that talk therapy was extremely useful in alleviating her symptoms. Freud used her case as an example in his book Studies on Hysteria. Although Breuer disagreed, he concluded that these symptoms surfaced due to repressed childhood trauma. He refined the workings of talk therapy and went on to develop his theory of personality (Learning, Introduction to Psychology). In 1936 his daughter, Anna Freud, published her book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, which has greatly helped understand trauma responses and underlines how unconsciousness determine present behaviour. While Freud did not elaborate on how his theories can be applied to the real world, many of his followers took up his paradigm and used it to examine modern society. Erikson, for example, applied aspects of the theory to the workplace and claimed that an individual’s inner workings are extremely influential and must not be ignored (Kets de Vries & Cheak, 2014).

Core Assumptions

According to the psychoanalytic theory, every action originates from the unconscious and the three components of our personality – id, ego and superego- dictate our behaviour, reactions and lifestyle. The assumptions formed through this approach are unique to the psychodynamic framework because psychoanalysts heavily emphasise the struggles during childhood. They believe that our behaviours and feelings are all rooted in our childhood experiences, and fixation in one of these stages leads to a psychological problem. In that sense, the approach is deterministic.

To sum up, the approach has three core assumptions: 1) Primacy of the Unconscious mind, 2) Importance of childhood experiences, and 3) Psychic Causality. The importance of the unconscious mind talks about the major psychological processes that take place outside the conscious mind. Psychoanalysts believe that childhood experiences and fixations can later manifest in adulthood as psychological problems, and lastly, psychic causality describes how no single feeling, emotion, act or motive is random. They arise either due to an underlying biological issue, a psychological process or a combination of the two.

Levels of Consciousness

Freud used the analogy of an iceberg to explain the levels of consciousness. The tip that is visible represents our conscious mind, and this part makes up a small percent of our psyche, the parts that are submerged compose the unconscious mind. The combination of the two makes up our personality and this is further divided into three parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. The three components are constantly developing and exist as an intangible part of our body. The Id is the primitive and instinctual part of our minds and this section is responsible for all the sexual ad aggressive thoughts, urges and drives we have. The id is where the inherited parts of our personality reside. This includes our life instinct (Eros) and death instinct (Thanatos). As this part of our psyche is impulsive and primitive, it responds to basic needs and urges in a similar way. Most importantly, it operates on the ‘pleasure principle’, the id will seek out immediate gratification and its motives function to soothe or satisfy its primitive needs (Waude, 2016). Throughout our life, the id remains instinctual and does not develop this is because the id does not get exposed to the outside world. When a child is born, their personality only comprises of the id and it is with growth and experience that the latter two develop.

 According to Freud, the ego is the part of the id which has been modified after being exposed to the external world. It can be understood as the ‘rational’ part of our personality and Freud considers this to be our ‘self’ as it is the part of our personality that we portray to others. The Id functions purely on instinct and primitive needs, the ego, on the other hand, is more rational and takes into account society and its perception of the individual. It acts according to reason and rationality. It will often compromise on the needs and wants of the id in order to comply with the norms and values of the society in which the individual is presently in. The ego devises an acceptable method to seek out pleasure and avoid pain, but it also strives for perfection. The ego has the task of self-preservation and in order to achieve this, it must be in control of both internal (id) and external stimuli (Lapsley & Stey, 2014).

The superego acts as our conscience, it controls the primitive impulses of the Id and persuades the ego to seek out goals that are moral, not just realistic and rational. Within the superego, there exists two systems- the conscience and the ideal self. The conscience is what stops us from behaving in ways that are unfiltered and harmful according to society. It punishes the self by causing feelings of guilt. The ideal self (ego-ideal) is what the individual wants to become. It represents the image of the most ideal version of themselves. Failing to meet the standards imposed by the superego can lead to the prolongation of neurotic suffering as a punishment. The ego is therefore besieged by both the id (below) and the superego (above). The ego must cope with the instinctual and aggressive drives from the id and the moralistic and harsh standards and perfectionist demands from the superego (Lapsley & Stey, 2014).

Defense mechanisms

Freud mentioned a few ego defences throughout his work however they were only notes, they did not have much elaboration. His daughter, Anna Freud, took up the task of elaborating them and introduced ten of her own defense mechanisms. To sum it up, defense mechanisms are the unconscious psychological strategies individuals use to protect themselves from unwanted actions, thoughts and situations. The major defense mechanisms as proposed by Freud and Anna are as follows:

  1. Repression: Unconscious mechanism employed by the ego to ensure thoughts that are disturbing or threatening do not become conscious.
  2. Denial: The refusal to accept reality, which allows external events to be blocked from awareness
  3. Projection: The attribution of unwanted thoughts and motives onto another person.
  4. Displacement: Is the redirection of an impulse onto something else (a substitute target). These impulses usually stem from aggression and violence.
  5. Regression: Occurs when an individual’s ego reverts back to an earlier stage of development (psychosexual stages of development) as a trauma response.
  6. Sublimation:  Is similar to displacement, the difference is that displacement is the displacement of the same emotion onto a substitute target, where as sublimation is the conversion of these negative emotions to an action that is socially acceptable.
  7. Rationalisation: The cognitive distortion of facts from reality to make an event or situation less threatening.
  8. Reaction Formation: The individual enters a stage beyond denial and acts in ways that are in opposition to the way they think or feel.

Critical Evaluation


Freud’s talk therapy has been monumental in psychotherapy, the core of it has been incorporated in multiple therapy methods such as CBT and REBT. Many therapy strategies revolve around getting the patient to discuss and ‘talk’ out their emotions and cognitive restructuring takes place from there. It is to be noted that Freud’s version did not involve cognitive restructuring. He believed that just talking would alleviate symptoms.

The psychodynamic approach an in-depth and systematic analysis of an individual, group, or community. It extends to not just the analysis of the self but also of the self in relation to others (Kets de Vries & Cheak, 2014). The theory is also one of the first’s to systematically address the existence of the unconscious and examine how it affects our daily lives. It is also one of the firsts to examine the impact of childhood experiences on adult life, the theory highlights the importance of each stage (psychosexual stages of development) and how a conflict at a particular stage can lead to the manifestation of a psychological problem. The idea of childhood having a direct impact on adult life is used in various therapy methods in the present day.

Lastly, the approach considers both nature and nurture as they propagate the existence of innate drives (nature) and the importance of early life experiences (nurture). It acknowledges the importance of both and does not follow a reductionist view.

Also Read: 8 Major Psychology Perspectives


            The approach has been criticised for being deterministic. It believes that the individual is not in control of their actions, it is the unconscious mind that influences their thought, feelings and actions, therefore, diminishing the concept of free will. The approach does not consider the mediational processes that take place between the drive and action- i.e thinking (Mcleod, 2021).

            A major criticism of the approach is that it focuses on dysfunction specifically and has based its theoretical ideas around the atypical or abnormal rather than the normal. As the cases are all subjective, it is difficult to prove the theory scientifically, making it unfalsifiable (Kets de Vries & Cheak, 2014).

            Lastly, as it focuses heavily on the self the approach lacks in the application aspect. The focus is on the betterment of the ‘self’ and this varies with each individual so no structural guideline can be provided to make systematic changes (Kets de Vries & Cheak, 2014).


Kets de Vries, M. F. R., & Cheak, A. (2014). Psychodynamic Approach. SSRN Electronic Journal.

Lapsley, D. K., & Stey, P. C. (2014). Id, Ego, and Superego. Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, 393–399.

Learning, L. (n.d.). Introduction to Psychology. Lumen.

Mcleod, S. (2021, June 18). Psychodynamic Theory. Psychodynamic Approach | Simply Psychology.

Waude, A. (2016, January 28). How Freud’s Theories Of The Human Psyche Seek To Explain The Influence Of Our Subconscious. Psychologist World.

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Prathyusha Madhu is a student at FLAME University, currently pursuing Psychology and Sociology. Her interests lie in poetry and music.