What are three major shortcomings of psychodynamic theories

Deborah C. Escalante

The psychodynamic theories includes all those theories in psychology which believe that human functioning is based upon the interaction of drives and psychological forces within the person, the unconscious factors and the interaction amongst the different structures of personality. 

Freud’s psychoanalysis was the original psychodynamic theory, but the psychodynamic approach includes all theories that were based on Freud ideas but modified by Jung, Adler, Erikson, Karen Horney, Erich Fromm and Sullivan.

All theories related to psychodynamic approaches are based on certain basic assumptions. To understand these theories, it is important to understand these assumptions first. These assumptions include:

Basic Assumptions of Psychodynamic Theories

  1. Unconscious motives affect our behaviour and feelings powerfully.
  2. As adults, our feelings and behaviour (including psychological problems) are rooted in our childhood experiences.
  3. Every behaviour has a cause (usually unconscious). Therefore, all behaviour is determined.
  4. Personality is made up of three parts i.e. The id, ego and superego. 
  5. Eros (the sex drive & life instinct) and Thanatos (the aggressive drive & death instinct) are two instinctual drives. Our behaviour is motivated by them.
  6. The conscious part of the mind (the ego) and the unconscious mind (the id and superego) are in constant conflict.
  7. Personality is shaped as the drives are modified by different conflicts at different times in childhood (during psychosexual development).

Before we go further, let us quickly talk about Freud’s personality theory. 

Freud’s believed that the human psyche (personality) has more than one aspect.

Freud’s personality theory

Tripartite – the id, ego and superego

His personality theory looks at the psyche as tripartite or having three components – the id, ego and superego. 

  1. The id is the instinctual and unconscious part of the mind that responds directly and immediately to basic urges, needs, and desires. The personality of a newborn child is completely id. The id operates on –
    • the pleasure principle (every impulse should be satisfied immediately, regardless of the consequences). 
    • primary process thinking – primitive and irrational with no comprehension of objective reality, and is selfish and wishful in nature.
  2. The super-ego operates as a moral conscience. Its function is to control the id’s impulses, especially those which society forbids, such as sex and aggression. It also has the function of persuading the ego to turn to moralistic goals rather than simply realistic ones and to strive for perfection. The superego consists of the conscience and the ideal self. The ideal self is the aspiration self of how you ought to be. The conscience may punish the ego by causing guilt if the ego gives in to the id’s demands. The super-ego may also reward us through the ideal self when we behave ‘properly’ by making us feel proud. However, if a person’s ideal self is an extremely high standard, then anything the person does may represent failure.
  3. The ego is the realistic part that mediates between the unrealistic id and the moral super-ego. The ego operates by the reality principle – working out realistic ways of satisfying the id’s demands or compromising/postponing satisfaction to avoid negative social consequences. The ego engages in secondary process thinking or rational and realistic, thinking. If the ego fails to use the reality principle, and this results in anxiety, unconscious defense mechanisms are employed, to avoid unpleasant feelings (i.e., anxiety) or make good things feel better for the individual.
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Defense Mechanisms

You can think of defense mechanism as a way for the mind to protect us from being consciously aware of thoughts or feelings that are too difficult to tolerate or that will create anxiety. There are several known defence mechanisms. Let us quickly look at the more common ones.

The concept of the defense mechanism originated with Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and was later elaborated and conceptualized by other psychodynamically oriented theorists, notably his daughter Anna Freud (1895-1982).

She described ten different defense mechanisms: denial, displacement, intellectualization, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, regression, repression, sublimation, and suppression. Later researchers have added some more defense mechanisms to the list: compensation, dissociation, fantasy, identification, undoing, and withdrawal. 

We would be exploring each of these defense mechanisms in seperate posts.

Now that we have covered the basics of the psychodynamic approach, it is important to know that one of the primary objective of therapy in this approach is to enhance ego functioning and help the client test reality by thinking through their options.

Therapeutic Approach involved in Psychodynamic Theories

One to one Coaching and Therapy Sessions based on integration of Hypnosis, NLP & CBT

With help from the therapist, the client is, first, encouraged to speak freely about the emotions they are feeling and identify any patterns in their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours.

The therapist helps the client find the significance of these patterns and their effects. They probe the client’s past, discuss their childhood and early life experiences to discover their impact on the client’s current issues.

In general, the therapist’s role is to help the client understand the connection between their past experiences and their current problems, and utilize their internal resources to address these problems.

While the Psychodynamic approach plays an extremely important role in therapy, especially in cases where clients may have deep-rooted issues stemming from trauma, suppression and childhood experiences, there are some limitations of this approach that may hinder a therapist’s ability to effectively work with clients. 

Tools and Techniques that are a part of the Psychodynamic Theories

  1. Free association – Based on the principle that our minds associate ideas and concepts together. If the client is allowed to let their thoughts flow freely, without conscious analysis, judgment or interpretation, they can access the information stored in the unconscious with the help of these ‘free’ associations.
    Free association is a good technique to help clients recall information buried deep in the unconscious but in many cases, it can take a long time since free association is an unstructured process. It could lead the client to detours, distract with unrelated information and they may recall the memory only through a long chain of associations.
  2. Freudian slip – Also known as slip of tongue, this psychoanalytic tool refers to something coming from the unconscious, which may carry a deeper meaning.
  3. Transference – This refers to the client projecting the feelings they may have for someone else, onto the therapist. For example, the client may see the therapist as a father figure and start projecting the feelings they have towards the father onto the therapist. When this occurs, it gives the therapist an insight into the conflict between the client and the person who is being projected onto the therapist.
  4. Dream analysis or interpretation – The unconscious can communicate with us with the help of dreams. Being able to remember and interpret these dreams can help the therapist and the client understand the memories or the information lies in the unconscious.
  5. Hypnosis – Freud, initially, used his understanding of hypnosis to help the client access the unconscious and suggest certain ideas to create a change. However, in Freud’s time, the understanding of hypnosis and the skills to induce a hypnotic state had not evolved as much as the present times. So, he was not able to apply hypnosis effectively in his psychoanalytic approach. In fact, many people don’t know that towards the end of his life, he had mentioned that being able to integrate hypnosis with psychoanalytic principles would enable therapists to get results more quickly. 
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Let us quickly look at these limitations first and then we can discuss the best way to overcome the same.

Limitation of Psychodynamic Approach

  1. The First key limitation is that it is deterministic. The approach suggests that behaviour is predetermined and hence creates an impression that people do not have free will 
  2. The second limitation and criticism is that it over-emphasises childhood experience as the source of the abnormality. While this is true in some cases, it isn’t necessary to work with childhood experiences for most issues
  3. Third, the client, in most cases, needs to share their deepest darkest secrets with the therapist. This increases the chances of transference and counter-transference. While these are considered therapeutic techniques in this approach, the possible side effects and consequences may not be worth the benefits derived from the same.
  4. Fourth, the techniques used in this approach required interpretation on part of the therapist which can lead to the therapy process get influenced by therapists biases and beliefs that may not be applicable to the client
  5. Fifth, the amount of time required to work through clients problems using this approach is quite high. Some therapies may continue over a period of years. 
  6. And finally given the time and no. of sessions required, the overall therapy process turns out to be quite expensive for the client.

Therapist Niche

Despite the limitations of the psychodynamic approach, there is no denying the fact that when done properly, the results achieved during this approach can be long lasting and lead to a very high degree of qualitative change in the client’s life.

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This is why looking for ways to overcome the limitations of this approach while preserving the benefits can be very useful both from the point of view of the therapist and the client.

In my understanding, the best way to overcome the limitations of the Psychodynamic approach is by using it as a part of a more eclectic approach to therapy like Cognitive hypnotic Psychotherapy. 

Cognitive hypnotic Psychotherapy is an eclectic approach that seamlessly integrates all major approaches in Psychology (Psychodynamic, Cognitive, Behavioural and Humanistic) along with Hypnosis, NLP, Mindfulness and Metaphors to create natural, effortless and lasting change in clients.

Since Cognitive hypnotic Psychotherapy acknowledges and helps the clients identify and resolve problems at both the conscious and the unconscious levels, the client can consciously choose the change they want and apply that change naturally. 

Cognitive hypnotic Psychotherapy recognizes that a problem can exist at multiple levels or layers. These layers include:

  • Ongoing thoughts and emotions
  • Underlying beliefs, values, positive intentions
  • Suppressed emotions
  • Repressed memories

Thus, it allows the therapist to work with all the layers.

This also means that in cases where working with past and childhood memories is not necessary, we can just work with the required layers and help the client achieve their desired outcomes. 

Another reason to use the psychodynamic approach as a part of CHP is that hypnosis can help the client connect with the unconscious quickly, exploring repressed memories (where needed) becomes both easier and a lot faster. 

Since the therapist can also use hypnosis to ask the unconscious for interpretation of information where the recovered information is not clear also means the need for interpretation on part of the therapist is almost nil. This in turn more or less completely limits the influence of therapist bias on the therapy.

In short, the comprehensive CHP framework facilitates this process in a person-centric and brief manner without creating an internal conflict in the client. This ensures that the change is not just sustainable but also achieved a lot more quickly, generally within 8 sessions. 

If you are curious to know more about Cognitive hypnotic Psychotherapy, and how you can become a Cognitive hypnotic Psychotherapist, do check out the respective posts on the ICHARS website.

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