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Compare and contrast the role of the therapist in psychodynamic and humanistic therapy

I have done extensive research on both the humanistic and psychodynamic theories. Here are my findings.

The differences between humanistic and psychodynamic theories.

The differences between humanistic and psychodynamic theories.

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Psychodynamic vs. Humanistic Theories

Psychology is the study of the mind. There are several different ways to study the mind and all of them have their own significant contributions to the field. The psychodynamic view and the humanistic view are both unique in that they are almost complete polar opposites of one another. Both have made significant contributions and have been a platform for different perspectives, though they differ in their approaches completely. Both views must be explored and combined in order to keep advancing the study and treatment of the mind.

Differing Goals

The goals of psychodynamic and humanistic therapists are very different.

Goals of the Psychodynamic View

The psychodynamic view was developed by Sigmund Freud. He believed that behavior was deeply influenced by unconscious thoughts, impulses, and desires, especially concerning sex and aggression. His goal was to resolve the internal conflicts that lead to emotional suffering. Freud said that “patients could only expect to change their hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” The humanistic therapist would take a very different look at this.

Goals of the Humanistic View

The goals of the humanistic therapist differ from Freud’s psychodynamic view in that they seek to understand how people perceive themselves and experience the world. It is concerned with understanding subjective human needs. Humanists believe that conscious thoughts and feelings shape behavior. They believe in accountability and self-actuality, and that everyone can reach self-actuality by moving through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This differs from the Freudian school of psychodynamics because he did not believe that all of his patients could be happy.

On Psychodynamic Therapy

A patient is asked to be spontaneous and free-associate the random thoughts that pop into their mind; sometimes the therapist may give the patient a prompt or a word to begin their free association. Patients are also encouraged to put aside embarrassment and the urge to self-censor. The therapist then tries to identify what the patient might be repressing from their past, and how it may be affecting their present behavior.

— Psychology Today (Psychodynamic Therapy)

Predetermined Fate Versus Free Will

Humanists and psychodynamicists not only differ in their goals but also in their views on personality. The psychodynamic view has been interpreted by some as negative and pessimistic, whereas the humanistic view is that mostly all people are good.

Psychodynamics believes that behavior is determined, while the humanist believes that behavior is free choice and free will. In psychodynamics, motives are rooted in sex and aggression while humanists’ motives are tilted towards the pursuit of self-actualization.

Elements of Each Theory

Psychodynamics denotes three elements of the personality: Id, Ego, and Superego. The Id seeks pleasure, the Ego is the thinker and planner, and the Superego is the voice of reason.

Humanists are more simplistic, believing in a unified self and that “people just are who they are.”

Views on Human Development

Psychodynamics puts forth a very different view on child development from humanism.

Freudian View of Human Development

The Freudian and psychodynamic view of human development is based on psychosexual stages as follows:

  • Oral (age 0-1) focuses on sucking and survival
  • Anal (ages 1-3) focuses on potty training
  • Phallic (ages 3-6) focuses on adult traits such as vanity and pride
  • Genital (puberty and beyond) focuses on sexual instincts

Humanistic View of Human Development

The humanistic view is very different from Freud’s view of development and describes an ongoing development of self-image in which experiences shape self-image in a positive or negative way.

The photo above is a diagram of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This diagram is representative of the path to self-actualization, and is highly incorporated into humanistic beliefs.

Differing Therapeutic Techniques

The approach to therapy differs greatly between psychodynamic and humanistic therapy.

  • The therapist’s role in psychodynamic therapy is authoritative, and they tend to determine what will be talked about during a session.
  • The psychodynamic approach deals with unconscious thoughts and conflicts, usually stemming from repressed memories or sexual energy.
  • In humanistic therapy, the therapist takes an objective role and listens to what the patient has to say. It is more non-directed and the patient can decide what will be discussed during the session.
  • It is said in humanistic therapy, the therapist provides opportunities for change, but it is up to the patient to actively solve his or her own problems.
  • The humanist therapist believes in conscious acts and that humans make their own decisions, not unconscious drives. They encourage responsibility for their actions by focusing on bringing emotions into the present and dealing with them.

A core tenet of humanistic therapy is that people are inherently motivated to fulfill their internal needs—and that each of us has the power to find the best solutions for ourselves and the ability to make appropriate changes in our lives, a concept known as self-actualization.

— Psychology Today (Humanistic Therapy)

Do Psychodynamic and Humanistic Therapies Have Anything in Common?

A lot of research has been done on these two very different approaches. However, there have been no new views that have combined humanism with psychodynamics to utilize the best of both. Science supports the idea that the conscious cannot function without the unconscious. By combining the humanistic and psychodynamic views to focus on the conscious and unconscious as equally responsible parts for the cause of psychological disorders, we could further research the brain and its behavior.

Which Method Is Better?

There is no right or wrong when it comes to different approaches to psychology. The main differences between the psychodynamic view and humanistic view are the goals, development, causes, and treatments; and in each area, both views have made significant contributions. By combining the two views into one harmonious holistic view, a healthier approach to treating the mind and psychological disorders could be formed. The new view would take all parts of the mind and body, conscious and unconscious, into consideration, leading to a stronger diagnosis and treatment in the end.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Brody, Eugene B. “The Psychodynamic View of Human Behavior.” The Behavioral and Social Sciences and the Practice of Medicine, Butterworth-Heinemann, 21 Oct. 2013
  • Contributors, WebMD Editorial. “What Is Humanistic Psychology and Humanistic Therapy?” WebMD, WebMD,
  • “Genital Stage.” Genital Stage – an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics,
  • “Humanistic Therapy.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers,
  • “Psychodynamic Therapy.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers,

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Mandy

Verity on October 15, 2019:

This is, at best, *extremely* inaccurate on psychodynamic theory and approach and, at worst, an ill-informed gross misrepresentation of it. Psychodynamic theory/therapy is NOT negative in its assumptions or approach and it is most certainly not the case in any way whatsoever that the “therapy is authoritative” and that the therapist “tends to determine what will be talked about” — the opposite is the case, actually, because the psychodynamic therapeutic space by its very nature belongs to the person in therapy, not the therapist.

Jonathan on June 20, 2018:

This is very inaccurate. At the very least, it seems as though the author has confused a strictly psychoanalytic approach with psychodynamic therapies. Psychoanalytic therapists are not negative, but they do believe that your background influences your choices. They are STILL recognized as CHOICES – AKA: FREE WILL. The statement about research done on these therapies is false; each of these theories are very hard to study empirically.

Please do not use this as a reference.

Stephane Farley on June 09, 2018:

Thank you for sharing with us this has helped me have more faith in the system.

fofo on July 08, 2017:

very good and clear explaning

mrandersong on March 18, 2014:

It depends on the person. We all have different approaches to life and one approach might work for one person and not the other. I personally believe in Holistic theory because it works for me. The human mind is a very complicated place so to say one works better than the other is just arrogant.

kwj on February 23, 2013:

Thought provoking I will read more now.

anonymous on September 14, 2012:

This is a gross misrepresentation of psychodynamic therapy

anonymous on October 26, 2011:

It is very worthwhile reading this because it is succinct, clear and thought provoking.

Varelli on July 14, 2011:

What an intriguing subject. Great lens, thumbs up!

moonlitta on July 05, 2011:

That is helpful and well explained…Squid Angel blessed too:)

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on June 23, 2011:

You have done an absolutely amazing job on this lens. Thank you for putting so much effort into this. It shows.


This is some work that I put into my essay last term but figured it could be used for studying purposes also.


Personality psychology is a branch of psychology that is widely studied due to the fact that the personality is the determinant of human behaviour and thought (Cherry, n.d.). This is the study of how as a whole, the features of a person come together and appear to be continuous, reappearing consistently throughout one’s life as their set, recognizable characteristics.

Personality is based on the tendencies that people have which creates commonalities or differences within their psychological behaviour (Comer, Gould, Furnham, 2013). It is comprised of the individual differences that people have in their characteristics (McLeod, 2014). This being said, these characteristics have continuity and thus will continue to come forward throughout one’s lifetime and will influence how they react to varying situations (Comer et al., 2013). It also is recognized to not be purely resulting from biological or social pressures at a particular time (Comer et al., 2013). These modern ideas relating to personality have only used or recognized for about 200 years and so this is a relatively new concept.

Personality is studied as the differences in characteristics of people and how these come together to form a whole, complete person (Ng, Chong, Ching, Beh, Lim, 2015). From these studies it has become evident that there are many theories which can aid in explaining the various standpoints of how personalities develop such as the trait approach, the social learning theory, the behavioural approach, the neopsychoanalytic approach and the cognitive approach. The theories that will be discussed in this essay are the psychoanalytic approach and the humanistic approach which successfully reflect how diverse the theories actually can be.

The Psychoanalytic Approach

This psychological approach was developed by Sigmund Freud (1956-1939) and is easily recognized due to its pessimistic view of human nature (Lahey, 2009) and the fact that it is claimed that personality structures are unconscious- which will be explored further later in this essay.

Freud claimed that people all underwent internal conflicts between instincts, their unconscious motives as well as past experiences and social norms- this in totality is what will influence the behaviour and characteristics of personality. When discussing human nature, the idea of psychic energy is brought to the forefront- this is what motivates people to either do something or not to do that thing (Larsen & Buss, 2012). Freud said that nothing simply happens by chance, everything is an “expression of the mind” (Lahey, 2009).

The instincts to which Freud refers to are either life instincts or death instincts. Life instincts are referred to as the libido and these are sexual instincts and those relating to self-preservation. Death instincts are linked to the aggression within humans. Freud claims that humans are all naturally very aggressive but the social rules and laws that are implemented are what actually stop us from acting out on our aggression (Larsen & Buss, 2012).

The conscious

The conscious is referred to throughout Freud’s works and is that which we know at all times. These thoughts and feelings are easily accessible and thus do not require much effort (Comer et al., 2013).

The preconscious

The preconscious simply put, is the information that you could bring forward into the conscious mind. It contains mental content that needs to be focused on specifically in order to be analyzed. Only when the information is needed for something can it be brought into consciousness and used (Comer et al., 2013).

The unconscious

The unconscious is that which you are unaware of. More specifically, it is the level containing most of what is stored in our minds and we can only access it in rare, exceptional circumstances. Freud stressed that this part was one of the most important aspects of the development of a personality (Comer et al., 2013). Everything that goes into this category are the things that society does not seem fit to include and thus those unacceptable thoughts are locked away here (Larsen & Buss, 2012).

The mind works through the conflict of three factors- the id, ego superego. The id and superego are polar opposites so there is the ego which takes the role of a mediator in the conflicts. An example of this interaction is when an infant is involved with their parents, the ego and superego will be developed and thus at some point they will no longer rely on them to make decisions but rather, they will be able to make their own decisions (Ng et al., 2015).

The id

The id is completely unconscious and includes the instincts and libido (life instincts). The id is there simply to focus on one thing- the satisfaction of the physiological needs that one has. This works on reducing tension and maintaining a homeostatic level that one can live their best life possible with. The id operates on something called the pleasure principle- this means that the only things that will be done are those which bring the individuals themselves the feeling of pleasure. Immediate gratification is another large aspect which can be used to identify that something relates to the id. The id makes people selfish and inconsiderate and thus will only do what is good for them and not necessarily consider the effect that it could have on others (Comer et al., 2013).

The superego

The superego contrasts the id completely as it encompasses an internal moral code and a sense of right and wrong. Thus, it is greatly unlike the id since it is not inconsiderate. The self-control at this stage now comes from the threat of guilt and shame rather than the parental control which was previously there to keep one in check (Comer et al., 2013).

The ego

The ego is the mediator between the id and superego and is pressurized by these two factors as well as reality at an unconscious level (Comer et al., 2013). The ego aims to find a compromise or common standing that would allow both the id and superego to come to a decision which is most beneficial. If the ego cannot deal with the demands and conflict between the id and superego, anxiety becomes apparent. The ego finds and equilibrium between the longings of the id and the moral principles set out by the superego (Comer et al., 2013).

The Psychosexual Stages of Development

Freud proposed that development is linked directly to sex and aggression. In the first stage, the ‘oral stage’ the pleasure originates from eating and vocalizing. Next, in the ‘anal stage’, the pleasure comes from retention or repulsion of feces. In the ‘phallic stage’ between the ages of 3-6, the pleasure comes directly from touching and interacting with the genitals. The ‘latency period’ between the ages of 6-11 is where the individual learns to identify with their same-sex parent and does not get any sexual pleasure from any activities- this is suppressed from the ages of 6-11. Lastly, in the ‘genital stage’ when the individual reaches puberty, heterosexual attraction is developed- note: Freud did not consider situations where there were people who were homosexual, asexual or bisexual etc. The five stages will now be explored as the content of the essay allows for that (Comer et al., 2013).

Evaluation of the psychoanalytic theory

The psychoanalytic theory is a great contribution to the study of the theories regarding personality psychology. The idea of the unconscious was a new idea and had not previously been explored much prior to Freud’s work. The fact that development in childhood years greatly affects individuals even in adulthood was also a massive contribution to personality psychology. Although these positive contributions were made, there were many that are not seen as such, these are: the perception of women is not accurate and fair, there was not room left open for people to make choices, it was assumed that people have the same family structure and most importantly, it takes it for granted that all development is over by the time puberty is reached (Ng et al., 2015).

The Humanistic Approach

The humanistic approach contrasts so greatly with the psychoanalytic approach (which it is a response to) due to the mere fact that it is a lot more optimistic with regards to human nature (Lahey, 2009). The humanists decided that it is more important to focus on the potential that people have and how they have free will to make choices regarding their development. Maslow and Rogers were two humanists who suggested the ideas of “self-concept” and “self-actualization” as being a part of the overall positive nature and development of people (McLeod, 2007).



Abraham Maslow

Maslow stated that there is an opportunity for all individuals to grow and develop, fulfilling their ultimate potential. He believed that through working on fulfilling needs, the personality is developed (Comer et al., 2013). The needs that he recognized were arranged in a hierarchy where one works on the basic ones and once those are satisfied, moves on to the higher level (McLeod, 2007b). He also brought the idea that many psychologists have been focusing on biological factors perhaps too excessively and that they should consider the higher needs of people to get personal levels of fulfilment (Comer et al., 2013).

Carl Rogers

Rogers thought in the same way that Maslow did with regards to the overall positivity of human nature but differed in respect of the hierarchy of needs- Rogers felt that one should focus more on the idea of the ‘self’. Self-concept is how things are perceived to be and how we understand who we are (Larsen & Buss, 2012)- this is an idea of continuity that embodies people and was a part of Roger’s therapeutic practice (Comer et al., 2013).

All of this is related to how we view ourselves and how others view us. It develops due to how others recognize us and thus during early childhood it is completely necessary to have unconditional positive regard in order to develop successfully- this means that they need to receive acceptance from the adults around them no matter what happens in order to gain vital self-concepts and develop their personality successfully and develop their own personal worth (Comer et al., 2013). Many children at this stage recognize that acceptance is crucial and they develop their conditions of worth which can make them feel that they must meet criteria in order to be socially accepted. This can flow into adulthood which can be negative for their overall wellbeing. Rogers recognized that it was completely necessary for individuals to grow in a positive environment where transparency is embraced and where they were not being judged in order to develop correctly. Through all of this, it is possible to aspire to become the “ideal-self” where one becomes the person that they have always wished to be (McLeod, 2007a).



Evaluating the humanistic approaches

It can be identified that the theorists were perhaps too optimistic about human nature and that they oversimplified the factors involved in personality development. There is a great lack of biological references in the work and fail to include evolutionary thoughts. When looking specifically at Maslow’s theory, some psychologists find that it is a challenge to recognize whether or not it is actually correct to say that the needs to be fulfilled fall into the order that he claims that they ascend in (Comer et al., 2013).

Similarities between the two approaches

Although there are clear differences between the two theories, it is also evident that there are some similarities.

The first is that both theories do involve the importance of sex in development.

Both theories bring forward the notion that individuals are at the forefront of development. They are both stating that personality development is all to do with individuals and how they satisfy their needs and wants instead of saying that it is all an external occurrence (McLeod, 2007).

Both of the theories have been put under criticism. The psychoanalytic approach was criticized for the lack of empirical research as at the point of its development, there was not much prior research to refer to regarding personality psychology. The humanistic approach has been criticized for being too ambiguous- it is not easily identifiable whether one has fulfilled a need or not and can vary from person-to-person (McLeod, 2007c). Also, it lacks objectivity and refers to matters of common sense too often- thus lacking in empirical research just like the psychoanalytic approach.

Differences between the two approaches

It is a lot easier to identify the differences between the two contrasting theories as their core principles contradict.

Firstly, the psychoanalytic theory states that human nature is viewed in a very negative and pessimistic manner whilst the humanistic approach is more optimistic about human nature. Along with this consideration of human nature, there are differences in thought about the influence that society places on personality development  (Lahey, 2009). In the psychoanalytic theory, humans are recognized as beings which have a selfish ‘monster’ inside of them which is actually simply a metaphor for the id. The id interacts with the pleasure principle solely and this is not really connected fully to reality. Freud claimed that in the unconscious, the most disgusting pleasures are locked away and only those censored erotic thoughts are in the preconscious or conscious levels (Larsen & Buss, 2012). On the other hand, the humanistic approach disregards the claims about the evilness of humans and rather focuses on their potential (Boeree, 2000).

The humanistic approach is different from the psychoanalytic approach because it does not claim that we have no control over our development (Comer et al, 2013). The humanists stated that motivation comes from trying to fulfil certain needs and by doing this, the personality develops. The psychoanalytic theorists believed differently as they claimed that motivation comes from the wants of the id- usually sexual in nature.

Both approaches give different views on how the personality develops. Psychoanalytic theorists would suggest that development occurs through stages between infancy and adulthood due to psychosexual development as the sexual energy from the id moves from body part to body part (Siegelman & Rider, 2012), . To contrast this view, the humanists believe that the personality will continue to develop throughout the life until they reach a point where self-actualization is achieved (Tay & Diener, 2011).


In summation, there are so many differences between the two contrasting approaches to personality psychology but yet there are still similarities between them. Through the diversity of the theories, it would be accurate to say that both theories have brought something unique to the study of personality psychology and will surely continue to have an influence in the development of personality psychology in the future.




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Tay, L. & Diener, E. (2011). Maslow’s Hierarchy. Changing Minds. Retrieved on August, 24 2015 from

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