The Usefulness of Psychodynamic Approach Essay

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The Usefulness of Psychodynamic Approach


     The psychodynamic perspective is based on the work of Sigmund Freud. He created both a theory to explain personality and mental disorders, and the form of therapy known as psychoanalysis. The psychodynamic approach assumes that all behavior and mental processes reflect constant and unconscious struggles within person. These usually involve conflicts between our need to satisfy basic biological instincts, for example, for food, sex or aggression, and the restrictions imposed by society.

Not all those who take a Psychodynamic approach accept all of Freud’s original ideas, but most would view normal or problematic behavior as the result of a failure to resolve conflicts adequately.    This paper attempts to distinguish itself in trying to not only understand the theory that Freud pioneered and polished by some of his faithful followers but especially determine the extent of its usefulness in explaining and treating abnormal behavior.. It is the aim of the author to present in précis a description and explanation of the psychodynamic approach and its usefulness in the context of abnormal behavior (Kaplan, 1994).


     Many of the disorders or mental illnesses recognized today without a doubt have their psychodynamic explanation aside from other viewpoints like that of the behaviourist, or the cognitivists. From simple childhood developmental diseases to Schizophrenia, there is a rationale that from Freud’s camp is able to explain (Kaplan et al, 1994).

  1. The Psychodynamic concepts
  2. Theory of Instincts

     Libido, Narcissism, Instincts and Pleasure & Reality Principles.

     Freud employed “libido” to denote to that “force by which the sexual instinct is represented in the mind.” This concept is quite “crude” or raw in its form hence this refers far more than coitus. Narcissism was developed by Freud as his explanation of people who happened to have lost libido and found that in the pre-occupation of the self or the ego, like in the cases of dementia praecox or schizophrenia. Persons afflicted with this mental illness appeared to have been reserved or withdrawing from other people or objects. This led Freud to conclude that a loss of contact with reality is usually common among such patients.

The libido that he conceptualized as innate in every person is herein explained as invested somewhere else and that is precisely the role of self-love or narcissism in the life of one afflicted. The occurrence of narcissism is not only among people with psychoses but also with what he calls neurotic persons or in normal people especially when undergoing conditions such as a physical disease or sleep. Freud explains further that narcissism exists already at birth hence, one can expect realistically that newborn babies are wholly narcissistic (Sdorow, 1995).

     Freud classified instincts into different distinguishing dimensions namely: ego instincts, aggression, and life and death instincts. Ego instincts are the self-preservative aspects within the person, while aggression is a separate construct or structure of the mind which is not a part of the self-preservative nature of the human mind. Its source is found in the muscles while its objective is destruction. Life and death instincts called Eros and Thanatos are forces within the person that pulls in opposite directions. Death instinct is a more powerful force than life instinct (Rathus, 1988).

     The pleasure and reality principles are distinct ideas that help understand the other aspects of Freud’s theory. The latter is largely a learned function and important in postponing the need to satisfy the self (Sdorow, 1995).

  1. Topographical theory of the mind

     Much like real physical mapping or description of a land area, the topographical theory appeared as attempt to designate areas of the mind into regions; the unconscious, the preconscious, and the conscious. The Unconscious mind is shrouded in mystery (Kaplan, 1994). It is the repository of repressed ideas, experiences and/or affects that are primary considerations when the person is in therapy or treatment. It contains biological instincts such as sex and aggression. Some unconscious urges cannot be experienced consciously because mental images and words could not portray them all in their color and fury.

Other unconscious urges may be kept below the surface by repression. It is recognized as inaccessible to consciousness but can become conscious by means of the preconscious. Its content is confined to wishes seeking fulfilment and may provide the motive force for the formation of dream and neurotic symptoms. In other words, unconscious forces represent wishes, desires or thoughts, that, because of their disturbing or threatening content, we automatically repress and cannot voluntarily access (Santrock, 2000).

     The Preconscious is a region of the mind which is not inborn but developed only when childhood stage is beginning to emerge. The preconscious mind contains elements of experience that presently out of awareness but are made conscious simply by focusing on them. Freud labelled the region that poked through into the light of awareness as the Conscious part of the mind.

Conscious thoughts are wishes, desires, or thoughts that we are aware of, or can recall, at any given moment. It is closely related in understanding as that of the organ of attention operating with the preconscious. With attention the individual is able to perceive external stimuli. However, Freud theorized that our conscious thoughts are only a small part of our total mental activity, much of which involves unconscious thoughts or forces (Leahey, 1995).

  1. Structural Theory of the Mind

     Freud conceptualized the mind into what is called as three provinces equivalent to its functions: the id, ego and superego. The id is that aspect which only looks forward to gratifying any of its desires and without any delay. The ego is the structure of the mind which begins to develop during the first year of life, largely because a child’s demands for gratification cannot all be met immediately.

The ego “stands for reason and good sense” (Freud, 1901), for rational ways of coping with frustrations. It curbs the appetites of the id and makes plans that are compatible with social convention so that a person can find gratification yet avert the censure of others. In contrast to the id’s pleasure, the ego follows the reality principle. The reality principle has a policy of satisfying a wish or desire only if there is a socially acceptable outlet available (Halonen et al, 1996).

     The superego develops throughout early childhood, usually incorporating the moral standards and value of parents and important members of the community through identification. The superego holds forth shining examples of an ideal self and also acts like the conscience, an internal moral guardian. Throughout life, the superego monitors the intentions of the ego and hands out judgment of right and wrong. It floods the ego with feelings of guilt and shame when the verdict is negative.

As children learn that they must follow rules and regulations in satisfying their wishes, they develop a superego. The superego, which is Freud’s third division of the mind, develops from the ego during early childhood (Hurlock, 1964).

     Through interactions with the parents or caregivers, a child develops a superego by taking on or incorporating the parents’ or caregivers’ standards, values, and rules. The superego’s power is in making the person feel guilty if the rules are discovered; the pleasure-seeking, id wants to avoid feeling guilty.

It is motivated to listen to the superego as a moral guardian or conscience that is trying to control the id’s wishes and impulses (Hilgard, et al, 1979). From the Freudian perspective, a healthy personality has found ways to gratify most of the id’s demands without seriously offending the superego. Most of the id’s remaining demands are contained or repressed. If the ego is not a good problem solver or if the superego is too stern, the ego will have a hard time of it.

  1. The Extent of Usefulness of the Theory

     A survey in literature reveals that there is little evidence so far in studies that deliberately seek to determine the efficacies of psychodynamic approach in comparison with any of the other approaches in the treatment of abnormal behavior. A few which came out, in particular one research looked into the applicability of treatment in anorexia and bulimia cases which utilized the psychodynamic model and other models such as cognitive orientation treatment. Results of the experiment by Bachar et al (1999) showed positive outcomes where this particular approach was used. It must be remembered that mainstream psychology and psychiatry widely use the cognitive model in explaining and treating abnormal behavior.

In the controlled, randomized study by Bachar and team members however, the research highlighted the efficacy of psychodynamic approach in the treatment of anorexia and bulimia disorders. Other studies however show that therapists usually employ a combination of cognitive and psychodynamic approaches or an integrative method in the psychological treatments and interventions (Kasl-Godley, 2000). Many of the cases today then, support this view rather than a single method in an efficacious treatment of many of these mental and emotional diseases.

     The disadvantages of the psychodynamic approach in many of the studies done based on a using this as a single method is that of the apparent difficulty of precise measurements on the treatment procedure itself. The approach usually is limited by whether it can be exactly replicated. Specifically, one other limitation or disadvantage is that the cause of phenomena (i.e., symptom substation) cannot be located. In addition, another setback is that not all individuals can be hypnotized when using hypnosis in the therapy especially (Kaplan, 1994).

Synthesis & Conclusion

     Every theoretical approach has its own assumptions. In the psychodynamic theory, the following three assumptions help guide a student of human behavior or an expert in this field determine the underlying factors that explain the overt manifestations of specific behaviors. These assumptions therefore, help guide the diagnosis of the presence or absence of mental illness. They are the same assumptions that guide the therapist in choosing what treatment that will better help heal, cure or alleviate the symptoms.

     These assumptions are:

  • “There are instinctive urges that drive personality formation.”
  • “Personality growth is driven by conflict and resolving anxieties.”
  • “Unresolved anxieties produce neurotic symptoms”

     (Source: “Models of abnormality”, National Extension College Trust, Ltd).

     The goals of treatment here include to alleviate patient of the symptoms is to uncover and work through unconscious conflict. The task of psychoanalytic therapy is “to make the unconscious conscious to the patient” (“Models of abnormality”, National Extension College Trust, Ltd).

Employing the psychodynamic viewpoint, the therapist or social scientist believes that emotional conflicts, or neurosis, and/or disturbances in the mind are caused by unresolved conflicts which originated during childhood years.


Bachar, Eytan, Yael Latzer,Shulamit Kreitler, & Elliot Berry 1999. Empirical comparison of two psychological therapies: Self Psychology and Cognitive Orientation in the treatment of Anorezia and Bulimia. Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research. American Psychiatric Association 8:115-128,

Freud, Sigmund. [1901] 1990. The psychopathology of everyday life. New York. W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Halonen, JS and JW Santrock, 1996. Psychology: Contexts of Behavior, Dubuque, IA: Brown and Benchmark, p.810.


Hilgard,  ER, RR Atkinson, and RC Atkinson 1983. Introduction to Psychology. 7th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanich, Inc.

Hurlok, E.B. 1964. Child Development. New York: Mcgraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.

Kaplan, HI, BJ Saddock and JA Grebb. 1994. Kaplan and Saddock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry: Behaviroal Sciences clinical psychiatry. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.

Kasl-Godley, Julia 2000. Psychosocial intervention for individuals with dementia: An integration of theory, therapy, and a clinical understanding of dementia. Clinical Psychological Review. Vol. 20(6).

Leahey,  B.B. 1995. Psychology: An Introduction. Iowa: WCB Brown and Benchmark.

Rathus, S.A. 1990. Psychology 4th ed. Orlando Fl.: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Sdorow, L.M. 1995. Psychology, 3rd ed. Dubuque, IA:WCB Brown and Benchmark Publishers

Santrock, J.W. 2000. Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

________ Models of abnormality


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