compass Explore next steps to improve your mental health. Get mental health help

Exploring the benefits of psychodynamic therapy

Exploring the benefits of psychodynamic therapy

Psychodynamic therapy is a cornerstone of modern psychotherapy. This approach delves into the depths of human consciousness, unearthing the hidden influences on thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. This therapeutic approach, rooted in the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud and further developed by subsequent theorists, seeks to bring unconscious processes to the surface and provide clients with profound insights into their lives. 

Take a comprehensive look at the world of psychodynamic therapy and how it could offer benefits for clients seeking a treatment plan based on this approach.


What Is Psychodynamic Therapy?

Psychodynamic therapy is a form of talk therapy or psychotherapy that is rooted in the principles of psychodynamic psychology, a psychological theory developed by Sigmund Freud and further expanded upon by various other theorists. This approach to therapy focuses on exploring the unconscious mind and its influence on a person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. 

Psychodynamic therapy is used to address a wide range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, personality disorders, and relationship problems. While it has been criticized for its lengthy duration and the subjective nature of interpretation, many people find it to be a valuable approach for gaining a deep understanding of themselves and their emotional struggles.

Here are some key aspects of psychodynamic therapy:

  • Unconscious processes: Psychodynamic therapy emphasizes the role of unconscious processes in shaping a person’s emotions and behaviors. It suggests that many of our thoughts and feelings are driven by unconscious conflicts and desires.
  • Childhood experiences: Psychodynamic therapists believe that early childhood experiences, particularly relationships with parents and caregivers, have a significant impact on an individual’s psychological development. Exploring and understanding these early experiences is a central part of the therapeutic process.
  • Free association: In psychodynamic therapy, clients are encouraged to engage in free association, a technique where they talk freely about their thoughts, feelings, and memories without censoring or filtering. This helps bring unconscious material to the surface.
  • Interpretation: The therapist plays an active role in interpreting the client’s thoughts and feelings, helping them gain insight into the underlying causes of their emotional issues. This interpretation often involves identifying defense mechanisms and unresolved conflicts.
  • Transference: Psychodynamic therapy pays attention to the concept of transference, where clients may unconsciously transfer feelings and attitudes they have toward significant figures in their past (usually parents) onto the therapist. This can provide valuable insight into their interpersonal patterns.
  • Insight and resolution: The primary goal of psychodynamic therapy is to help clients gain insight into their unconscious processes and resolve unresolved conflicts. By doing so, they can make lasting changes in their emotional well-being and behavior.
  • Long-term approach: Psychodynamic therapy is typically a longer-term form of therapy that extends over several months or even years, depending on the individual’s needs and the depth of their issues.
  • Varied techniques: While traditional psychodynamic therapy relies heavily on free association and interpretation, modern psychodynamic therapists often incorporate a range of therapeutic techniques and tools from other therapeutic modalities, making it more adaptable to individual client needs.

What Is an Example of Psychodynamic Therapy?

Psychodynamic therapy is a form of psychotherapy that delves into the unconscious processes and inner conflicts of an individual to address emotional and psychological issues. During a typical session, the therapist creates a safe and non-judgmental environment for the client to freely explore their thoughts, feelings, and memories. 

An example might involve a person who is experiencing chronic anxiety but is unsure of its origins. The therapist would encourage the client to talk about their past experiences and early relationships to uncover any unresolved conflicts or repressed emotions that might be contributing to their anxiety. 

Through techniques like free association, dream analysis, and transference, the therapist helps the client gain insight into these hidden aspects of their psyche. By bringing these unconscious factors to light, the client can develop a better understanding of their issues, work through them, and ultimately achieve emotional healing and personal growth. 

This therapeutic approach is rooted in the belief that understanding the root causes of psychological distress can lead to meaningful and lasting change.

A man sitting on a paper plane

Get mental health help

We provide award-winning mental health services nationwide, with flexible scheduling & insurance coverage. Start your journey this week.

What Are the Techniques of Psychodynamic Therapy?

There are several key techniques and principles used in psychodynamic therapy:

  • Free association: In this technique, the client is encouraged to speak freely about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences without censoring themselves. This can help uncover unconscious thoughts and feelings.
  • Interpretation: The therapist may provide interpretations of the client’s words and behaviors, helping them understand the underlying, often unconscious, meanings and motivations. Interpretations can shed light on patterns of behavior and help clients gain insight.
  • Transference: Transference occurs when the client unconsciously projects feelings and attitudes toward significant figures from their past onto the therapist. The therapist can use this transference to explore the client’s interpersonal dynamics and unresolved issues.
  • Countertransference: Countertransference is when the therapist experiences their emotional reactions toward the client. Psychodynamic therapists acknowledge and manage their countertransference to prevent it from interfering with the therapeutic process.
  • Dream analysis: Dreams are considered a window into the unconscious mind. Psychodynamic therapists may explore the symbolism and themes in a client’s dreams to gain insight into their emotional life.
  • Analysis of resistance: Clients may resist certain topics or emotions, often because they are uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking. The therapist helps the client explore and understand these resistances, which can reveal important insights.
  • Working through: This involves repeatedly exploring and discussing certain issues, patterns, or conflicts until the client gains a deeper understanding and can begin to resolve them.
  • Self-reflection: Clients are encouraged to engage in self-reflection and self-examination, promoting increased self-awareness.
  • Focus on the past: Psychodynamic therapy often looks at a client’s early life experiences, including their family dynamics and childhood, to understand how past experiences shape current behavior and emotions.
  • Emotional expression: The therapist provides a safe and supportive environment for the client to express and explore their emotions and feelings.
  • Long-term perspective: Psychodynamic therapy is typically longer-term compared to other forms of therapy, as it aims to delve deeply into the client’s unconscious and address complex psychological issues.
  • Supportive and non-directive: While the therapist provides interpretations and insights, they generally take a non-directive and non-advisory role, allowing the client to make their own connections and discoveries.

These techniques aim to help clients gain insight into their unconscious processes, resolve internal conflicts, and develop a better understanding of themselves, ultimately leading to improved emotional well-being and more fulfilling relationships. Psychodynamic therapy is often used for individuals dealing with complex psychological issues or those seeking to explore their inner world at a deeper level.

What Is Psychodynamic Therapy vs. CBT?

Psychodynamic therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are two distinct approaches to psychotherapy, each with its own theoretical foundations and techniques. Psychodynamic therapy, rooted in the work of Sigmund Freud, focuses on exploring the unconscious mind, childhood experiences, and the impact of unconscious conflicts on current thoughts and behaviors. 

It aims to uncover deep-seated, often unconscious, emotions and beliefs to promote insight and self-awareness, which can lead to long-term changes in behavior and emotional well-being. The therapist in psychodynamic therapy often takes a more passive role, providing a safe space for the patient to freely associate and express themselves.

On the other hand, cognitive behavioral therapy is a goal-oriented, present-focused approach that emphasizes identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors. Developed by Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, CBT helps clients recognize and challenge distorted thought processes and replace them with healthier, more rational ones. 

It typically involves homework assignments and structured sessions that teach practical skills for coping with emotional issues, making it an effective approach for addressing specific problems such as anxiety, depression, or phobias. CBT is typically more directive, with the therapist and client collaboratively working to set and achieve specific goals.

What Is the Primary Goal of Psychodynamic Therapy?

The primary goal of psychodynamic therapy is to explore and understand the complex interplay of unconscious processes, emotions, and early life experiences that shape an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Through a collaborative and open therapeutic relationship, the therapist helps the client gain insight into their unconscious motivations and how these may influence their current life, relationships, and patterns of behavior. 

By bringing these hidden dynamics into conscious awareness, psychodynamic therapy empowers individuals to make healthier choices, develop coping strategies, and ultimately, achieve personal growth and emotional well-being. Additionally, psychodynamic therapy emphasizes the importance of transference and countertransference, wherein the client’s emotions and attitudes toward the therapist, as well as the therapist’s reactions, can shed light on the client’s internal world. 

By addressing these dynamics, the therapist and client can work together to navigate through past traumas, conflicts, and unresolved issues, facilitating healing and personal transformation. The ultimate objective is to enable clients to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and the way they relate to others, allowing them to make positive changes in their lives, improve their relationships, and enhance their overall mental and emotional health. 

What Are Psychodynamic Approaches?

While there is no fixed number of psychodynamic approaches, below is an overview of some of the major ones:

  • Psychoanalysis: This is perhaps the most well-known and original psychodynamic approach, developed by Sigmund Freud. It focuses on the unconscious mind, early childhood experiences, and the role of defense mechanisms in shaping behavior.
  • Object relations theory: This theory, associated with thinkers like Melanie Klein and D.W. Winnicott, examines how early relationships with primary caregivers influence an individual’s sense of self and relationships later in life.
  • Self-psychology: Developed by Heinz Kohut, this approach concentrates on the development of the self and the importance of empathy and mirroring in healthy psychological growth.
  • Relational psychoanalysis: This approach focuses on the therapist-client relationship and how it mirrors and affects the patient’s other relationships.
  • Attachment theory: While not exclusively a psychodynamic theory, attachment theory, developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, explores the impact of early attachment experiences on later emotional and social development.
  • Interpersonal psychoanalysis: Harry Stack Sullivan was a key figure in this approach, which centers on the significance of interpersonal relationships in shaping one’s personality and psychological well-being.
  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy: This is a broad category encompassing various shorter-term, psychodynamically oriented therapies that apply psychodynamic principles to help individuals address a wide range of issues.

These are some of the major psychodynamic approaches, but there are others as well. Psychodynamic psychology has evolved over time and different theorists have contributed various ideas and techniques to the field. While the core principles of the unconscious mind, the influence of early experiences, and the role of defense mechanisms are shared among these approaches, each has its unique perspective and emphasis.

What Are the Key Elements of Psychodynamic Therapy?

Psychodynamic therapy encompasses several key elements that guide its approach to understanding and addressing psychological issues. Central to this therapeutic method is the belief that unconscious thoughts and feelings significantly influence our behavior and emotional well-being. 

The therapist and client engage in a close therapeutic relationship, characterized by free association, in which the client openly discusses thoughts and emotions without censorship. This process aims to unearth unconscious conflicts, desires, and past experiences that may be driving current issues. 

Interpretation is a fundamental aspect, where the therapist helps the client explore and make sense of these hidden factors, often focusing on early childhood experiences. Transference and countertransference, where the client projects feelings onto the therapist, are also crucial to explore. 

Ultimately, the goal of psychodynamic therapy is to increase self-awareness, gain insight into maladaptive patterns, and, through this understanding, promote personal growth and emotional healing. It’s a comprehensive, long-term approach that seeks to address the root causes of psychological distress.

What Are the “Big Five” of Psychodynamic Therapy?

The “Big Five” in psychodynamic therapy refers to five key concepts and principles that are fundamental to the practice of psychodynamic psychotherapy. These concepts were developed by prominent figures in the field of psychology and are central to understanding and applying psychodynamic principles in therapy. 

The Big Five are:

  1. Unconscious processes: Psychodynamic therapy emphasizes the role of unconscious thoughts, feelings, and conflicts in shaping a person’s behavior and emotions. The therapist helps the patient explore and bring to awareness these unconscious processes to gain insight and promote healing.
  2. Defense mechanisms: Defense mechanisms are psychological strategies people use to protect themselves from anxiety and emotional pain. Psychodynamic therapists work with patients to identify and understand these defense mechanisms, helping them develop healthier coping strategies.
  3. Transference: Transference occurs when a patient unconsciously redirects their feelings and expectations onto the therapist, often based on past experiences and relationships. The therapist helps the patient recognize and explore these transference reactions as a means of gaining insight into their relationships and conflicts.
  4. Countertransference: Countertransference refers to the therapist’s emotional reactions and responses to the patient. Psychodynamic therapists are trained to be aware of their countertransference reactions, as they can provide valuable information about the patient’s dynamics and needs.
  5. The therapeutic relationship: The therapeutic relationship is considered a central component of psychodynamic therapy. It is a safe and empathetic space in which the patient can explore their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The quality of this relationship is believed to be essential for therapeutic progress.

These five principles are central to psychodynamic therapy, which is a form of talk therapy that aims to help patients gain insight into the unconscious factors that influence their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. By working through these dynamics, individuals can achieve personal growth, resolve conflicts, and improve their psychological well-being. 

Is Psychodynamic Therapy Effective?

Psychodynamic therapy has demonstrated effectiveness in helping individuals address a range of psychological issues. While it may not always be the first choice for brief, solution-focused treatments, it excels in fostering deep self-awareness and understanding of unconscious processes. 

By exploring past experiences, relationships, and internal conflicts, psychodynamic therapy enables patients to gain insight into their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, potentially leading to lasting personal growth and improved mental health. 

Numerous studies and clinical evidence suggest its efficacy in treating conditions like depression, anxiety, and personality disorders. However, it may require a longer duration of treatment compared to some other therapeutic approaches, and its success can depend on the quality of the therapist-patient relationship. 

Overall, the effectiveness of psychodynamic therapy is contingent upon individual needs, preferences, and the nature of the issues being addressed.

Conditions Treated with Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapy is utilized to treat a wide range of mental and emotional conditions. This therapeutic approach focuses on exploring unconscious thoughts, feelings, and past experiences to gain insight into present-day emotional difficulties and behaviors. 

Psychodynamic therapy can be effective in addressing conditions such as:

It’s particularly useful for clients seeking a deeper understanding of their emotional lives and inner conflicts, making it a valuable treatment for issues related to self-esteem, relationship problems, and unresolved trauma. Psychodynamic therapy aims to promote self-awareness and personal growth, helping individuals achieve lasting emotional well-being and healthier interpersonal relationships.

Experience Psychodynamic Therapy at Thriveworks

Thriveworks offers comprehensive  psychodynamic therapy. To experience psychodynamic therapy with us, the first step involves reaching out to the dedicated team via phone or online to schedule an appointment.

During the initial consultation, one of our licensed therapists will assess your needs, concerns, and goals, creating a personalized therapy plan. In the therapy sessions moving forward, you’ll engage in open conversations with the therapist, exploring your past experiences, relationships, and emotions to gain insight into your current challenges. 

The therapist uses various techniques to help you understand unconscious patterns and unresolved conflicts, promoting self-awareness and emotional healing. Thriveworks provides a safe, supportive environment where you can explore your thoughts and feelings, fostering personal growth and improved mental well-being. The experienced therapists guide you through the process, helping you gain a deeper understanding of yourself and empowering you to make positive changes in your life.

How to Get Started with Psychodynamic Therapy

Getting started with psychodynamic therapy at Thriveworks typically involves a few key steps. Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting started with psychodynamic therapy at Thriveworks or a similar counseling center:

  • Choose a therapist: Visit our website or contact our customer support to find a list of therapists who specialize in psychodynamic therapy. Read therapist profiles, credentials, and reviews to help you choose a therapist that you feel comfortable with 
  • Initial consultation: The therapist will conduct an initial consultation, which is often the first session. This session is a chance for you to discuss your concerns, goals, and expectations, and for the therapist to assess whether psychodynamic therapy is a good fit for you.
  • Assessment and goal setting: During the initial sessions, your therapist will work with you to assess your needs, problems, and goals. They’ll help you define the specific issues you want to address through psychodynamic therapy.
  • Developing a treatment plan: Your therapist will create a personalized treatment plan based on your assessment and goals. In psychodynamic therapy, this plan may involve exploring unconscious thoughts, emotions, and patterns of behavior.
  • Setting a schedule: Work with your therapist to set up a regular session schedule. Psychodynamic therapy often involves weekly or bi-weekly sessions.
  • Attending sessions: Attend your therapy sessions as scheduled. These sessions will provide you with a safe and confidential space to discuss your feelings, experiences, and thoughts.
  • Engage actively in therapy: Actively engage in the therapy process. Be open and honest with your therapist, and explore your feelings and thoughts deeply during sessions.
  • Homework and self-reflection: Your therapist may suggest homework assignments or encourage self-reflection between sessions. These can help you apply what you’ve learned in therapy to your daily life.
  • Monitor progress: Periodically review your progress with your therapist. Assess whether you’re making the changes and achieving the goals you set in your treatment plan.

Remember that psychodynamic therapy is a long-term approach that aims to uncover deep-seated issues, so it may take time to see significant changes. Your active participation, a strong therapeutic relationship, and commitment to the process are crucial for success.

  • Clinical writer
  • Editorial writer
  • Clinical reviewer
  • 3 sources
  • Update history
Avatar photo
Theresa Lupcho, LPCLicensed Professional Counselor
See Theresa's availability

Theresa Lupcho is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a passion for providing the utmost quality of services to individuals and couples struggling with relationship issues, depression, anxiety, abuse, ADHD, stress, family conflict, life transitions, grief, and more.

Laura Harris, LCMHC in Durham, NC
Laura Harris, LCMHCLicensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor
See Laura's availability

Laura Harris is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC). She specializes in anger, anxiety, depression, stress management, coping strategies development, and problem-solving skills.

Avatar photo
Jason CrosbyMental Health Writer

Jason Crosby is a Senior Copywriter at Thriveworks. He received his BA in English Writing from Montana State University with a minor in English Literature. Previously, Jason was a freelance writer for publications based in Seattle, WA, and Austin, TX.

We only use authoritative, trusted, and current sources in our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our efforts to deliver factual, trustworthy information.

  • Fonagy, P. (2015, June). The effectiveness of psychodynamic psychotherapies: An update. PubMed Central (PMC).

  • Prasco, J. Et al. (2022). Managing transference and Countertransference in cognitive behavioral supervision: Theoretical framework and clinical application. PubMed Central (PMC).

  • Shahar, G. (2021, September 22). Reformulated object relations theory: A bridge between clinical psychoanalysis, psychotherapy integration, and the understanding and treatment of suicidal depression. Frontiers.

We update our content on a regular basis to ensure it reflects the most up-to-date, relevant, and valuable information. When we make a significant change, we summarize the updates and list the date on which they occurred. Read our editorial policy to learn more.

  • Originally published by Taylor Bennett

    April 10,2018

  • Updated November 3rd, 2023

    Editorial Author: Jason Crosby

    Clinical Author: Theresa Welsh, LPC
    Reviewer: Laura Harris, LCMHC

    Changes: In collaboration with a clinician from our contributor program, our editorial team added additional information regarding the history of psychodynamic therapy, the principles of psychodynamic therapy, psychodynamic exercises, and comparisons to CBT and more.

No comments yet

The information on this page is not intended to replace assistance, diagnosis, or treatment from a clinical or medical professional. Readers are urged to seek professional help if they are struggling with a mental health condition or another health concern.

If you’re in a crisis, do not use this site. Please call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or use these resources to get immediate help.

Get the latest mental wellness tips and discussions, delivered straight to your inbox.