Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Freud’s Psychodynamics Approach: A Critical Approach

By Sudipa Sarkar


In Psychology, Psychodynamics is the study of the interrelationship among the several areas of the mind, personality, or psyche as they relate to mental, emotional or motivational focuses emphasizing on the dynamism of unconsciousness. Psychodynamics basically focuses on the formation of psychic energy and its distribution over the human system and development by the virtue of interaction among the Freud-defined mental states – id, ego and superego. The main objective of psychodynamics comprises the attempt of explanation or interpretation of overt behaviour or mental state by the virtue of inert unconscious conflict or forces or processes. However, the psychodynamic approach employed by Sigmund Freud had received several criticisms mostly emphasizing on its lacking ability to validate or test the hypothesis based on this approach. This paper aims to discuss about the various critiques relating to the psychodynamic approach in the context of actual scientific phenomenon.

The Basic Constituents of Psychodynamic Approach

According to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the mind is subdivided into different levels of conscious awareness. Freud proposed three levels of conscious awareness –

(1) Unconscious
(2) Preconscious
(3) Conscious

The unconscious content of mind, according to Freud, is the most allotted part of mind. The topographical theory of Freud (Pierre Fédida, 1988) described the mind’s layout by using the context of iceberg metaphor. There it is emphasized the resemblance of visible part of the iceberg to the conscious content of mind (10%), whereas, the rest part (the part beneath the water) basically comprises the preconscious and unconscious content of the mind (90%). The preconscious area is allotted to 10-15% and the unconscious content comprises of 75-80%.

According to Freud, the personality has three components acting together to produce the overt complex behaviour and attitude towards any object or events. These are –

(1) ID
(2) Ego
(3) Superego

ID is the primitive psyche – encompassing all the basic needs, feelings and motivation. ID is considered to be the source of libido or psychic energy and is operated on the basis of ‘pleasure principle’. Ego mainly aims to keep balance between ID’s instant gratification and long term consequences in mind as a result of fulfilling the gratification. This is the most challenging and conflicting part of the mind as it focuses on maintaining balance among two opposite forces. The component of Superego encompasses the moral part of the mind including the parental and societal values and regulations (Seymour Fisher, 1985).

Freud’s Psychodynamic Approach in Therapy

The main aim of Psychodynamic approach (Brenner, C., 1954) in therapeutic setting involves some key-points –
(1) Client centred approach
(2) Metaphoric communication
(3) Human development
(4) Personality structure

The client here is the central part of the process and the task of the counsellor may include the facilitation of the client’s insight and making a good understanding of the link between past and present by the virtue of interpretation of client’s communication at metaphoric level by emphasizing the quality of transference (Firestone, R.W., 2002). The model of human development entails the illustration of the development of childhood through adolescence into adult life. The personality structure aims at explaining the defence mechanism help in preventing to become overwhelmed by anxiety.

Criticism of Freud’s Psychodynamic Approach


The strength of Freud employed psychodynamic approach includes disclosure and treatment of the origins of abnormal or maladaptive behaviour. In some cases, this psychodynamic approach is used in building up detailed case history as an aid in providing psychotherapeutics treatment. The classic example includes the detail and intimate case history of little Hans where a special interaction is employed between him and his father in order to analyze his progress in his treatment during the process.


The primary criticize comes with it’s over-emphasize on the generalization of an individual event or result. In some cases, it lacks the actual orientation of the subject and the interaction of the subject to its event or resulting action. In the case of little Hans, it is seen that the father provided the report of Hans’s phobia (Morley et al. 1999) and had some pre-defined bias about the preference of Freud’s treatments. Moreover, most of the Freud’s explanations are within the limit of andocentric (penis envy) and ethnocentric (Oedipus complex) views.


Psychodynamic approach focuses on unconscious processes influencing the individual’s present behaviour in the context of his past experiences. The therapy focuses on the issues and conflicts resolved at the unconscious level resulting from past dysfunctional relationships and various maladaptive manifestations. The focus of this approach primarily concerns on cognitive therapy as well as behavioural therapy, however, some researchers also doubt about the efficacy of this approach necessitating the empirical relation and validation of unconscious information to an individual’s behaviour or their level of functioning (Fisher & Greenberg, 1977, pp411-412).
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