Are you considering therapy to support your mental health journey? Are you wondering if psychodynamic therapy is the right fit for you and your needs? Psychodynamic psychotherapy is used as a treatment method for people dealing with psychological and relational distress and looking for long-term change. Psychodynamic theories understand human behavior as being shaped by experiences from our past, as well as present day experiences and relationships with others. It targets unconscious issues believed to be at play when difficult feelings and behaviors arise, helping increase awareness into why these dynamics may exist so that we can make lasting changes within ourselves. In this article, we will dive into what psychodynamic therapy is and why it may be worth considering to help further personal growth and long-term healing. Thank you for being here – let's get started!
Who benefits from psychodynamic therapy?
Depending on your familiarity with psychodynamic therapy, it might not be clear who this form of therapy is for. Easy answer - it can be a great fit for anybody! Slightly longer answer - psychodynamic therapy can be highly beneficial for the vast majority of diagnostic concerns and presentations. If you are in the process of deciding what kind of therapy is the best fit for you, it is important to consider your goals for treatment and your own style of approaching issues or difficult things in your life. Some therapeutic modalities focus on fixing a very specific problem or on reducing symptoms as quickly as possible using behavioral strategies– and sometimes that is exactly what is needed - no shade here. These methods tend to be focused, targeted, and with the goal of being “done” once the symptoms have been alleviated. In contrast to those methods, the psychodynamic approach is geared toward long-term growth and healing with a focus on wellness. Together, you and your therapist seek to cultivate more richness and flourishing in your life by focusing on building and utilizing curiosity, developing insight, and increasing agency in your life. While this overlaps behavioral modalities with the hope to reduce negative symptoms, there is less of an intention to get you better and out of therapy and a lot of space to utilize the therapeutic relationship as a longer term tool for being well.
What does psychodynamic therapy look like?
Psychodynamic therapy is typically long-term. This does not mean that you have to be in therapy for years before you see the benefit or to get the change to last. What it does mean is that there is less of a rush and more ability to look deeper than only one’s current symptoms or current experiences. Rather, there is the understanding that what is happening now is impacted by what has happened before, and those more deep-rooted experiences are to be explored and worked through.
During sessions, you will discuss not only what is happening on the surface but also explore unconscious motivations and desires, current and past experiences that have impacted you, and patterns across your life.
Here, nothing is off the table. And by nothing, I mean nothing. Money. Sex. The relationship with your therapist. Big emotions. Racist thoughts. Unkind motivations. Feelings you shy away from or thoughts you could never voice. All of these areas are approached with curiosity rather than reinforcing shame, looking for greater understanding rather than running to frantically shut them down. All of this information about you is important, as it relates to your experience in life, your struggles, and how you may grow into who you want to be.
You know the cliche therapy question, “How does that make you feel?” Your therapist will probably use that question, and they will be curious about your emotions. You’ll talk about what your relationship to emotions is like or how you do or do not express feelings. There will be a strong focus on the emotions you experience in session, in the moment. Your therapist will help you allow those emotions to have an impact and pay attention to what insights they may give.
Psychodynamic Topics of Exploration
You will collaboratively explore past and current attempts to avoid distressing thoughts and feelings. I once heard the process of avoiding difficult thoughts and feelings described as the experience of trying to hold a beach ball underwater all day - constant effort and (a little dark but comical) constant fear of getting hit in the face with the beach ball if you let up on that effort for even a moment. Exhausting. But staying present with difficult internal experiences and allowing them to ease in their own time is not something that most of us are used to doing - typically we develop creative ways of defending against the things that feel threatening to us. While we need those defenses, by the time we get to therapy, they may have taken over and started limiting our ability to engage with our life in the way we want. Or, they’re working in the background and we may have lost awareness of how much energy maintaining them has taken.
We’ll discuss past experiences. There is a focus on how your past experiences may have shaped reactions, beliefs, fears, etc. that influence your present life.
We’ll discuss your hope for the future. There is a focus on building a life that you want and finding the agency to create it within the grief of limitations that we all also experience. Fantasy, wishes, and dreams are considered important to explore. We talk about longings that could have been previously ignored or themes available in dreams that may initially feel frightening, confusing, or absurd. This ties back to that focus on the unconscious being made conscious.
You will focus on interpersonal relationships, dynamics, and experiences. Humans are relational in nature. We are deeply impacted by how we relate to and attach to others. Here, we unpack those dynamics.
We’ll work on identifying recurring themes and patterns of thought, emotion, experiences, and relationships. There may be certain issues in your life that don’t seem to budge no matter how hard you try. In psychodynamic therapy, we shine the light on these areas and pay attention to how they connect and intertwine to reveal new insights. We’ll use this insight to find new ways of experiencing life, new ways of feeling, new ways of relating to ourselves and others. We’ll use the time in therapy to practice this and to have new - corrective - ways of being.
Along this line, psychodynamic therapy also has a high focus on the therapeutic relationship. The relationship between you and your therapist offers the opportunity of being deeply connected and having a social microcosm where relational dynamics get to play out live between the two of you. This can give incredible insight into how you tend to be with people or what you and your therapist may evoke in each other with the added benefit of being able to address these dynamics directly and unpack them in the moment. Conflicts, relational rifts, and what it looks like to repair those ruptures honestly– that all can happen explicitly. If interpersonal conflict, boundaries, directness, or avoidance have been difficult areas for you, the therapeutic relationship can allow for exploring new ways of interacting and experiencing differences while maintaining connection.
Other topics of exploration in psychodynamic therapy can include culture and identity, values, trauma, conflicts, fantasies, and dreams.
Your therapist will use certain techniques throughout your work together, some you may notice as “therapisty things” and some you may not. A big one that has already been mentioned a few times is curiosity: this is open inquiry that promotes discovery of psychologically important experiences, events, patterns, and relationships.
Other psychodynamic techniques include:
- Free association, or allowing your unconscious mind to bring ideas or memories to the table without censorship or filtering
- Exploration and interpretation of defenses, resistances, and transference (your feelings toward the therapist)
- Use of therapist countertransference (their feelings toward you)
- Experiential understanding of emotion - It can be so common to think that psychodynamic therapy is just about gaining insight or knowledge. However, so much happens during the work that is experiential. You will have new experiences with emotion, with yourself, and with being another person.
- Identify Patterns from past experiences
- Dream Analysis
How can you grow and change through psychodynamic therapy?
Through the process of psychodynamic therapy, there are many outcomes that you and your therapist are seeking. In addition to what we previously stated, these outcomes include:
- Increased emotional flexibility and tolerance of strong or uncomfortable affect
- Ability to access more parts and aspects of yourself without undue shame or avoidance
- Ability to understand your needs, provide self-comfort, and reach out others for comfort and connection with balance and separateness
- Increased tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty
- Interruption of the past, or to stop unknowingly repeating past patterns/cycles and being ruled by past experiences
- Freedom of thought, feeling, and action in the context of increased trust in your own agency and acceptance of limitations
Psychodynamic psychotherapy is a form of therapy that can be highly effective for people seeking deep healing, long-term change, and flourishing in their life. While it may seem like a mysterious process, hopefully we have helped to provide a window into what it is that you can expect from this approach and what engaging in this work can bring to your life. If reading this made you curious about engaging in psychodynamic therapy, please reach out to schedule a consultation call. Our clinicians at Relational Psych are all specialists in this approach to therapy and believe that there is so much depth and growth available to you through it. We’ll help you start exactly where you’re at.