The human brain with dream background

psychodynamic theory: key therapeutic ideas

In seeking to explore the key ideas of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Donald Winnicott in this essay, it makes sense to me to focus first on the work of Freud, given he originated the psychodynamic theory used to explain the motivations and reasons for human behaviour.

Freud ‘was determined to construct a psychology which applied as much to the normal person as it did to the ‘neurotic’. He not only transformed our understanding of the mind and how it works, but his psychoanalytic methodology, involving listening to patients regularly over long periods of time, pioneered the development of talking therapy deployed in modern counselling.

Freud developed his model of the mind – the conscious, subconscious, unconscious – still deployed to this day. He believed the unconscious mind to be the most significant motivating force dictating human behaviour with the aim behind his psychoanalytic work being to make the conscious self aware of being directed by the unconscious. He used the analogy of an iceberg, with the unconscious forming the vast bulk of the self, hidden beneath the surface of the water. He moved on from this analogy to a consideration of personality, dividing it up into the id, ego, and superego. Each of these has its part to play.

id, ego, superego

The id is the driving force behind instinctual drives, uninhibited by itself; but, when the ego is applied to the demands of the id, its aim is to satisfy those, where possible to satisfy them at all, in ways that are acceptable within society. The superego applies a moral framework. Conflict within this tripartite structure is unavoidable because these core facets of identity push for satisfaction of what you might call their own agendas, which are incompatible with each other.

Freud presented a number of defence mechanisms as used by the ego to prevent it getting swamped by the demands placed upon it: repression (burying upsetting thoughts and experiences); denial (blocking memories and current realities); projection (assigning one’s own unacceptable thoughts and motivations to another person); regression; (going back to an earlier time of self in response to stressors); displacement (seeking satisfaction with substitutes); and, sublimation (finding socially appropriate and constructive ways to fulfil impulses such as aggression – for example, rather than punch random strangers on the street, you train to be a professional boxer).

Neurotic illnesses were commonly reported among Victorian women, and Freud recognised that the repression within society at that time might play a part. He examined the sexual backgrounds of his patients, their experiences, to understand the role of them in the manifestation of mental health problems. From this work he developed his psychosexual development theory, the stages of which were reached at different ages of childhood. It was hugely controversial, starting from Freud’s belief that everyone is born with a libido, which is the pleasure-seeking, sexual urge.

Freud’s stages of childhood

The stages of childhood are oral (pertaining to the mouth – suckling and swallowing), which is when the ego begins to form; anal (occupation with holding in, or letting out, faeces); phallic (penile or clitoral stimulation through masturbation), when the superego materialises; latent (no sexual motivation, or very little); and, genital (sexual intercourse).

The theory is that, for a child to grow into a mentally healthy adult, they must pass through each of those stages successfully. If they do not, they are said to have become fixated – stuck at a particular stage. An oral fixation, for example, might result in smoking addiction, while an anal fixation could lead to an obsession with hygiene or being compulsively tidy. A phallic fixation may present as sexual anxieties, obsession with one’s own looks or jealousies.

Regardless of how people may feel and think in response to Freud’s psychosexual assertions and categorisations, the take-home from them that has become widely accepted is that the personality of an adult is built upon, and directed by, experiences from infancy and throughout childhood.

Freud and dreams

Dreams, Freud believed, ‘gave indirect expression to infantile sexual wishes which had been repressed and which, if expressed in undisguised form, would so disturb the dreamer that he would wake up’. He considered dreams to be, ‘primitive, irrational mental phenomena which ignored logic, syntax, and the consciously accepted criteria defining time and space’.

When dreaming, the defences of the ego are not operating as they do when awake, meaning there is the opportunity for repressed thoughts and feelings held in the unconscious to rise into awareness upon waking and remembering the dream. These do not present literally but symbolically. What Freud termed the ‘manifest’ content is the storyline of the dream, the face value as it were, such as a man’s dream containing a tree being chopped down. The ‘symbolic’ content could be that the tree represents the man’s penis, and the fact that the tree is being chopped down might suggest he is troubled by impotency or feels his sense of his own masculinity is being threatened by something or someone.

Of course, symbolism is not universally agreed upon, and is highly individual. The Christian cross might represent love and security to someone of that faith, whereas it could be triggering for someone who experienced abuse within the church environment; meat appearing in the dream of an omnivore might be symbolic of hunger and salivation, wanting something – but, to a vegan, meat could represent murder, death, and horror. It is therefore important to gain as thorough a knowledge of a patient’s history and beliefs as is possible, if the manifest content is to be successfully dissected to ascertain symbolic meaning.

Jung enters the field

As with all scientific, political, and social thinking, psychodynamic theory and Freud’s ideas would go on to be built upon, criticised and reshaped, re-emphasised by others, Jung highly notable among them and an initial advocate of Freud’s pioneering work before he began to adapt it to accommodate his own thinking.

Jung first diverged from Freud when, in 1912, he publicly questioned Freud’s focus on child sexuality and challenged the idea of the ‘Oedipus complex’ – a theory proposed by Freud as desire by the child for the opposite-sex parent and resentment and envy of the same sex parent, experienced during the phallic stage of psychosexual development.

Going on to produce his own theories, Jung differentiated from Freud’s work while his ideas did originate from it. Freud’s entire focus, for example, was in examining the past – and, in particular, childhood experiences as determining behaviours in the present. Jung, however, came to believe the contemporary self is also influenced by future intentions, expectations, and aspirations.

It was Jung who proposed that the libido, which Freud held to be entirely related to sexual gratification, had a much wider purpose in promoting and directing a person’s creativity, spirituality, and intelligence to new endeavours. As well as looking for pleasure, Jung put forward the idea that the libido also seeks to negate conflict. He took Freud’s iceberg model for the structure of the mind and added to it by suggesting that the unconscious is made up of two parts. The first he called the personal unconscious, which is essentially the same as Freud’s. It contains forgotten and repressed memories, to which Jung added complexes – groupings of memories, emotions, thoughts, and reactions. The bigger the complex, the more impact it has on a person.

The collective or transpersonal consciousness

Jung developed the idea of the collective or transpersonal unconscious, suggesting the mind has characteristics imprinted upon it by evolution – the universal fear of the dark, for example. This collective unconscious, he believed, contained within it archetypal images and themes with meanings that reach across different cultures and materialise in the creative arts, dreams, and religions, with our ancient, shared past forming the bedrock of the human mind.

The primary archetypes Jung termed the Self, the Shadow, the Anima/Animus, and the Persona.

  • The Self gives us unity of experience when it comes to the other archetypes, driving us to reach a state of selfhood that is not far removed from the humanist self-actualisation as later presented by Rogers and Maslow.
  • The Shadow is the animal side of us, the id as Freud termed it, the wellspring from which our destructive and creative urges flow, the ruthless survivalist directed by evolution. 
  • The Anima/Animus is said to be the mirror-image of our biological sex, referred to when talking about women as the animus archetype and, in relation to men, as the anima archetype.
  • The Persona is the conforming face – the actor – we present to the world, hiding our real self from view. Or, as 21st Century entertainer Ru-Paul puts it, “You’re born naked and the rest is drag” – the identity we present to the world is largely replicated from a variety of sources to conform, based on learning and copying behaviour around us. It is ours, unique but contrived.

Winnicott’s transitional objects

The paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s contribution to the psychodynamic school was arguably at its most significant point, certainly in the field of counselling, when it came to his work around the concept of ‘transitional objects’ – those things which give security and reassurance to a child when their mother is not present, though many adults continue to rely upon these. It is not the objects themselves that are transitional, but rather,

The object represents the infant’s transition from a state of being merged with the mother to a state of being in relation to the mother is something outside and separate. This is often referred to as the point at which the child grows up out of the narcissistic type of object relating…

(D.W. Winnicott, Playing & Reality, pp. 14-15)

Winnicott borrowed the concept of transitional objects from his wife, Clare, who was a social worker, child advocate, and psychoanalyst. The loss of a transitional object can be devastating when it comes to the effect this can have on a child’s emotional development and behaviour, with long-term consequences throughout life.

Winnicott, like Freud, presented the idea that events in childhood, a developmental period when the personality is malleable, have lasting impact. He would use the term ‘self’ in reference to both the ego and the id, believing both as self to play a creative role in the human psyche vital to our well-being both mentally and emotionally, as demonstrated in his seminal work, Playing & Reality:

It is in playing and only in playing that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self.

(D.W. Winnicott, Playing & Reality, p.54)

Reading Winnicott, it is apparent his investigative endeavours and thoughtful explorations share much in common with Freud and Jung. He uses more immediately accessible terminology, though, as evidenced by his use of ‘self’ in preference to Freud’s ego and id, which I have already mentioned above, and his referencing what he calls the ‘false self’ – mirroring Jung’s archetype of the Persona, this false self being a defensive shield that allows civilised engagement with others in society.

The ‘true self’ in Winnicott’s writings is less readily paralleled with just one of Jung’s archetypes, but in being about spontaneity and uncontrived behaviours coupled with a strong awareness of being alive in mind and body, it can be said to have a strong connection with Jung’s archetypes of both the Shadow and the Self. The true self as conceived by Winnicott also connects with the ideas of Maslow and Rogers around self-actualisation.

The weaknesses in psychodynamic theory

The greatest weakness of psychodynamic theory is that, despite its convincing intellectual frameworks and practical, experiential validity (demonstrated by its usefulness in both understanding patient/client dilemmas, and helping to resolve them), it has no scientific credibility. What is believable is not proven; what is consensually taken to be real, even by a majority, cannot be said to be factually real.

Moreover, despite Freud’s originating theories being so influential, they were the highly subjective, interpretive work of just one man who based his ideas on his own life experiences (not always being conscious of this, either, such as in regard to his relationship with his mother) and the experiences of his clients, who were middle-class women living in Vienna. To extrapolate from such a small group utterly lacking in diversity is considered unacceptable in scientific research today.

It should also be noted that not all of Freud’s or Jung’s theoretical ideas have stood the test of time, either retaining the controversiality they had at the outset or being rejected by later thinkers entirely. Winnicott’s ideas have proven more durable so far, although he came along as an influencer on thought and practice much later than the other two. Even so, subjective interpretation was brought to bear by all three men in constructing their theories; indeed, subjectivity haunts and impedes the reputation of psychodynamic theory.

Psychoanalysis involves subjective interpretation on the part of the therapist, who brings his/her/their life experiences, morality, and perceptions into the room with every client. While every effort is undoubtedly made by the attentive professional – partly through the support of having an established ethical framework codified and legitimised through peer consensus and written down, with review mechanisms to avoid the influence of personal thinking and bias in relationship to, and with, the client – subjectivity cannot entirely be removed from the interactions that take place. 

Subjectivity in thinking and engagement with the world is, after all, part of the human condition. It cannot be said to invalidate the work, and results do speak for themselves. However, where there is interpretation, there are inevitably opportunities to question, challenge, and criticise. This is most obviously the case when dealing with the interpretation of dreams, the symbolism of which can sometimes be shared by many, being archetypal, cultural, and cross-cultural, but can more often be specific to the individual. Opposing responses to the Christian cross and the potential for polarising views on the appearance of meat in dreams, already referred to in this essay, can be set alongside a multitude of other symbols to which a variety of meanings can be assigned.

The Union Jack flag, for example, signifies patriotic pride to many but can also represent bigoted nationalism. Snakes can represent evil to those of Judaeo-Christian upbringings and beliefs, but they can also be seen as phallic. They can be interpreted by a client as evil and phallic, subject to past experiences, learned behaviours, and received beliefs. These, and many more motifs, ably demonstrate the inherent variability of symbols in terms of their meanings.

There is a great deal that psychodynamic theory ignores or sidelines in favour of adherence to a solidly deterministic approach. One fundamental idea is that trauma inflicted on the child leads to aberrant behaviour in the adult, but this is not true in every case. Psychodynamic theory takes no account of genetic factors, or the influence of thinking by, or behaviours of, the individual and peers.

Deterministic statements present as facts without foundation, and have the potential to be incredibly destructive, such as the too widely held belief in society that those who have been abused as children go on to abuse children themselves when they are adults, which is not true in the overwhelming majority of cases. This deterministic falsehood contributes directly towards the reluctance of abuse victims to come forward and seek help.

Last but by no means least, in considering the weaknesses of psychodynamic theory, it must be said that Freud in particular placed a great deal of emphasis on sex in the context of mental dysfunction, and very little on other factors such as the interactions between people and within society that might play a role in causing mental distress, false thinking and harmful behaviours.

The strengths of psychodynamic theory

Despite the strong criticisms that can be directed against psychodynamic theory, it undoubtedly has a great many strengths that have been drawn upon throughout the 20th century and beyond, providing help to psychiatric patients and those engaged in using counselling skills. Chief among them is the concept of talking therapy as pioneered by Freud, and which continues to evolve in theory and in practice.

The deployment of interpretation – in relation to formative life experiences, dreams, and trauma responses – has been proven time and again to be of great benefit in enabling people to better understand and work out for themselves how to improve their lives and move closer to self-actualisation, even when they are unaware of that term.

Psychodynamic theory has provided us with:

  • a detailed map of the human mind, with its exploration of the unconscious and the role it plays
  • analyses by various practitioners of how personality develops, and is impacted upon by experience
  • recognition of how important childhood experience is, and our past histories, in shaping us as adults
  • the acknowledgement that dreams have significance, and through their symbolism can provide insights
  • the introduction of concepts such as free association and transference.

Upon its introduction to the world, psychodynamic theory was revolutionary – and all revolutions have their controversies and enemies taking a stand against change. The core identification – that early experiences have the potential to be hugely impactful upon development into adulthood – has stood the test of time and helped people overcome their pasts to have better lives today and go on to build better futures.


Hough, M. 2020. Counselling Skills and Theory. 9th ed. Hodder Education.
Storr, A., 1989. Freud. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Storr A., 1986. Jung. London: Fontana Press.
Walker, L., 2020. You’re Born Naked And The Rest Is Drag. [online] Thought Catalog. [Accessed 16 December 2020].
Winnicott, D., 1971. Playing & Reality. 4th ed. London: Routledge.



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andrew hinkinson
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