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What Would the Neo-Freudian Therapist Do?

This article is part 2 of a series on Mental Health and Therapy. Be sure to read part 1 here!


Do you think your past experiences shape who you are in the present? (CW: mention of murder) Do you catch yourself sympathizing with a cold-hearted killer on TV who began to murder because of their dark childhood? Do you find yourself wondering if you have trouble speaking up in class because of that one time you said something in front of a large class and everyone laughed at you? Have you perhaps noticed that the people you date seem to have more or less similar personality traits? If you answered yes, your world-views are primarily aligned with the views of psychodynamic theory. If you ever seek therapy, you may consider going to a therapist with a psychodynamic orientation. You just might find it to be quite an enriching experience. 

A psychodynamic therapist is an astute believer in the idea that early experiences, especially those in your childhood, help shape your personality. If you go to a psychodynamic therapist, they’re likely to focus more on your past experiences than on your present so that they can understand how those experiences helped mold you into the person you are today. The more you unravel your life history, the better a psychodynamic therapist is going to be able to connect the dots between the past and the problems in your present. This may be better illustrated by an example: suppose a client goes for therapy because they’re extremely competitive and this seems to be affecting their relationships with friends and peers. A psychodynamic therapist is likely to try and understand how this personality trait developed by looking at any early experiences that may have led to their extreme competitiveness. Suppose the client discloses that they had to fight with their siblings for a place at the table to win their parents’ approval while growing up. To a psychodynamic therapist, this disclosure of information is akin to striking gold in terms of understanding the client and their personality. 

In understanding how early experiences shape you as a person today, psychodynamic therapists also look for patterns in your behavior. It’s a basic assumption of the theory that behavioral patterns are likely to repeat themselves throughout life. As illustrated by the previous example, a person who competed with their siblings all their life is also prone to competing with other people in their lives, in this case, their friends and peers. Perhaps, this may also help explain why you date people with similar personality traits. Tiny disclosure here: none of this is a coincidence. Psychodynamic therapists assume that all your behaviors are motivated by some unconscious force within you. Going back to our example, a psychodynamic therapist might presume that the competitive nature of the client stems from an unconscious need for approval. So, to sum it up, there are certain needs and desires within you that you’re not even aware of that has the potential to wreck your life based on how they manifest. 

This is not to say that all psychodynamic therapists are only interested in early experiences and unconscious forces. Modern-day psychodynamic therapists have started to acknowledge the importance of present experiences and forces outside the person that play a role in manifesting their behavior. It is simply the case that these therapists are more interested in the unconscious and in understanding past experiences. However, I cannot deny that some therapists tend to ignore such facets of present experiences and external forces even if they have a direct link to the problems the client faces. 

An important question to ask at this juncture: What are some of the intricate elements of treatment offered by a psychodynamic therapist? Treatment would look different for each client that comes to a psychodynamic therapist. However, any self-respecting therapist would fall back on theory to encourage a healing experience for the client. Simply put, while psychodynamic therapy looks different for different clients, there share some common elements. While helping a client, a psychodynamic therapist is more interested in asking, “What do you feel?” (emotions) rather than, “What do you think?” (conscious thought). A client’s emotional experience is vital for a psychodynamic therapist in that it allows the therapist to help the client be able to sit with the ambiguity and complexity of what they feel. In our example, it is likely that the therapist may notice that while the client feels happiness in achieving a goal owing to their competitiveness, it can also make them feel stressed due to a blow to their relationship with the peers they were competing with. It is possible that feelings of happiness and stress may oppose each other causing distress in the client. The therapist may then use these experiences to help reduce such distress. 

Another common element in psychodynamic therapy is that of linking the past with the present. This is fairly obvious. Drawing connections between early experiences and present

problems can help you gain insight into your self. Psychodynamic therapists love insight. They believe that helping the client gain insight into their problems can help them create change. One way a therapist can do this during therapy is by making use of interpretation, a technique whereby the therapist can link the past and the present and help the client understand what is really going on beneath the surface. Most psychodynamic therapists are also fanatics of defense mechanisms, another common element of treatment. Allow me to use some jargon here. “Defense mechanisms”, a very Freudian term, entail the ways in which you try to reduce any anxiety caused by unconscious thoughts or feelings. For example, inwardly, you might absolutely loathe a classmate but outwardly, be extremely kind towards them. This is a classic case of reaction formation, one of many defense mechanisms, where you do the opposite of what you truly feel because the latter threatens to cause anxiety. More popularly known defense mechanisms include repression, denial, and rationalization. In treatment, a therapist would so kind as to point out the various defense mechanisms you use and why you may be using them. Defense mechanisms may sound like the enemy but they’re really not. They’re just normal behaviors that are present in everyone whether they’re aware of them or not. 

The last use of jargon here, I promise: Therapists also use transference, a key part of the therapeutic relationship, to help treat the client. As may be obvious from the term, it involves transferring unconscious desires and feelings that the client may have for someone in their life, such as parents or caregivers, onto the therapist. For example, a client who has a troubled relationship with their mother and desperately wants her love and attention may transfer such feelings onto the therapist in that they seek love and attention from their therapist. You’d imagine that a therapist would try their best to avoid this complicated tangle of emotions. In fact, it’s the opposite; psychodynamic therapists actually encourage transference! This is because, if used right, transference can actually help the therapist understand what a client feels and how they behave and help the client see this for themself. 

Though psychodynamic therapy may require a number of sessions which entails the expenditure of time and money, it is important to consider whether the theory aligns with your own world-view. If any of the above resonated with you, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to consider psychodynamic therapy in case you ever do seek therapy. You just might be surprised what you learn about yourself and how much things that happened in your childhood affect you today.


Rhea Thomson

Ashoka '21

That one person who just made the cut. Also an aspiring psychologist.
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