Sometimes people confuse psychodynamic counselling with psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis refers back to Freudian technique, with the client lying on a couch while the analyst sits silently out of sight, with sessions occurring up to five times weekly. Freud created an 'archaeological' theory of the mind. Imagine it like layers in the earth. On the top sits the conscious, that which we can see and observe. Under this is the subconscious (although Freud never used this now popular phrase – he referred to the 'pre-conscious'), that we can only partially see. At the bottom is the unconscious, that we cannot see. Psychoanalysis aims to uncover what is in the unconscious, using techniques like free association, where the client says whatever comes to mind, regardless of coherence or content.
Psychodynamic counselling grew out of the ideas of Freud but is a school in its own right. Psychodynamic counselling also places a great deal of emphasis on the unconscious. However, unlike psychoanalysis, it doesn't require the client to lie down, nor the counsellor to sit silently, and rarely, if ever, uses free association. It also doesn't strictly adhere to Freud's tripartite structure of the psyche. Instead it posits a somewhat more complex set of conscious and unconscious internal processes, which include relationships with significant others; these are viewed as being 'taken in,' as it were, or 'internalised.' So, for example, a healthy relationship between a mother and a child can be internalised by the child into adulthood, giving them an internal sense of security and peace and, unfortunately, the reverse. An unhealthy relationship may create internal insecurity and distress.
Internal patterns and conflicts are thus produced by the interplay between outer reality and internalised feeling. If parental relationships have gone well, then a person may believe that a romantic partner, for instance, is trustworthy and good. If parental relationships have gone badly, a person may feel suspicious of a partner, believing them flawed and cruel. Either of these perceptions may be unrelated to how a partner behaves in reality. If internalised feelings are healthy, a person may be strong and capable, and become a high achiever living a balanced life. If internalised feelings are unhealthy, a person may find themselves engaging in compulsive behaviours or addictions to escape - 'act out' - unpleasant, unconscious feelings.
The psychodynamic counsellor works with the client to uncover processes such as this. Often these processes are more complicated than the examples I give here. Deep insight into the feelings we act out can be achieved by psychodynamic work. Once we become conscious of our internalised feelings and beliefs, and from where they stem, we no longer need to act them out. Greater internal security and peace then offers us greater freedom.
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About Mary-Claire Wilson
Mary-Claire Wilson (MBACP, Dip Couns, Dip Advanced Psychology, BA, MA), is an experienced Integrative Psychotherapist. She's a registered member of the BACP and of the Body Psychotherapy Network. She's also an Anxiety UK Approved therapist. She works in private practice in London.