Have you ever wondered what are those factors, made you the type of person that you are today? Why do you act in some way, while other people act differently in a similar situation? The psychodynamic theory helps in understanding the concepts that shape our personality and impact our decisions. According to the psychodynamic theory, our childhood experiences, and relationships deeply impacts and influence the type of personality we’ll have in our adulthood. In this article, we’ll learn about psychodynamic theory, and try to understand the concepts of the psychodynamic theory through various examples.
What is Psychodynamic Theory?
Firstly, we need to understand that the psychodynamic theory is not a single theory, instead, it is the collection of various psychological theories of personality. These different psychological theories of personality collectively contribute to the concept of psychodynamic perspective. These theories include the personality theories given by the famous theorists, Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, and Alfred Alder. Let us understand these theories in brief,
1. Sigmund Freud’s Psychodynamic Theory
Sigmund Freud has largely contributed to the concept of psychodynamic theories, which is why he is considered the pioneer of psychodynamic theories. His extensive research in this field leads him to formulate the concept of three types of personality, i.e., id, ego, and the Superego. According to Sigmund Freud, we all are born with the id, which influences us to satisfy all our basic desires or needs. Due to the influence of the id, children focus on fulfilling what they want without considering whether their behaviour is approved by society or not. The superego influences the person to make decisions strictly based on moral principles. When the child grows up, the ‘ego’ component starts developing in his/her. This ego component leads the child to make a balance between the id and the superego. Freud mentioned that understanding what is happening in the unconscious of the person reflects the basis of psychodynamic theory. The unconscious of the person provides insight that how the person views the world around him and perceives his/her experiences and relationships. Freud mentioned in one of his famous publications on psychoanalysis “The Interpretation of Dreams” that the unconscious of the person can be interpreted from his/her dreams. According to Freud, 90 per cent of the decisions that we made are influenced by the unconscious of the person, which is eventually based on our past experiences. Sigmund Freud’s Psychodynamic theory is the fundamental theory that sets the basis for the psychodynamic perspective and influenced other theorists such as Alfred Alder, and Erik Erikson to work on the psychodynamic perspective.
2. Alfred Alder’s Theory of Personality
The Austrian psychiatrist and physician, Alfred Alder is well known for the formulation of the ‘individual psychology.’ Alfred Alder and Sigmund Freud were both colleagues, and Alfred helped Freud in establishing psychoanalysis. Alfred was also one of the members of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. Later, Alfred parted his way from Sigmund Freud, and he started his research on the psychodynamic perspective. This theory is known as individual psychology because it mainly focuses on an individual as a whole. Aldred’s work has had a great impact on the formulation of psychotherapy, and he has influenced many great thinkers such as Albert Ellis and Abraham Maslow. This theory is based on the concept that every individual has a certain sense of inferiority, and people strive for perfectionism, mastery, and belonging, and try to overcome this sense of inferiority throughout their life by developing their potential and by acquiring the set targets. This theory is also known as Adlerian psychology. Alfred remarked inferiority is a fundamental part of our personality and this sense of inferiority pushes us to become a better version of ourselves. In addition to the inferiority factor, Alfred postulated that the order of birth is also an important factor that influences the personality of the individual. Following are the impacts on the personality of the children based on the order of the birth.
According to Alfred Alder, only children usually get more attention from their parents than the child, who have siblings. From the very beginning, these children are raised in a manner that makes them believe that they are very superior. Their characteristics traits in adulthood mainly involve, being self pampered, acting mature, and being an attention seeker. On the other hand, the child with siblings lives his/her life with shared attention.
According to Alder, the older child may start feeling inferiority complex after the birth of the other siblings. This is more likely due to the less care or attention towards the older child because the parent’s attention now shifted to their other child. The personality traits of a first-born child include being bossy, controlling others’ behaviour, achieving, and having leadership qualities.
The younger child tends to consider the older sibling as his/her role model and often tries to become like him/her due to the praise of the older child by the parents. According to Alfred, the characteristics traits of the second child include attention-seeker, carefree, outgoing rebellion, independence, peacemaker, and charming. Younger children are less likely to excel in their careers due to a lack of self-confidence as they have been usually treated as less superior than their older siblings.
The middle born children are less pampered than their elder and younger siblings as they shared their parent’s love and attention with both the younger and the elder siblings. They usually develop a sense of competition to become better than their eldest siblings, hence they become more competitive and are more likely to excel in their careers. The main personality traits of the middle born child include impatience, adaptability, and being short-tempered.
3. Erik Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development
Erik Erikson’s theory is a well-known theory that explains the concept of psychosocial development. From Infant-hood to adulthood, Erik Erikson has discussed the eight stages of personality development. According to Erikson, the person faces certain difficulties at each stage that contributes to his/her personality development, i.e., influence the character of the person that he/she will have in adulthood. Unlike Freud’s theory, which is focused on the psychosexual stages of development, Erik Erikson’s theory is focused on the importance of social relationships at the different stages of life. According to Erikson, the type of personality that an individual will possess in his/her childhood will depend upon the success or the failure of the completion of each stage. Let us understand the different stages of Erik Erikson’s theory of personality.
Stage 1: Trust vs Mistrust
This stage starts at the birth of the child and lasts up to 18 months of age. At this stage, the child is fully dependent on the parents or the caregiver for everything. The child will develop trust in the parent or the caregiver if he/she is providing consistent love and care, and feel secure in him/her presence. On the other hand, if the care is inconsistent or unreliable the child may feel anxious, suspicious and develop mistrust against the caregiver, and the child will not able to trust anyone around him/her in the future, the impact will last even in his/her adulthood.
Stage 2: Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt
This stage begins around 18 months of age and lasts up to 3 years of age. According to Erikson, at this stage, children start focusing on being independent and developing their physical skills. By being independent it means that the child starts walking alone away from the parent, choosing the toys, putting on shoes or clothes on his/her own, deciding what to eat, etc. If the child is being supported by the parents or the caregiver, he/she will believe in his/her abilities to do tasks on their own and develop his/her confidence. On the other hand, if the child is being criticized, and not encouraged by his/her caregiver to do various tasks, then the child develops a sense of doubt, which may result in low self-esteem, feeling of shame or lack of confidence in doing tasks on their own in the adulthood.
Stage 3: Initiative vs Guilt
Stage three lasts between three to five years of age. During stage three, rapid growth in children is observed. The child starts interacting with the other children at the school or at playtime, which enable the child to explore his/her interpersonal skills and abilities. The child begins to control the things in his/her surrounding. This stage focuses on learning, planning, and developing leadership qualities, and may also develop a sense of doubt and guilt of failing in accomplishing set targets. If a child does not successfully complete this stage then he/she will always remain a follower rather than taking his/her own life decisions. A psychologist Helen L. Bee remarked this stage as a,
time of vigour of action and of behaviours that the parents may see as aggressive”
At this stage, children begin to ask questions as the hunger for more knowledge grows. If the parents or the children ignore the child’s questions or say that their questions are trivial, the children may develop a sense of guilt and will hesitate to ask the questions in future. This may restrict the child’s critical thinking and even his/her ability to interact with other people. the child may think that his/her parent may punish him/her if he/she will ask any irrelevant questions.
Stage 4: Industry vs Inferiority
This stage begins in the early school years of the child, i.e., at 5 years of age and lasts up to the age of 11 years. At this stage child should experience a sense of pride through his/her accomplishments, if failed he/she may always feel discouraged in future. The main idea behind this stage is that success provides the feeling of competence, but failure gives the feeling of inferiority. The child who is encouraged or appreciated by his/her parents or teachers will have high self-esteem and confidence while the child who does not receive any encouragement or face criticism from the parents and the teachers will start developing a sense of doubt, and will always restrict himself/herself from taking his/her own life decisions.
Stage 5: Identity vs Role Confusion
This stage begins at 12 years of age and lasts up to eighteen years of age. During this period, the child begins to focus on personal identities such as self-beliefs, goals, and personal values. The focus of the child shifts to his/her body because of various hormonal and physical changes The children want to become independent and want minimum guidance from the parents or the teachers. This stage largely influences the personality that an individual will have in his/her adulthood. When the child fails to develop a personal identity, for example, his/her future goals, it may result in an identity crisis or role confusion. If the parents pressurise their child to opt for particular subjects or goals that the child won’t want to pursue, it may result in a rebellious personality.
Stage 6: Intimacy vs Isolation
This stage begins around the age of 18 years and lasts up to 40 years of age. At this stage, the person focuses on forming loving and intimate relationships with the other. The person begins to search for a relationship other than the relatives or the family members. The successful fulfilment of this stage may lead to a sense of dedication, care and safety within the relationship, while failure may lead to isolation, fear, loneliness, and even depression in extreme cases.
Stage 7: Generativity vs Stagnation
This stage begins at 40 years of age and lasts up to 65 years of age. During this stage, the person starts getting involved in the various community activities, which gives him/her a sense of being an important part of society. Generativity refers to the desire of the person of making an impact on the world through his/her contribution. The successful completion of this stage develops a feeling of accomplishment. and self-worth, while failure can lead to the feeling of uselessness and unproductiveness.
Stage 8: Integrity vs Despair
This stage begins around 65 years of age and lasts up to the death of the person. During this stage, the person reflects on his/her life and analyse the way he/she lived the life. If a person has lived a satisfactory life it will give the person a feeling of completeness, accomplishment and integrity, and he/she tends to accept death without worry. On the other hand, if the person feels that he/she has not lived a good life, it may lead to feelings of guilt, sadness, and despair.
Main Assumptions of the Psychodynamic theory
Following are the main assumptions of the psychodynamic theory,
1. The Primacy of the Unconscious
According to the perspective of the psychodynamic theory, the decisions or the choices one makes in his/her life is largely dependent upon the unconscious of the person. The person may think that he/she has consciously made any decision, but most of the activities of the human mind or the psyche are largely unconscious. Most of the research that involves Bargh & Morsella, 2008; Bornstein, 2010: 2009 also supports the perspective of a psychodynamic concept that most of the mental activities, i.e., feelings, decisions, or choices depend upon the unconscious of the person rather than the consciousness.
2. Critical Importance of Early Experiences
According to the study by Blatt & Levy, 2003; Mc Williams, 2009, the psychodynamic theory emphasises that even the childhood experiences that happened in the first few weeks of the birth of the child also impact the personality of the person in adulthood. For example, losing the parents at a very young age can deeply affect the mental health of the person.
3. Psychic Casualty
The last assumption is that everything that happens in mental life is due to some cause and doesn’t happen by chance. We do not randomly take decisions or choices. They all are based on the principle of the psychic casualty, i.e., the thought and feelings of the person are not random and depend upon the previous experiences based on some random combination of the psychological and the biological processes (Elliot, 2002). Let’s understand it through the example of the Freudian -Slip, a girl said that ‘my mother is the beast’ then she corrected her and said she wanted to say that ‘my mother is the best.’ According to Freud’s psychodynamic perspective, this was not just an accident or slip of tongue, the girl said that her mother is a beast because she might be having anger towards her mother at the unconscious level.
Psychodynamic Theory Examples
Following are the few examples that may help you understand the perspective of psychodynamic theory,
1. Impact of Childhood Physical Abuse
In her childhood, Jenn was physically abused by her father. Whenever Jenn used to fail in any task that her father had asked her to do, her father used to get very mad and used to beat him. Jenn used to get very saddened whenever it used to happen. She always tries to do things that make her father happy. Years later, when Jenn got married and lives in her own house with his husband, she still shows the traits that developed in her due to the physical assault by her father. One day she had a very busy schedule at the work, and she forgets to bring home the cake, that her husband had told him to bring. When she reached home her husband asked her about the cake, she got terrified and reacted in the same petrified way that she used to react when she used to forget the tasks given by her father. Jenn’s husband got confused and was not able to interpret why she reacted in that way. This is based on the perspective of psychodynamic theory. The influence of the physical abuse that happened to Jenn is still evident in her adulthood.
2. Fear of Heights due to Childhood Incident
Two young sisters named Kim and Maya were playing in the garden. They both were climbing a tree. Kim fell from the tree when she was trying to climb out, and she broke her leg and faces difficulty in walking even now in her adulthood. Maya was able to climb out of the tree safely but saw the incident the way Kim fell out of the tree. Now, as an adult, Maya has acrophobia due to that childhood incident, while Kim does not have any fear of heights apart from the difficulty in walking properly. After that childhood incident, Maya never climbed any trees, and she is afraid of bridges and tall buildings. Maya is too terrified that she does not even allow her children to climb the trees. Maya is fearful of the incident that changed Kim’s life as Kim could not walk properly due to her broken leg. This is in accordance with the psychodynamic perspective that says that Maya’s current fear of heights is due to the childhood incident, and Maya will never be able to come out of the fear of heights until she understands that it was just an accident, and if it happened with Kim it does not mean that she (Megan) too will fell from the heights.
3. Fear to Love due to Childhood Incident
One day, when Max came to his home after school he found that his mother was not there. He asked his father about his mother; his father said that his mother is very selfish and she left the home. He even told his son that all women are selfish and you should never attach yourself to any woman as she will leave you eventually. Now, when Max is an adult he is not ready to settle with any woman. He always pushes himself away from the women with whom he starts feeling closeness. This behaviour of Max is due to his childhood experience that his mother abandoning him and his father. He is scared of the assumption that the woman he will love will leave him as his mother did to his father. According to the psychodynamic perspective, Max’s current beliefs about not settling with a woman are based on his bad childhood experience, and he will never be able to love and settle with any woman until he understands that not every woman is alike.
- If a person has the habit of washing his/her hand, again and again, or bitting his/her nails it could be due to any childhood trauma.
- The developmental trauma can lead to the habit of hair plucking or skin picking.
- Any childhood event may trigger agoraphobia in the person.
- Chronic anxiety and hoarding behaviour could be due to past trauma.
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Psychodynamic Approach
The main strength of the Psychodynamic approach is that it explains the impact of childhood traumas on the personality and mental health of the person in adulthood. It talks about the influence of the unconscious of the person on his/her behaviour, thoughts and feelings. It also takes into account both nurture (childhood experiences) and nature(id, ego, and superego). Apart from various strengths, the psychodynamic theory also has several weaknesses. For example, it is so inclined towards the importance of the unconscious of the person that it does not much emphasise the role of consciousness of the person in making decisions. This theory is often criticized for being unfalsifiable because the assumption of this theory can not be measured scientifically. Yet, this theory has great importance in psychology as it helps in understanding the factors responsible for the specific personality of an individual.