Exploring the past with psychodynamic counselling

‘I can’t stop thinking about what happened then’

  When I think of how a client’s past can affect their present reality, Iam reminded by the distress expression on this client’s face as she uttered these words. This particular client’s presenting issue was anxiety and a lack of confidence at work as well as in other areas of her life. She would often be confronted by work colleagues and would ‘freeze’ or become very anxious and tongue tied- unable to respond.

Psychodynamic counselling is an analytical type of therapy aimed at exploring a client’s past in an attempt to understand their current behaviour. This form of counselling was develped by Sigmund Frued in the 1940s. Freud’s theories placed emphasise on how the unconcious mind can have a significant effect on a person’s behaviour and personality. For example, Freud believe that people  may not conciously recall trumatic events as these may have been repressed within the unconcious mind in an attempt to protect the client.

As the client spoke at great length about her presenting issue I asked her if she’s ever experienced this anxiety in other situations from her past. This client could identify and look back to how her lack of confidence in social situations could link back with events from her past. Throughout the course of the counselling sessions the client then revealed to me that she had been bullied when she was younger.

In the client’s opinion, she had felt a lack of assurance and support from her parents. In school, this client was often taunted for being quiet and shy.   I asked this client was how she was different now- as a grown adult woman.  Throughout the course of the sessions, we were able to connect how her past had in fact shaped her into the person she was now- and how her past was only a ‘part’ of her-there was so much more.

Whilst focusing on the psychodynamic approach to counselling I can see how events occurring in childhood can often later impact on an adults mental wellbeing, Freud’s approach to the psychodynamic view places a lot of emphasise on past behaviours. According to Freud, any form of conflict or trauma at any of the psychosexual stages of development could lead to enduring personality traits later in adult life. How do you prove trauma occurring at such an early stage of development (infancy) when there are so many confounding variables that may be responsible or contributing to later adult personality traits. E.g. an infant who experiences trauma at the oral stage may start smoking later in adult life, however this need to smoke could easily be explained by various other factors egg, peer pressure, learnt behaviour, environmental factors etc.


Often I have come across clients who often do not consciously know why they have have engaged in the problem behaviour or anxiety. This leads onto Freud’s notion of the ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ mind and can explain how traumatic events repressed from our childhood can then manifest in often problematic ways in adulthood. For example, one client I worked with always seem to become involved in problematic relationships. When we explored the nature of these relationships further a pattern emerged- this client always sought men who were controlling or dominant. The client could not understand why she seemed naturally drawn to men like this- relationships which caused her nothing but pain and heartache. After further counselling it emerged that her father- had also been very controlling with his wife (her mother)- yet the client had loved him dearly and was a ‘daddy’s girl. She talked about her father and when I asked her how he had made her feel she replied back (without any hesitation) ‘protected- no one could mess with me-not even mum- I was his little girl’. Consciously this client couldn’t understand why she was seeking these controlling, destructive relationships in the first place but subconsciously she had been trying to find that need to feel nurtured and protected again by seeking men who had shared similar characteristics with her father- even if they were negative characteristics.

Therefore, one of the other benefits of the psychodynamic approach is its acknowledgement of the subconcious/ unconscious mind- that there is more to the mind than just the surface behaviour and thoughts. This could lead to a further advantage of the psychodynamic approach- that this approach focuses on the underlying root of the problem issue- rather than just trying to deal with the ‘symptoms’. Furthermore, I found that by linking the current issue with the past- clients could begin to understand ‘why’ they engaged in what they did. In this particular case the client acknowledged that she had subconsciously been picking men because they shared certain characteristics with her late father. Because the client could understand at some level why she had been looking for the ‘wrong’ men she felt that she could now be more aware of the relationships she would choose to engage in in the future. This in a way- enables the client to have more control over the issues that they may experience.

Another disadvantages of the psychodynamic approach is that it places too much emphasis on the unconscious mind and childhood- and does not take other factors into account which may contribute to a client’s problematic issues in adultlife. For example, client 1,  felt a total lack of confidence in work/ social situations. Whilst her childhood experiences may have contributed to the lack of confidence, it does not take other factors in to account- such as individual difference-, cultural differences, biological factors, or learnt behaviours.


The psychodynamic view also  claims that the  ID ego and superego are in constant conflict- The ID is the instinctual part of the mind that drive biological urges such as food, water, sex etc. the superego are the moral values and standards that we are taught, the ego  facilitates and arbitrates between the ID and superego. When these states are in conflict they create anxiety, According to Freud, the use of defence mechanisms is then used to control this anxiety. It does make sense- how defence mechanisms would be useful in helping the individual to ‘protect’ themselves at the time of the anxiety and would explain why ‘repression’ is so often used by clients who cannot consciously recall an traumatic event. Furthermore, whilst considering some of my clients- I could potentially identify the use of some defence mechanisms. For example, one client mentioned that she dealt with some of the anxiety by going to the gym. (Sublimation) Another client who couldn’t maintain social relationships with people as he lacked faith in people and feared that they would leave him- like his father left him when he was a child. (Displacement- expressing his lack of trust to other people as he couldn’t express this to his absent father)

 Overall, Freud’s psychodynamic approach has been an invaluable contribution to the field of psychology- especially as it places so much emphasise on how truma in childhood can impact later adult behaviour. For me-as a counsellor/therapist, this is significant, as through my own experiences whilst working with clients it’s apparent how a client’s childhood almost always seems to shape their adulthood or contribute in some way to the person they are now. On the other hand, I still believe that there are always other factors that should be taken into account which the psychodynamic approach fail to acknowledge. (Individual difference, cultural variations, learnt behaviours, genetic predispositions etc,) Having said this, the psychodynamic approach is one of the first attempts at gaining insight into the psychology of the human mind (despite some of the unorthodox theories). This approach attempts to look at the underlying root cause of the behaviour and not just focus on the solution.

One major criticism of the psychodynamic approach is the lack of evidence to support its theories. There have been just a few case studies supporting Freud’s theories- (Anna O and little Hans) However these are just a few- and cannot be generalised to the rest of the population. Finally, I wonder if some of Freud’s theories could be potentially considered ‘sexist? (Penis envy? According to Freud, woman supposedly feels inferior to a man because he has a penis and she doesn’t!)

 Whereas my approach whilst working with clients tends to be more solution focused- I have found that linking a client’s present behaviour with their past and explaining this to a client towards the end of the session rather helpful. This is because it enlightens us (both the therapist/client) to understand the behaviour a lot better.  However, one challenge is that I do find that over-analysing a client’s past can sometimes be unnecessary and may potentially provoke unpleasant memories for the client.

When comparing the psychodynamic approach to a few clients- I can identify how traumatic events from some of these client’s childhood may have ‘shaped’ and contributed to the person that they are now now. For example, in one particular client, a lack of reassurance and encouragement from the client’s parents when growing up as a child could have easily contributed to this client’s lack of confidence in herself and the workplace. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to identify if there is any particular trauma in ‘early infancy’ that could have contributed to this client’s lack of confidence as an adult, and therefore difficult to prove. How is an adult supposed to recall traumatic events from such an early age? I.e. oral and anal stages of development. Having said this, its possible that traumatic events (even from early infancy)  can simply become repressed in the unconscious mind which is why adults may not consciously recall them or simply they were just too young to recall them. This leads to an additional strength of the psychodynamic approach- which is how it places emphasise on how your past can influence your present behaviour.

Another personal challenge of the psychodynamic approach (with particular reference to the three ego states) is that it is very difficult to prove that these three states exit. When explaining to clients, I found that it was quite difficult for some clients to grasp some of the concept of psychodynamic theories (such as the psychosexual stages of development, the 3 ego states) as they are so abstract with no clear cut evidence to support them. In addition there is a lot of emphasise on sex. I found that this can ‘put off’ potential clients or even confuse them!

Nevertheless, Freud’s theories was one of the first attempts at explaining the human psyche and quite frankly, his theories provide an interesting and fascinating concept of human personality and behaviour that is unique and comprehensive.


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