Mental health clinicians and researchers often debate which is the best type of therapy, but the research suggests that in general most of the main forms of psychotherapy can be equally effective. Some of the common factors for success in talk therapy (obtaining the outcome the client is looking for) has to do with things like the psychologist being competent in the type of psychotherapy that the client needs and the quality of the therapeutic relationship (e.g. is the psychologist supportive and empathic).
One of the most important predictors of success is that clients understand the therapeutic process. As Aaron Beck famously observed, psychotherapy can be done in a barn, meaning it doesn’t have to be a mysterious process shrouded in mystery. The more clients understand the process of therapy, the more likely they are to benefit from it. So for these reasons I thought I’d write a few blog posts on the main schools of psychotherapy.
Sigmund Freud is often credited as creating the “talking cure,” now known as psychoanalytic or psychodynamic therapy. Freud believed that mental illnesses arose from unconscious conflicts within an individual. Though Freudian thought remains influential (about 25% of therapists are psychodynamic), psychodynamic methods have developed considerably since Freud.
Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and early disciple of Freud’s, developed analytical psychology which was influenced by more humanistic forms of thought. Unlike Freud, Jung had less emphasis on raw biological drives and more emphasis on forms of self-actualization and the collective unconscious. Jung had an interest in religion, especially eastern religions and focused on people’s future aspirations as well as their past. Like Jung, Alfred Adler originally followed and then broke from Freud as he focused less on instincts and instead emphasized the importance of seeking goals and other humanistic ideals. Adler focused on a person’s individual experience, seeking to change their illogical ideas and assumptions. This approach of Adler in some ways presaged cognitive behavioral therapy (which is very popular today).
Psychodynamic techniques continue to evolve. For example, Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (EDP) tends to focus on client’s current emotional experience and bodily sensations, among other factors, through the guidance of an actively involved therapist.
While psychodynamic therapies can vary widely, psychodynamic therapies often work on the assumption that emotions that we are unaware of impact our relationships. Thus, a psychodynamic therapist will often seek to illuminate and interpret defense mechanisms to provide insight into a client’s behaviors and life. Therapy, in this school of thought, will often involve working through things like transference (process of misplacing feelings regarding one person onto another) and resistance (avoidance of important issues) to help people feel better and achieve their goals.
Though many serious criticisms have been leveled against Freud’s theories, some of his ideas remain influential and continue to inform contemporary clinicians across schools of mental health. For example, early childhood experiences can help shape adult personalities. And while not always agreeing on the model of the id, ego and superego, there is considerable cognitive research supporting the notion that much of human behavior operates via unconscious processes. Also, there is wide support within psychology for the idea of defense mechanisms.
I’m not a psychodynamic psychologist, but this school of thought is enjoying more research support, and I do know several good psychologists who use this model of therapy. The key is finding the right psychologist and style of therapy for you.
McCullough, L., Kuhn, N., Andrews, S., Kaplan, A., Wolf, J., & Hurley, C. (2003). Treating affect phobia: A manual for short-term dynamic psychotherapy. New York: The Guilford Press.
Vaillant, L. (1997). Changing character: Short-term anxiety-regulating psychotherapy for restructuring defenses, affects, and attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Wachtel, P. (2008). Relational theory and the practice of psychotherapy. New York: The Guilford Press.
Wampold, B. (2001). The great psychotherapy debate: Models, methods, and findings. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Wampold, B. (2010). The Basics of psychotherapy: An introduction to theory and practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.