Psychodynamic Theory - Part 1

"Today, thanks to Freud, the man-on-the-street knows that, when he thinks a thing, the thing he thinks is not the thing he thinks he thinks, but only the thing he thinks he thinks he thinks." W.H. Auden, 1952.

Psychic Determinism and Unconscious Motivation

Psychodynamic (psychoanalytic) theory flows from two inter-locking assumptions. The first is that there is an Unconscious. What this means is that our behavior, our perceptions of the world, and our emotions are at least partly determined by forces outside of our awareness and thus outside of our rational control. These forces, which include emotions, impulses, and wishes - are the contents of the Unconscious.

The second major assumption of psychodynamic theory is that of Psychic Determinism. The principle of Psychic Determinism holds that everything we do has meaning and purpose and is goal-directed. To put it another way: there is no such thing as random or meaningless behavior for a psychoanalytically-inclined observer. This assumption allows the observer to utilize an exceptionally large amount of data in searching for the roots and meaning of a person's behavior and feelings. Everything: from an offhand comment, to a mundane pattern of behavior, to bizarre behavior, dreams, idle passing thoughts, slips of the tongue, even the contents of delusions and hallucinations, has significance and meaning and can serve as the basis for understanding someone.

These two ideas - Psychic Determinism and the Unconscious - are conceptually linked. Notice that if you make the assumption that everything a person does has meaning, then you are confronted with the problem that when you ask a patient, for example, why he has not followed through on your recommendation to lose weight and change his diet, often he is unable to answer or offers a reason that doesn't really seem to explain the negligence (like, "I haven't gotten around to it yet."). This problem is solved by the concept of the Unconscious - that is, in this example, the gentleman is being influenced by some impulse or fear or motive of which he is not aware. Perhaps he is trying to control his fear of dying of heart disease by simply pretending there is no problem. If he's telling himself there is no problem, then there is no reason for him to change his eating habits.

It is nearly impossible to emphasize sufficiently how powerful and useful these two related concepts are. Perhaps the best way to make the point is to say that for most people these ideas sound more like common-sense than psychological theory. These concepts have become part of our cultural heritage since they were proposed by Sigmund Freud at the turn of the century. Each of us applies these concepts regularly. We may wonder "Why doesn't my sister break up with that guy, he treats her like a second class citizen?", or "Why can't my boyfriend give me a commitment, he keeps saying he doesn't know what the problem is?" When we answer these questions with observations like "She can't dump her boyfriend because at some level she believes he is all she deserves" and "My boyfriend won't propose because he's afraid of divorce after living through the divorce of his parents when he was a kid" - we are assuming that these people are motivated by fears and feelings that are at least partly outside of their awareness and thus outside of their complete control.

The two principles of Psychic Determinism and the Unconscious provide an approach for thinking about people, but they do not specify the contents of our unconscious impulses, fears, wishes, defenses, etc. There is more than one way to conceptualize these contents. Freud proposed a coherent theory of personality, but there are 2 or 3 other branches of psychodynamic thinking which reject his conceptualization and fill in the blanks, so to speak, with different ideas. Those ideas will be discussed later.

Drive-Discharge Model of Motivation

What was Freud's conception of human motivation? For Freud, we are all Tension-Reducers (or Drive-Dischargers, the same thing). The Drive-Discharge model of human motivation holds that when a bodily need is activated a state of tension is created, which the person feels compelled to reduce as quickly as possible. For Freud, even the most complex behaviors and feelings are the result of attempts to discharge the tension created by an activated drive. As you probably know, Freud felt that two drives: Libido and Aggression were the most psychologically relevant motivators for human behavior and emotion. From Freud's perspective, to understand psychological development was to understand the ways in which Libido and Aggression are expressed at different ages (and reacted to by parents), and to understand functioning was to understand the ways in which the person controls, diverts, expresses, fears, projects, denies, and so on, Libidinal and Aggressive urges.

The Structure and Topography of Personality

Freud proposed that personality is composed of three structures: the Id, Ego, and Superego. These three 'structures' do not have anatomical correlates, and not even Freud, with his 19th century understanding of neuroanatomy, believed they did. They are ways of conceptualizing the competing internal forces which we all feel.

1) Id: The Id is present at birth and is the ultimate source of instinctual energy. It is unorganized, uninhibited, nonrational, and completely impulsive. It is not really a thing but rather a set of impulses which act on the basis of the Pleasure Principle. The Pleasure Principle calls for the immediate reduction of any tension that may arise. Pleasure is defined in this context as the discharge of tension.

2) Ego: The Ego operates by the Reality Principle and is not considered to be present at birth. It consists of the various higher cortical functions: attention, concentration, perception, memory, planning, forethought, impulse control, social reasoning, abstract thinking, etc. It is the Ego which conducts interpersonal relations and which conducts Reality Testing (the discrimination between reality and fantasy). The primary function of the Ego is to try to satisfy the Id as much as possible. The Id is so primitive that it would lead a person to act in such a way that it would probably endanger the person. The Ego is responsible for knowing what social conventions are and which of them apply in a specific situation, and it tries to find alternative routes for the satisfaction of a given drive. For example, killing somebody is not socially acceptable but pounding your hand on a table is. It is the Ego which directs the displacement of the aggressive impulse from one area into another more acceptable direction to achieve at least partial satisfaction of the impulse.

3) Superego: The Superego is that part of ourselves which is not only aware of social convention but actually feels connected to and identified with social values, moral principles, and the principles and ideals of our parents. The Superego is based on internalized societal values concerning how people should behave, what is "good" behavior and what is "bad" behavior, what is admirable and courageous, and what is not. The Superego is not concerned with what is safe or dangerous (what will bring punishment), because that is the concern of the Ego. In the Superego resides an acceptance of and heartfelt identification with the higher moral principles we learn first from our parents and then through contact with teachers and other authorities. In the Superego resides our wish to be altruistic and to do good. It is also that part of ourselves which can make us feel guilty (the Conscience) when we do not live up to our principles, and which can make us feel proud and special when we do live up those values (the Ego Ideal).

Psychosexual Development

One of the most lasting contributions of Psychodynamic theory has to do with the assumption that events in the past, and particularly events from childhood have an effect on who we are, how we act and feel, and how we perceive the world today. Before Freud, childhood development was thought to occur in discrete stages, meaning that once you passed through a stage you left that developmental task behind and were a blank slate for the next stage. In general, only cognitive developments were of interest to psychologists studying and thinking about children in those days, and very little thought was given to emotional and personality development. The reigning idea was that children had very uncomplicated emotional lives. Freud, in a resounding way, completely contradicted that accepted wisdom: he said that children have very complicated emotional lives, that cognitive development depends to a great degree on emotional development, and that experiences in early stages of development inevitably have an effect on later ones, even in normal children. So, Freud popularized and established the idea that childhood experiences have an enormous effect on adult personality functioning. This is another one of those psychoanalytic concepts that is so powerful as to seem simplistic and common-sensical in modern day. Very few of us would honestly say that we think we were not influenced by who our particular parents were, what particular kind of family we grew up in, where we lived, the relationship between our parents, and so on.

And what are the developmental stages proposed by Freud?

Freud saw children as passing through a series of developmental stages, each stage being characterized by the importance of a different zone of the body that is the major focus for libidinal and aggressive impulses. An example is the Oral Stage (the first developmental stage) wherein the mouth is the center of activity and is the primary zone through which the infant comes into contact with the world and through which primitive satisfaction is derived. The subsequent stages and their order of appearance are: Anal -> Phallic -> Oedipal -> Latency -> and Genital Phases. Excessive gratification or deprivation, or any psychological trauma during a particular stage can affect the personality during adulthood in 4 ways:

1) Regression/Fixation: For example: insufficient opportunity for gratification during the Oral Stage can leave a legacy of pessimism, dependency, or an excessive need for approval. Another example: too early/too severe toilet training during the Anal Stage can lead to compulsive neatness, stubborness, ambivalence, indecisiveness, or an overconcern with control.
2) Defense Mechanisms: See below for explanations of some of the major defense mechanisms. These mechanisms fall on a continuum of primitive to sophisticated. The more primitive the mechanism, the earlier in development it began (in reaction to trauma, excessive gratification, or deprivation).
3) Repetition Compulsion: see Object Relations section below.
4) Mastery Through Reversal of Voice: see Object relations section below.

Anxiety and the Defense Mechanisms

Much of the Ego's activity may be seen as attempts to reduce anxiety. There are two main types of anxiety (1 and 2, below), and two others which are also important:
1) Moral Anxiety is the result of condemnation by the conscience (a feeling of guilt or shame) because the person has not lived up to Superego standards of conduct (standards which are essentially internalized parental and social moral values).
2) Neurotic Anxiety is the result of the fear that a primitive Id impulse will take over the person's behavior and lead to very anti-social behavior.
3) Separation Anxiety is the fear of being separated from a person on whom one depends.
4) Ego Disintegration Anxiety is the fear that one will not be able to cope with and channel intense feelings (such as loneliness, sadness, anger, etc.) and that as a result the feelings will be so overwhelming as to lead to psychotic breakdown.

The Ego has a number of Defense Mechanisms at its disposal to reduce the above anxieties. These mechanisms can reduce anxiety either by altering one's perception of reality or by altering the feelings or impulses that are causing the anxiety.

Defense mechanisms can be thought of as falling along a continuum from primitive to mature, depending on how much of a distortion of reality or the feelings/impulses is caused by the mechanism. The ten mechanisms below are listed in order, from more primitive to more mature. The most mature mechanisms are not listed (sublimation, altruism, genuine humor), and this is not an exhaustive list. Keep in mind that these are not conscious actions but are rather motivated and carried out unconsciously.

1) Denial is the denial of external reality so that the implications of that reality are not apprehended. This involves a reliance on fantasy in preference to the perception of reality. Medical patients often try Denial as their first attempt to cope with illness; in doing this they are attempting to control the terror they would otherwise feel if they faced reality squarely.

2) Projection is the attribution of one's own unacknowledged feelings to others. An example is hatred toward a minority group ("They're lazy, stupid, worthless.") when in fact the person harbors great doubts about his own worth, intelligence, etc. Being caught up in hating someone else is much more comfortable psychologically than feeling worthless.

3) Dissociation is the segregation of any group of mental processes from the rest of a person's mental activities. Thoughts, memories, feelings, even one's own identity, are literally walled off. Dissociation occurs in the dissociative disorders - such as psychogenic amnesia, psychogenic fugue states, and multiple personality disorder. Anxiety is reduced by dissociation because a given troubling feeling, thought, memory, fact , or whole identity is disowned, wiped out. Example: depersonalization/derealization in sexual abuse context is the initial use of dissociation as a defense.

4) Regression is a partial return to an earlier pattern of behavior or an earlier emotional style to cope with anxiety. The purpose is to recruit caretaking by others and to bask in the fantasy of complete safety under the care of strong 'parental' figure(s). This defense mechanism is commonly used by people with medical illnesses: passivity, dependency on staff for even small tasks, decisions; excessive demands for attention; excessive complaints about pain, service, etc - all are examples of regressed behavior.

5) Passive-Aggressive Behavior is aggression, anger, etc. toward others expressed indirectly through passivity. An example is showing up late for a friend's wedding because he did not make you his best man. Procrastination is often a passive-aggressive behavior.

6) Reaction Formation involves behaving in a fashion diametrically opposed to an unacceptable feeling or impulse. An example is the extremely independent person who says he needs no help and no friends but in fact has strong longings to be taken care of. He makes unconscious use of reaction formation because in his experience to express needs for help and support is to invite rejection and ridicule.

7) Displacement is the redirection of feelings toward a relatively less cared for, and thus less important person or object, than the person/situation/object arousing the feelings. Example: yelling at the kids when one is really angry at the boss.

8) Undoing is an action that symbolically reverses an unacceptable feeling/impulse/behavior. The rituals engaged in by obsessive-compulsives (such as touching a doorknob 3 times before being able to leave a room; compulsive hand washing; complicated thought rituals) are often, but not always, attempts to magically neutralize a guilt feeling or to ward off some expected punishment.

9) Identification with the aggressor: a threatening person is identified with (which means to take on some of his/her characteristics) as a way to lessen anxiety caused by that person. Example: a child who plays doctor in an unconscious effort to allay anxiety about an upcoming appointment. Example: a political kidnap victim who begins to sympathize with the radical views of the kidnappers.

10) Intellectualization is an emphasis on abstractions or irrelevant details or inanimate objects or external reality to avoid experiencing feelings and to avoid expressing them. Example is physician who in giving bad news to patients immediately emphasizes technical details about drug treatment (frequency, dosage, research results, etc.) to the exclusion of grappling with patient's fear/sadness and physician's own fear/sadness.