Core Principles of Psychodynamic Therapy Approach

Psychodynamic Therapy

Psychodynamic therapy—the psychological interpretation of mental and emotional processes—is rooted in traditional psychoanalysis. It draws from object relations, ego psychology, and self psychology. Developed as a simpler, less-lengthy alternative to psychoanalysis, psychodynamic therapy aims to address the foundation and formation of psychological processes to alleviate symptoms and improve people’s lives.

Core Principles of Psychodynamic Therapy

In psychodynamic therapy, therapists help people review emotions, thoughts, early-life experiences, and beliefs to gain insight into their lives and their present-day problems and to evaluate the patterns they have developed over time. Recognizing recurring patterns can help people see how they avoid distress or develop defense mechanisms to cope so that they can take steps to change those patterns.

The therapeutic relationship is central to psychodynamic therapy, as it can demonstrate how a person interacts with their friends and loved ones. In addition, transference in therapy—transferring one’s feelings for a parent, for example, onto the therapist—can also help illuminate how early-life relationships affect a person today. This intimate look at interpersonal relationships can help people understand their part in relationship patterns and empower them to transform that dynamic.

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Psychodynamic therapy is available to individuals, couples, families, or groups as short-term or long-term therapy. Brief psychodynamic therapy is goal-oriented and can take as many as 25 sessions, while long-term psychodynamic therapy may take two years or more.

Accessing the Unconscious

To keep painful feelings, memories, and experiences in the unconscious, people tend to develop defense mechanisms, such as denial, repression, rationalization, and others. Psychodynamic therapists encourage people to speak freely about their emotions, desires, and fears to reveal vulnerable feelings that have been pushed out of conscious awareness. According to psychodynamic theory, behavior is influenced by unconscious thought, and once vulnerable or painful feelings are processed the defense mechanisms reduce or resolve.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM)

The Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) was released in 2006 to offer a conceptual framework for human psychological functioning and to serve as an alternative to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Whereas the DSM outlines observable symptoms associated with mental health conditions, the PDM describes subjective experiences.

Improvisational Psychodynamic Music Therapy

One approach to psychodynamic therapy is psychodynamic music therapy. This innovative and creative form of therapy involves exploration of various instruments, including guitars, drums, pianos, and others. This kind of music therapy is non-directive and does not require any musical inclination. Instead, people are encouraged to improvise and express themselves through music in any way they wish. Music therapists are highly trained to identify various personality traits and emotional issues based on how the person in therapy creates the music. As they build their therapeutic alliance, they can both participate in the music making as a method for strengthening their bond and accessing deeper tools of communication. For individuals with high levels of anxiety or fear, the music can provide a soothing backdrop, or element of release, during difficult therapeutic sessions.


  1. Knekt, P., Lindfors, O., Härkänen, T., Välikoski, M., Virtala, E., et al. (2008). Randomized trial on the effectiveness of long- and short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy and solution-focused therapy on psychiatric symptoms during a 3-year follow-up. Psychological Medicine, 38(5), 689-703. doi:
  2. Leichsenring, F., Hiller, W., Weissberg, M., & Leibing, E. (2006). Cognitive-behavioral therapy and psychodynamic psychotherapy: Techniques, efficacy, and indications. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 60(3), 233-59. Retrieved from
  3. Luborsky, Ellen, O’Reilly-Landry, Maureen, and Arlow, Jacob. (2008). Psychoanalysis. In Raymond J. Corsini and Danny Wedding (Eds.), Current Psychotherapies (pp. 15–62). Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education


Last updated: 02-14-2018

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