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A Comparison of Psychodynamic and Humanistic Therapy

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I have done extensive research on both the humanistic and psychodynamic theories. Here are my findings.

The differences between humanistic and psychodynamic theories.

The differences between humanistic and psychodynamic theories.

Psychodynamic vs. Humanistic Theories

Psychology is the study of the mind. There are several different ways to study the mind and all of them have their own significant contributions to the field. The psychodynamic view and the humanistic view are both unique in that they are almost complete polar opposites of one another. Both have made significant contributions and have been a platform for different perspectives, though they differ in their approaches completely. Both views must be explored and combined in order to keep advancing the study and treatment of the mind.

Differing Goals

The goals of psychodynamic and humanistic therapists are very different.

Goals of the Psychodynamic View

The psychodynamic view was developed by Sigmund Freud. He believed that behavior was deeply influenced by unconscious thoughts, impulses, and desires, especially concerning sex and aggression. His goal was to resolve the internal conflicts that lead to emotional suffering. Freud said that "patients could only expect to change their hysterical misery into common unhappiness." The humanistic therapist would take a very different look at this.

Goals of the Humanistic View

The goals of the humanistic therapist differ from Freud's psychodynamic view in that they seek to understand how people perceive themselves and experience the world. It is concerned with understanding subjective human needs. Humanists believe that conscious thoughts and feelings shape behavior. They believe in accountability and self-actuality, and that everyone can reach self-actuality by moving through Maslow's hierarchy of needs. This differs from the Freudian school of psychodynamics because he did not believe that all of his patients could be happy.

On Psychodynamic Therapy

A patient is asked to be spontaneous and free-associate the random thoughts that pop into their mind; sometimes the therapist may give the patient a prompt or a word to begin their free association. Patients are also encouraged to put aside embarrassment and the urge to self-censor. The therapist then tries to identify what the patient might be repressing from their past, and how it may be affecting their present behavior.

— Psychology Today (Psychodynamic Therapy)

Predetermined Fate Versus Free Will

Humanists and psychodynamicists not only differ in their goals but also in their views on personality. The psychodynamic view has been interpreted by some as negative and pessimistic, whereas the humanistic view is that mostly all people are good.

Psychodynamics believes that behavior is determined, while the humanist believes that behavior is free choice and free will. In psychodynamics, motives are rooted in sex and aggression while humanists' motives are tilted towards the pursuit of self-actualization.

Elements of Each Theory

Psychodynamics denotes three elements of the personality: Id, Ego, and Superego. The Id seeks pleasure, the Ego is the thinker and planner, and the Superego is the voice of reason.

Humanists are more simplistic, believing in a unified self and that "people just are who they are."

A diagram of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

A diagram of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Views on Human Development

Psychodynamics puts forth a very different view on child development from humanism.

Freudian View of Human Development

The Freudian and psychodynamic view of human development is based on psychosexual stages as follows:

  • Oral (age 0-1) focuses on sucking and survival
  • Anal (ages 1-3) focuses on potty training
  • Phallic (ages 3-6) focuses on adult traits such as vanity and pride
  • Genital (puberty and beyond) focuses on sexual instincts

Humanistic View of Human Development

The humanistic view is very different from Freud's view of development and describes an ongoing development of self-image in which experiences shape self-image in a positive or negative way.

The photo above is a diagram of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. This diagram is representative of the path to self-actualization, and is highly incorporated into humanistic beliefs.

Difference in therapeutic methods.

Difference in therapeutic methods.

Differing Therapeutic Techniques

The approach to therapy differs greatly between psychodynamic and humanistic therapy.

  • The therapist's role in psychodynamic therapy is authoritative, and they tend to determine what will be talked about during a session.
  • The psychodynamic approach deals with unconscious thoughts and conflicts, usually stemming from repressed memories or sexual energy.
  • In humanistic therapy, the therapist takes an objective role and listens to what the patient has to say. It is more non-directed and the patient can decide what will be discussed during the session.
  • It is said in humanistic therapy, the therapist provides opportunities for change, but it is up to the patient to actively solve his or her own problems.
  • The humanist therapist believes in conscious acts and that humans make their own decisions, not unconscious drives. They encourage responsibility for their actions by focusing on bringing emotions into the present and dealing with them.

A core tenet of humanistic therapy is that people are inherently motivated to fulfill their internal needs—and that each of us has the power to find the best solutions for ourselves and the ability to make appropriate changes in our lives, a concept known as self-actualization.

— Psychology Today (Humanistic Therapy)

Do Psychodynamic and Humanistic Therapies Have Anything in Common?

A lot of research has been done on these two very different approaches. However, there have been no new views that have combined humanism with psychodynamics to utilize the best of both. Science supports the idea that the conscious cannot function without the unconscious. By combining the humanistic and psychodynamic views to focus on the conscious and unconscious as equally responsible parts for the cause of psychological disorders, we could further research the brain and its behavior.

Which Method Is Better?

There is no right or wrong when it comes to different approaches to psychology. The main differences between the psychodynamic view and humanistic view are the goals, development, causes, and treatments; and in each area, both views have made significant contributions. By combining the two views into one harmonious holistic view, a healthier approach to treating the mind and psychological disorders could be formed. The new view would take all parts of the mind and body, conscious and unconscious, into consideration, leading to a stronger diagnosis and treatment in the end.

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Mandy

Would You Like To Add Anything?

Verity on October 15, 2019:

This is, at best, *extremely* inaccurate on psychodynamic theory and approach and, at worst, an ill-informed gross misrepresentation of it. Psychodynamic theory/therapy is NOT negative in its assumptions or approach and it is most certainly not the case in any way whatsoever that the "therapy is authoritative" and that the therapist "tends to determine what will be talked about" — the opposite is the case, actually, because the psychodynamic therapeutic space by its very nature belongs to the person in therapy, not the therapist.

Jonathan on June 20, 2018:

This is very inaccurate. At the very least, it seems as though the author has confused a strictly psychoanalytic approach with psychodynamic therapies. Psychoanalytic therapists are not negative, but they do believe that your background influences your choices. They are STILL recognized as CHOICES - AKA: FREE WILL. The statement about research done on these therapies is false; each of these theories are very hard to study empirically.

Please do not use this as a reference.

Stephane Farley on June 09, 2018:

Thank you for sharing with us this has helped me have more faith in the system.

fofo on July 08, 2017:

very good and clear explaning

mrandersong on March 18, 2014:

It depends on the person. We all have different approaches to life and one approach might work for one person and not the other. I personally believe in Holistic theory because it works for me. The human mind is a very complicated place so to say one works better than the other is just arrogant.

kwj on February 23, 2013:

Thought provoking I will read more now.

anonymous on September 14, 2012:

This is a gross misrepresentation of psychodynamic therapy

anonymous on October 26, 2011:

It is very worthwhile reading this because it is succinct, clear and thought provoking.

Varelli on July 14, 2011:

What an intriguing subject. Great lens, thumbs up!

moonlitta on July 05, 2011:

That is helpful and well explained...Squid Angel blessed too:)

Lorelei Cohen from Canada on June 23, 2011:

You have done an absolutely amazing job on this lens. Thank you for putting so much effort into this. It shows.