15 Psychodynamic Theory Examples

Psychodynamic theory examples and definition, explained below

Psychodynamic theory is an approach to understanding human behavior that emphasizes the role of underlying factors and subconscious forces.

This approach postulates that subconscious motivations are at the root of conscious experience and behavior. By understanding the subconscious, one can gain insight into why humans behave the way they do.

According to psychodynamic theory, the subconscious is constructed through experiences throughout life, particularly in early childhood when a person is first formulating their understanding of the world.

Those experiences establish expectations and thinking patterns that become entrenched in the mind of the individual and influence their thoughts and emotional reactions throughout their lifespan.

Primary Components of Psychodynamic Theory 

Psychodynamic theory is the examination of the interplay of “psychic energy” between the id, ego, and superego.

  • The id represents the psychic energy that fuels the instincts.
  • The superego represents the moral principles as defined by society and parental figures.
  • The ego is the mediator between the desires and impulses of the id and the restrictions on behavior imposed by the superego.

Personality develops as a result of the interplay between these energies and childhood experiences, heavily influenced by the parents and family dynamics.

According to psychodynamic theory, most of what drives a person’s behavior is a result of subconscious processes. Most of these forces are not detectable in conscious awareness.

This is where the popular iceberg analogy is usually mentioned, as a pictorial representation of the interplay between the id, ego and superego, and the division of the conscious and subconscious.

Surprisingly, although the iceberg analogy probably appears in every textbook published that references psychodynamic theory, Freud never used the analogy himself (Green, 2019).

Psychodynamic Theory Examples

Below are some examples of psychodynamic theory as applied to specific behaviors or situations in everyday life.

  • Compulsive Hand-Washing: A psychodynamic approach to understanding this problem behavior would be to look for early childhood trauma associated with obsessive fear of germs.
  • Fear of Relationship Commitment: An individual that has a fear of making a long-term commitment in a relationship may have experienced a childhood that involved emotionally detached or uninvolved parents. This could lead to a fear of abandonment in later adult romantic relationships that makes commitment difficult.
  • Impulsiveness: Being impulsive means not thinking things through clearly and methodically. It can result in an individual engaging in counter-productive behavior such as staying out all night instead of studying for an exam the next morning. From a psychodynamic perspective, this may be the result of an imbalance between the id and superego.
  • Infidelity: In many cultures, marriage involves giving up certain aspects of being single, such as having multiple partners. For an individual with an excessively strong libido, that may compel them to seek physical intimacy outside of marriage. 
  • Nervous Laughter: Nervous laughter often occurs at very awkward moments. Sometimes it can come across as rude. However, from a psychodynamic perspective, nervous laughter is a way to redirect energy from an anxiety-provoking situation that protects the person from being overwhelmed with anxiety.
  • Substance Use: Having difficulties refraining from overusing substances such as alcohol may be the result of an ineffective superego. A person simply does not have enough self-discipline to control prevent themselves from indulging.
  • Sublimation: Sometimes socially unacceptable desires and urges are transformed into socially acceptable behavior. This can result in artistic creation and expressiveness that allows the person to exercise subconscious energy in a constructive manner.
  • The Slip of the Tongue: When at a social function that involves an energetic conversation about desserts, one person intends to profess her love for chocolate. Instead, she blurts out how much she loves Charlie, who happens to be sitting across from her.     
  • Obeying the Law: Abiding by the laws of society, despite the restraint it represents on things we would really like to do, is a function of the superego’s influence and control over the id-driven impulses of debauchery.  
  • Returning a Dropped Wallet: Finding a wallet on the sidewalk and discovering a large sum of cash can be very tempting. If in financial need, the id will surely encourage pocketing the money for oneself. However, the superego may be powerful enough to compel the individual to use the contact card found in the wallet and return it to its rightful owner (with the cash still in it).
  • Procrastination: A person who consistently puts off tasks may be exhibiting resistance, a defense mechanism in which the individual unconsciously avoids confrontation with uncomfortable feelings or situations. This could stem from a fear of failure or rejection, which could be traced back to early childhood experiences.
  • Fear of Public Speaking: This fear could be linked to early childhood experiences of humiliation or embarrassment. From a psychodynamic perspective, the individual might be unconsciously projecting these past experiences onto their current situation, leading to an irrational fear.
  • Difficulty Making Decisions: An individual might consistently have trouble making decisions due to a deeply embedded fear of making a wrong choice, possibly stemming from a strict, punitive upbringing where mistakes were severely chastised.
  • Nightmares or Recurring Dreams: From a psychodynamic perspective, these might be understood as manifestations of unresolved conflicts or traumas. The dreamer might be unconsciously trying to confront and deal with these issues in their sleep.
  • Extreme Perfectionism: An individual might develop a tendency towards perfectionism due to an unconscious need to please a parental figure or avoid criticism. This drive could be based on past experiences with high expectations or criticism in their upbringing.
  • Dependence on Validation from Others: Someone who consistently seeks approval from others may have had experiences in their early development where their needs were inconsistently met. They might unconsciously seek to fulfill these unmet needs through the validation of others in adulthood.
  • Excessive Control and Orderliness: An individual displaying these characteristics might have experienced chaotic or unstable circumstances in their early life. Their need for control and order could be an unconscious attempt to manage anxiety and create predictability.
  • Persistent Self-doubt and Low Self-esteem: If an individual constantly doubts their worth or abilities, it might be a reflection of an internalized negative self-image from early relationships with important figures who were critical or unsupportive.

Origins of Psychodynamic Theory 

Sigmund Freud created psychodynamic theory in the late 19th century to describe how psychological energy flows through the human psyche.

He was deeply inspired by his advisor Ernest von Brücke at the University of Vienna, who theorized that all living organisms are comprised of finite energy systems. Energy is transferred from one component of the system to others.

Freud used the concept of libido to refer to this energy, which he believed was primarily a sexual energy that is transformed into other forms of expression in overt behavior.

Other scholars such as Alfred Adler, Erik Erikson, and Carl Jung extended psychodynamic theory in various ways. 

Key Concept: Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms help people cope with anxiety or disturbing thoughts and feelings. They usually occur outside of conscious awareness and involve a distortion of reality.

Although defense mechanisms are typically cast in a negative light, Freud believed they served a very valuable purpose and were a natural part of healthy human functioning.

That characterization was affirmed by Bowins (2004), who stated that:

“Psychological defense mechanisms represent a crucial component of our capacity to maintain emotional homeostasis. Without them the conscious mind would be much more vulnerable to negatively charged emotional input, such as that pertaining to anxiety and sadness” (p. 1).

Hierarchy Of Defense Mechanisms

Not all defense mechanisms are created equal. Clinical psychologists have created a hierarchy of defense mechanisms that ranges from being adaptive to less constructive (Di Giuseppe & Perry, 2021).

Hierarchical Levels of Defense:

LevelsSpecific Defense Mechanisms
High AdaptiveAltruism, Humor, Sublimation  
Mental InhibitionsDisplacement, Intellectualization, Repression  
Minor Image-distortingDevaluation, Idealization, Omnipotence  
Major Image-distortingDenial, Projection, Rationalization  
ActionActing Out, Passive Aggression  
Defensive DysregulationProjection, Distortion, Denial  

Adapted from Cramer (2000).

Although defense mechanisms are often characterized as lacking empirical support, some researchers disagree:

“More than half century of empirical research has demonstrated the impact of defensive functioning in psychological well-being, personality organization and treatment process-outcome” (Di Giuseppe & Perry, 2021, p. 1).

Efficacy of Psychotherapy 

A common misnomer in the general public is that psychotherapy based on Freudian theory is ineffective. However, when examining published research on the efficacy of psychotherapy, a different understanding is gained.

A meta-analysis is a research methodology that involves summarizing the results of a large number of studies (Rosenthal, 1991; Rosenthal & DiMatteo, 2001).

The analysis results in the calculation of an effect size, which is a statistical index of the strength of a variable in relation to a specific outcome or other variable.

For reference, a meta-analysis of antidepressant medications approved by the FDA from 1987-2004 revealed an overall effect size of .31 (Turner et al., 2008).

The first substantial meta-analysis of psychotherapy included 475 studies and revealed an overall effect size of .85 (Smith et al., 1980).

Robinson et al. (1990) conducted a meta-analysis 37 studies using psychotherapy to treat depression specifically, found an effect size of .73.

Lipsey & Wilson (1993) summarized the results of 18 meta-analyses on psychotherapy and found a median effect size of .75, compared to 23 meta-analyses on CBT and behavior modification which revealed an effect size of .62.

In a more recent review, Shedler (2010) states that:

“…available evidence indicates that effect sizes for psychodynamic psychotherapies are as large as those reported for other treatments that have been actively promoted as “empirically supported” and “evidence based.” (p. 18).

Strengths and Weaknesses of Psychodynamic Theory 

1. Strength: Seeks Lasting Change

Psychodynamic theory’s approach to therapy is an insight-driven strategy that seeks long-term change.

This is an admirable goal and is similar to most therapeutic goals. All therapies strive for the client to experience resolutions that will be long-lasting and not short-term.

However, the psychodynamic strategy accomplishes lasting change not by fixing behavioral manifestations of dysfunction. The theory is clear in that in order to attain long-lasting change requires a deeper exploration.

2. Strength: Is Focused on Meaningful Change

One criticism of behavioral approaches to therapy is that the end-goal is short-sighted and shallow.

The therapy is designed to create change quickly and efficiently. It has often been criticized as just addressing symptoms instead of attacking the root cause of a psychological problem.

The psychodynamic approach is just the opposite. The goal is to penetrate deep within the psychological dynamics of the client’s issues. The goal is to discover the deep-rooted causes of dysfunction and impact change that is substantial and meaningful.

3. Weakness: Lacks Focus

One criticism of psychodynamic therapy is that it lacks focus. In many ways, therapy is a process, or more like a journey of self-discovery.

In this sense, there is no way of predicting the path to the end-goal of healing.

The therapist and client spend a lot of time discussing the possible meanings of events, thought processes, and emotional dynamics of numerous situations.

This is in contrast to other therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which contains a clear target and a relatively standardized approach to accomplish the end-goal.

4. Weakness: Ignores Biological Factors

Psychotherapy is referred to as a “talk therapy,” which means that the approach involves a lot of verbal exchange between the therapist and client.

However, there are several psychological disorders that have a biological basis, such as some forms of depression and substance abuse. Those ailments are often treated with medication.

However, prescribing medication as a treatment is not a component of psychotherapy, and therefore it does not address the fundamental root cause of some disorders. 


Psychodynamic theory posits that human behavior is a function of the interplay between three forces and the psychic energy that is exchanged among them.

Originally proposed by Freud and extended by others, it has become a highly influential perspective on human behavior.

Defense mechanisms play a central role in psychological health. When a person is experiencing inner turmoil from anxiety or conflicted desires, defense mechanisms can help transform the negative energy into a socially acceptable form of expression.

Psychodynamic theory has resulted in a therapeutic approach in which the patient explores the underlying meaning of their behavior. The discovery of these dynamics allows for healing and resolution.

Several scientific studies have examined this approach and concluded that it is a viable alternative and on a similar scale of effectiveness as CBT and behavior modification.


Adler, A. (2002). The collected clinical works of Alfred Adler (Vol. 1). Alfred Adler Institute.

American Psychological Association. Psychodynamic psychotherapy brings lasting benefits through self-knowledge.

Bowins, B. (2004). Psychological defense mechanisms: A New Perspective. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 64, 1-26.

Cramer, P. (2000). Defense mechanisms in psychology today: Further processes for adaptation. American Psychologist, 55(6), 637-646.

Di Giuseppe, M., & Perry, J. C. (2021). The hierarchy of defense mechanisms: Assessing defensive functioning with the Defense Mechanisms Rating Scales Q-Sort. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 718440.

Freud, A. (1937). The Ego and the mechanisms of defense, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Freud, S. (1894). The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 41-61.

Freud, S. (2012). The basic writings of Sigmund Freud. Modern library.

Green, C. D. (2019). Where did Freud’s iceberg metaphor of mind come from? History of Psychology, 22(4), 369b.

Jung, C. G. (2014). The archetypes and the collective unconscious. Routledge.

Rosenthal, R. (1991). Meta-analytic procedures for social research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Rosenthal, R. & DiMatteo, M.R. (2001). Meta-analysis: Recent developments in quantitative methods for literature reviews. Annual Review of Psychology, 52, 59-82.

Shedler, J. (2010). The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 65(2), 98. Turner, E.H., Matthews, A.M., Linardatos, E, Tell, R.A., Rosenthal, R. (2008). Selective publication of antidepressant trials and its influence on apparent efficacy. New England Journal of Medicine, 358, 252-260.

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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