A very quick introduction to Psychodynamics


I thought it might be helpful to produce a few short notes that describe the background to the work I do. Whereas there are many ‘coaches’ who work in the field of personal development, there are only a handful of people working as confidants to people of power and who deal primarily with the psychodynamics of organisations. To begin with, I wanted to describe the basics of psychodynamics.

Psychodynamics is the study of the flow of energy created by, and largely contained within, the unconscious* mind but which substantially affects all that we do and feel. It was originally postulated, in the last half of the 1800s, by Ernst Wilhelm von BrΓΌcke, a Professor of Physiology in Berlin, who happened to be one of Sigmund Freud’s lecturers as an undergraduate, and it was Freud who developed the ideas into the form that is largely still applied today. Subsequent workers have generally added to our understanding of the detail and yet, remarkably perhaps, the theories themselves have largely stood the test of a century of further work.

Psychodynamics assumes that in the unconscious there are ongoing conflicts between different parts of our ‘psyche’, and our behaviour in given circumstances depends on the state of these conflicts. Part of us wants to do one thing, and another part wants us to do another. The stronger one wins out and that determines how we will behave.

Freud put forward a theory, still in use today, that there were four forces involved, three being parts of the mind, and one being the outside world. Most immediately affected by external events is the EGO. The ego is the part of our psyche that represents common sense and rational argument. For it to be effective at influencing our behaviour it needs to be quite well organized – tidy. The contrast is the part of our psyche known as the ID. This is the nasty, dark part of our personality. It is primitive and disorganized. It seeks only its own gratification or, more accurately, it is always trying to avoid pain of any kind. The third area of the psyche, is actually a part of the EGO and is known as the SUPER-EGO. It is where we stored the lessons our parents taught us when we were young children to observe, reflect, and critique our own behaviour.

For a senior manager in an organisation to work effectively, they usually need to be making things happen. If it’s a commercial environment this means they need to be making more money than they spend. In a government setting, perhaps the emphasis is on having one ideology, or one set of initiatives, adopted above another. In the academic sphere, it is key to have one’s own ideas accepted. The ID is at play all the time trying to make sure that these things happen. Of course, sometimes deals go wrong, initiatives fail or ideas don’t work. It is at this time, that the EGO tries to make sense of what has happened and change the situation or improve the idea etc so that a positive outcome is achieved. But, if this isn’t possible, then the SUPEREGO kicks in (and may have been playing all along) and ‘tells’ the senior manager how to cope emotionally. Many people have wholly negative scripts playing “You stupid boy!”, “You’ll never be any good”, “You’re so naive” and so on. If they don’t have robust ways of coping with this unconscious self-criticism, then they are likely to be depressed and unlikely to have reached the position they have. So, our senior manager may well have these scripts playing, but they’ve developed complicated ways of making themselves feel justified, right all along, or to compensate.

I’ll discuss some of these ways of coping in another blog, but let’s take one as an example. A very common mechanism, in my experience, used by senior managers to ‘cope’ with threats to their EGO from the SUPEREGO is known as denial. This doesn’t mean denying that the ‘failure’ happened, but denying that one is upset by it. “Oh, you win some; you lose some!” is fine WHEN the person also says, from time-to-time, that they are upset, angry, sad, or whatever, but when it becomes their mantra – “Always look on the bright side!”, “Never take these things personally!”, “I am proud to be a positive person!”, “Things are no different now to when we started – we just need to win one good contract” and so on, then there’s a danger that unconscious denial of their emotional conflict is at work. Does this matter? Well yes, it does. Taken to extreme like this it is indicative of what psychotherapists define as a manic mood – the contrast being a depressive mood. When the person discovers that their defence mechanism no longer works, then they are likely to find themselves suffering from depression.

A lot of people find these models, and the need to dwell on them, hard to understand, but one way to make sense of it is to consider how rarely people’s behaviour is strictly rational. So much of what people do at work, in their home lives, at school, socially – in fact almost everywhere – is ineffective and inefficient and therefore generally irrational. Psychodynamics theory is simply a set of models that help us to make sense of the irrationality of most behaviour. There are other models, followed by academics from other disciplines, such as evolutionary biology and ethology, but psychodynamics is the one that is most popular among the medical and psychological communities.

Psychodynamics and the individual

Freud believed that there were two types of thinking – primary and secondary. Secondary is conscious and tends to be rational. Primary is unconscious and suspends many of the constraints imposed by ‘logic’. When we are awake, we use secondary thinking, whereas when we are asleep we are more likely to use primary thinking.

Dreams are one of the windows that we have on the unconscious, and are said to have two components – the manifest (the story as it appeared in the dream) and the latent (the story that can be interpreted). A great deal of effort has gone into understanding the nature of dreams and the psychological processes at play when we have them.

The primary process of dreams involves, at least, three things – condensation, displacement and symbolism. It is these that the ‘analyst’ will help the dreamer interpret. As rational thought is suspended in dreams, they are said to allow the unconstrained ‘id’ to fulfil its wishes.

In my work as a confidant, we don’t often interpret dreams, but we do use other ‘windows’ and, certainly, we work with the idea of an unconscious phantasy and what it is that prevents it from being realised. We also often work with the ‘scripts’ that we have acquired from our parents and how they influence our aspirations and behaviour in the wider world.

* The term ‘subconscious’ is only used by laymen; those involved in psychodynamics professionally only ever refer to the conscious (abbreviated Cs) and unconscious (abbreviated UnCs).

I am happy to comment, or deliver keynote sessions, on any of the topics that I post about.
For media and speaking enquiries, please call me, Graham Wilson, on 07785 222380.

Best wishes


Psychodynamic confidant, working behind the scenes, helping those of power see organisations, situations, themselves, and other people differently
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