THE BLOG
05/09/2014 10:53 am ET | Updated Jul 09, 2014

Psychodynamic Psychotherapy: How Learning About Your Mind Can Help Your LIfe

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Psychodynamic psychotherapy: How learning about your mind can help your life

Ann and Brian, both in their late 20s, fall in love and are very happy, enjoying their jobs, their friends, and a romantic sex life. After three years of dating, they get engaged and move in together. Soon after, Brian becomes irritable, critical of Ann, and less interested in sex. He knows that he loves Ann and wants to have a life with her and can't figure out why he is behaving this way. What's going on? What should he do?

Your unconscious mind:
It's very possible that Brian's behavior is caused by thoughts and feelings that he has but of which he's not aware. We can say that they are unconscious. Maybe he's not aware of how much he fears commitment, or of how anxious he is that he won't be a good father. Perhaps moving in together activated these hidden fears, causing them to affect his behavior without his knowing why.

Things like this happen all the time. Your unconscious thoughts and feelings affect what you do without your even knowing it. When you're unaware that it's happening, you can feel and do things and not know why. This can lead to anxiety, depression, difficulties with relationships, and problems with self-esteem -- all caused by things going on in your unconscious mind. Bringing them into awareness can help you to understand them, rather than be controlled by them. This is what psychodynamic psychotherapy is all about.

How do you access the part of your mind that's unconscious?
Getting to thoughts and feelings of which you are unaware might seem a tricky proposition. But in psychodynamic psychotherapy, we can do just that using a few basic techniques. The first is called free association, which is saying whatever comes to mind without editing. If you really just let your mind wander, it goes from one thing to the next and before you know it you're tapping into the unconscious. Second, you can talk about dreams and fantasies, which often blend things that happen in your current life with memories. Third, discussing feelings about your therapist -- called the transference -- can help you to become aware of the unconscious thoughts and feelings that you have about other people and how they affect your relationships.

How do you benefit from knowing about your unconscious mind?
The more aware you are of your thoughts and feelings, the more control you can have over your decisions, your interactions with others, and your life. Your unconscious thoughts and feelings are often old worries and anxieties from childhood that, as an adult, you no longer have to avoid or fear -- realizing this can free you up in all sorts of ways. For example, becoming aware of an old, unconscious fear that being assertive makes you unpopular could free you up to move forward in your career.

Becoming aware of the habitual, unconscious ways that you deal with stress can help you to develop better coping mechanisms. Perhaps you deal with anxiety provoking situations by avoiding them, which can get you into trouble, or by getting angry with loved ones -- recognizing that you do this is the first step toward coping with stress in more adaptive ways.

Exploring your unconscious mind in psychodynamic psychotherapy can also help your therapist to support you in ways you didn't even know you needed. For example, if you're depressed, you may have difficulty feeling good about yourself. Your therapist can point this out but can also help to encourage and motivate you. Or your therapist can help you to organize your thoughts during a personal crisis. This kind of support can be a lifeline -- and the more your therapist understands how you operate both consciously and unconsciously, the more precise this support can be.

Psychodynamic psychotherapy can also help you to begin doing things you didn't learn to do earlier in your life. If you have difficulty counting on others, growing to trust your therapist might help you to trust people in ways you never did before, or if you feel misunderstood by others, feeling understood by your therapist might make you finally believe that others really can "get" you.

Finally, talking about all of the parts of your mind -- conscious and unconscious -- helps put together the full story of your life. A psychoanalyst friend of mine once said that it helps you to "own your history -- rather than being a victim of it." Understanding how and why you came to be the way you are can help you to move forward in your life in new ways.

And the logistics...
Depending on the goals, psychodynamic psychotherapy is conducted once or twice a week. Having more than one session a week is one way to allow yourself to delve deeper into your mind. Brief dynamic therapy focuses on one or two specific issues and tends to last between 15 and 17 weeks, while long-term psychodynamic psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, with deeper and broader goals, can last months to years. Psychodynamic psychotherapy is generally conducted with the patient sitting up in a chair, while psychoanalysis, which relies on all of the above principles but is more intensive and of longer duration, generally uses a couch. Lying on the couch is another way to allow access to the unconscious -- by not looking at your analyst, you look deeper into yourself.

In therapy, Brian realizes that he has been unconsciously pushing Ann away to avoid the "inevitable break-up" -- like the one his parents had. Uncovering these fears helps him to see that his marriage could be different from his parents' and to reconnect with Ann.

Learning about his mind -- the conscious and unconscious parts -- in psychodynamic psychotherapy helps Brian lead the life he wants to live. It might help you or someone you know, too.