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Psychoanalysis vs. Psychodynamic Therapy: What’s the Difference?

Navigating the distinction between psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy can be complex, but understanding their unique approaches is crucial for selecting the therapy that aligns best with your needs and goals. Let’s explore the differences and similarities between these two therapeutic modalities to help guide your decision-making process.

therapist sean abraham By Sean Abraham, LCSW

Updated on Jun 10, 2024

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The terms “psychoanalysis” and “psychodynamic therapy” are often used interchangeably, confusing potential clients. Although the two share a focus on the unconscious mind, in practice and technique, they’re pretty different.

Understanding the fundamental differences between psychoanalysis vs. psychodynamic therapy is necessary for determining which mental health provider aligns with your therapeutic goals and preferences.

Defining the Types

What Is Psychoanalysis?

Psychoanalysis is a form of psychotherapy that seeks to understand the unconscious parts of our minds that contain thoughts, feelings, desires, and memories that we are not consciously aware of.

In psychoanalysis, clients explore how these unconscious processes impact current behaviors, emotions, thoughts, and relationships.

Developed by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century, psychoanalysis revolutionized our understanding of the human psyche. Freudian psychoanalysis relies heavily on therapeutic techniques such as dream interpretation and free association, allowing information from the unconscious mind to emerge and be analyzed.

In psychoanalysis, dreams are regarded as a window into an individual’s mind. Dreams are seen as symbolic expressions of repressed desires, fears, and unresolved conflicts. Therapists can help clients develop insight into their innermost thoughts and emotions through dream interpretation.

Similarly, the free association technique allows clients to openly express their thoughts and feelings, spontaneously and without censorship. By allowing their minds to wander freely, clients often reveal hidden thoughts and emotions.

While psychoanalysis has contributed significantly to the field of psychology, and can be highly advantageous to people in need of deep-exploration, its popularity has waned in recent decades.

What Is Psychodynamic Therapy?

Psychodynamic therapy is a shorter and more flexible form of therapy than psychoanalysis. It concentrates primarily on a client’s current emotions and relationship patterns while simultaneously integrating insights from the past. Psychodynamic therapy aims to uncover unconscious and preconscious influences that affect thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, with a focus on promoting personal growth and enhancing relationships.

Similar to psychoanalysis, psychodynamic therapy may employ techniques like dream interpretation and free association as a means to understanding unconscious influences.

Additionally, psychodynamic therapists use techniques such as reflection, clarification, and examining the client’s feelings towards the therapist. Reflection occurs when the therapist repeats back what the client has said, but in a thoughtful and understanding way. This helps the client see their thoughts from a different perspective and can lead to new insights.

Psychodynamic therapists will ask clarifying questions to make sure they understand the client’s feelings and thoughts accurately. Lastly, psychodynamic therapists pay attention to how the client feels about them and uses this information to better understand the client’s emotions and relationship patterns. Using these techniques supports psychodynamic therapists in helping clients understand their thoughts, emotions, and how they interact with others

“Exploring and gaining an understanding of how current reactions are impacted by past experiences can aid the client in forgiving themselves for the judgments of their reactions which can reduce shame, and irrational guilt, and help free up resources to then address making the changes needed,” explains Deborah Harland, an MSW and LCSW with Grow Therapy.

Research suggests that psychodynamic therapy can lead to significant improvements in symptoms of various mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety disorders, trauma, and personality disorders, among others. Studies have also found that psychodynamic therapy can have lasting effects on clients, with many experiencing continued improvements even after therapy has ended.

Despite many new therapeutic modalities emerging over the past two decades, psychodynamic theory retains a significant presence in the field of psychotherapy, as many therapists and clients recognize the inherent value of personal insight, self-reflection, and exploring the unconscious mind.

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Exploring the Similarities and Differences

Although psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy may appear similar on the surface, the fundamental distinction becomes more clear in the context of therapy.

The Similarities

Both psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy recognize the significance of the unconscious mind in shaping thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. They acknowledge that our unconscious mind holds valuable information, and that unresolved conflicts that can impact our daily lives and relationships.

Both modalities also emphasize the importance of the therapeutic relationship. The quality of the therapeutic alliance between the client and therapist is considered crucial for promoting growth and facilitating change. Maintaining a safe and supportive space where clients can explore their inner experiences without judgment is fundamental to both psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy.

Furthermore, both psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy recognize the value of exploring past experiences. This is in contrast to other modalities, such as solutions focused therapy wherein the goal is primarily to grow forward rather than analyze the past. Both modalities delve into childhood and early life experiences to uncover how these events may have shaped a client’s personality and relationships. By examining the past, clients gain insight into their unconscious dynamics and develop a deeper understanding of themselves.

The Differences

Psychoanalysis typically involves multiple sessions per week over a longer period of time. In contrast, psychodynamic therapy offers a more time-limited and flexible approach, with sessions occurring once or twice a week for a shorter period of time. While a time-limited approach can appeal to many clients, the in-depth nature of psychoanalysis can be highly beneficial for clients who have become stuck with other forms of therapy, or who may require more intensive treatment.

Psychodynamic therapy places a greater emphasis on the present moment and current relational patterns. This focus on the here and now allows psychodynamic therapy to address immediate concerns and facilitate personal growth in real-time.

Psychoanalysts generally maintain a neutral and non-directive stance with clients. Many clients find that through this non-directive approach, they’re able to achieve a greater sense of self-actualization and empowerment, because they’re the ones driving the therapeutic experience.  On the other hand, most psychodynamic therapists tend to have more active engagement with clients, offering interpretations, reflections, and guidance to facilitate insight and growth.

Deciding Between the Two

Consider the following factors when deciding between psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy:

Goals and Objectives for Therapy: If your goal is to work through unresolved trauma, if you’ve become stuck with short-term forms of therapy, or if you seek to gain a comprehensive understanding of your personality, psychoanalysis may be better suited to meet that goal. However, psychodynamic therapy, with its focus on present relational patterns and insight, can be a better fit if you aim to address immediate concerns, develop coping strategies, and enhance self-awareness.

Time Commitment: Psychoanalysis typically requires a substantial time commitment, involving multiple sessions per week, and often lasting for several years. If you are willing and able to invest this level of time and resources, psychoanalysis may be a viable option. However, if you’re contending with time constraints or financial limitations, psychodynamic therapy may be a better fit.

Depth of Exploration: Consider the depth of exploration you’re willing to undertake. Psychoanalysis provides a comprehensive exploration of unconscious dynamics, early experiences, and the roots of behavior. Psychodynamic therapy focuses on a more targeted exploration of present relational patterns and emotions. If you are drawn to a deeper exploration of the unconscious, psychoanalysis may be more suitable.

Type of Therapeutic Relationship: Reflect on the type of therapeutic relationship you feel most comfortable with. If you’d prefer a therapist who takes a non-directive stance, and serves as a blank slate, you may want to consider psychoanalysis. If you prefer a more active and engaged therapeutic relationship, where the therapist offers guidance, psychodynamic therapy might align better with your preferences.

Ultimately, deciding between psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy depends on your unique needs, preferences, and resources.

Regardless of which modality you choose, remember that therapy is a collaborative process, and finding a therapist you feel safe with is one of the most important aspects of therapeutic success.

What to Expect in a Session

What Happens During a Psychoanalysis Session?

Ultimately, a psychoanalysis session will depend on both the client’s needs and the therapist’s approach.

The psychoanalyst carefully listens, paying close attention to the content and patterns that emerge out of conversation. The session is usually non-directive, allowing the client to take the lead in exploring their inner world.

Psychoanalysis sessions can be intense and emotionally charged, encouraging the client to delve into unconscious conflicts and gain insights into their psychological processes.

What Happens During a Psychodynamic Therapy Session?

Psychodynamic therapy sessions involve discussions about a client’s past experiences and their impact on their current thoughts, relationships, and behaviors. The therapist guides the client in exploring their emotions, identifying recurring patterns, and understanding their relationships with others.

In psychodynamic therapy, the therapist provides a supportive and empathetic environment. By actively listening, the therapist helps the client gain insights through interpretations, reflections, and feedback.

How Should I Prepare?

Preparing for your first therapy session involves taking some time to reflect on your thoughts, emotions, and any specific issues you want to discuss with your therapist. Consider what you hope to achieve or gain from therapy. It can be helpful to jot down any notes or questions to bring with you.

Lastly, arrive with an open and receptive mindset, willing to engage in honest self-exploration and collaboration with your therapist. Remember, therapy is a process, and your active participation is essential for a successful session.

Are Psychoanalysis and Psychodynamic Therapy Effective?

Research suggests that both psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy are effective in addressing a range of psychological issues. These modalities can offer relief for myriad mental health challenges, including:

Psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy can also be beneficial for individuals experiencing complex or longstanding issues, such as personality disorders, trauma, or chronic mental illness. They offer a unique opportunity to address deeply rooted psychological patterns and promote lasting change.

Notably, the effectiveness of any therapeutic modality can vary depending on individual factors, such as: motivation, readiness for change, and the therapeutic relationship. The outcome of therapy may also differ based on the specific goals and needs of the client.

Find a Therapist with Grow Therapy

While psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapy may appear similar, they do differ. Both psychodynamic therapy and psychoanalysis are empirically supported for several psychological challenges, and deciding between the two approaches is ultimately dependent on your circumstance.

Use Grow Therapy’s search tool to find therapists who specialize in one, or both forms of therapy. Further, our search tool can help you to locate a therapist who is in your region and accepts your insurance type.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
therapist sean abraham Sean Abraham, LCSW

Sean Abraham is a licensed clinical social worker who works with those who have struggled with substance use, depression, anxiety, loss, communication problems, student life, as well as other mental health concerns.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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