Introduction to psychodynamic theory in social work

Social workers help many clients suffering from a wide range of problems, including trauma, medical conditions, mental health issues, unemployment, discrimination, criminal records, and more. Pursuing a degree in social work prepares a student to become a practitioner and help their clients through counseling and social support systems.

Social workers base their practices on several theories and practice models, including psychodynamic theory. What once was a theory derived from Sigmund Freud is now a network of theories developed and expanded by many theorists since the early 1900s. Psychodynamic theory, also known as psychoanalytic psychotherapy, helps clients understand their emotions and unconscious patterns of behavior. By talking through these emotions and behaviors with a social worker, clients can come to know themselves better and make better decisions for themselves.

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What is psychodynamic theory?

Psychodynamic theory was originally a theory of personality created by Freud. Freud believed human behavior could be explained by intrapsychic processes and interpersonal patterns outside of a person’s conscious awareness and based on their childhood experiences. A general definition of psychodynamic theory is that forces outside of a person’s awareness explain why they behave a certain way.

Today, psychodynamic theory is not a unified theory. Instead, there are many related theories regarding human development and personality. These different theories encompass various treatment processes, some of which are used by social workers and clinicians, like talk therapy, dream analysis, free association, and transference.

How psychodynamic theory differs from other types of therapy

Many modern types of therapy emphasize mitigating or getting rid of the symptoms of a problem. For example, if a person struggles with anxiety, then cognitive behavioral therapy can help them address the symptoms of that anxiety. Psychodynamic theory, however, explores a person’s deeply rooted drives, needs, and desires. It’s considered a more global approach to therapy than modern, problem-based therapy. You also can look at it as the difference between focusing on an individual’s emotions versus their behavior.

The psychodynamic diagnostic manual

Modern psychology and psychiatry use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR). The Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) was published in 2006 as an alternative or additional guide for clinicians to diagnose and treat clients. It was sponsored by:

The second edition was published in 2016, and also was sponsored by the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy.

A brief history of psychodynamic theory

Many professionals have contributed to psychodynamic theory and its relationship to social work over the years. The theory has evolved and it is still part of modern social work. The National Association of Social Workers’ Standards for Clinical Social Work in Social Work Practice (PDF, 135KB) lists it as one of several theories social workers can use as a basis for their practices.

The evolution of psychodynamic theory can be understood through four schools of thought:

1. Drive theory

Freud believed a person’s behavior was the result of several drives including the sex (eros), self-preservation, and destruction/aggression (death) drives. The id is the primitive and instinctual part of the mind that contains the foundation of these drives. It is the instinctive portion of a personality.

As a child develops, external forces from the world make it difficult to satisfy these drives. Eventually, the superego and ego impose internal hurdles and restraints. The superego is responsible for the morals of society as taught by a person’s parents, operating as a moral conscience. The ego mediates between the id and the external world—it is responsible for decision-making.

When a person’s drive-based desires might become conscious, it triggers a conflict between the drives and the superego or the ego. When a person fails to repress their desires, it creates anxiety and activates defense mechanisms.

2. Ego psychology

Theories on how a person’s ego functions have evolved since Freud. He believed the ego developed from the id alone. But theorists later believed the ego did more than regulate a person’s drives. Some theorists believed the ego developed autonomously—free of intrapsychic conflict. They believed people had another drive to explore and control the world around them. According to ego psychology, a person’s environment and reality were also important to their development.

3. Object relations theory

Psychodynamic theory originally saw behavior as a function of drives. Later, theorists explained people’s behavior based on object seeking. People were shaped by their relationships with significant others around them, like their parents and siblings. According to this theory, a person’s struggles have to do with their focus on maintaining relationships with others while also differentiating themselves. As adults, people repeat object relationships they formed in childhood.

4. Self psychology

In this theory, a person’s perception of themself is in relation to their boundaries or differences (or lack thereof) from others. The theorists behind this concept believe narcissism has a healthy place in development and adulthood, though narcissism isn’t to be confused with narcissistic personality disorder. A person with a lack of self-esteem or an undeveloped sense of self might experience mental health issues. A person with a healthy sense of self can self-regulate and soothe, and is resilient. Some theorists believe a lack of a sense of self came from a lack of parental empathy during childhood.

Assumptions of psychodynamic theory

There are several key assumptions in psychodynamic theory, including:

  • All behavior has an underlying cause.
  • The causes of a person’s behavior originate in their unconscious.
  • Different aspects of a person’s unconscious struggle against each other.
  • An adult’s behavior and feelings, including mental health issues, are rooted in childhood experiences.
  • Both innate, internal processes and the external environment contribute to adult personality.

Goals of psychodynamic theory

Therapy based on psychodynamic theory pushes for clients to:

  • Acknowledge their emotions. Over time, clients can start to recognize patterns in their emotions and address them, which can lead to making better choices.
  • Identify patterns. Clients can begin to see patterns in more than just their emotions, but also their behaviors and relationships. Or, if clients are aware of negative patterns in their life, therapy can help them understand why they make certain choices and give them the power to change.
  • Improve interpersonal relationships. Modern psychodynamic theory helps clients understand their relationships, as well as the patterns they exhibit within those relationships.
  • Recognize and address avoidance. Everyone has ways of avoiding bad thoughts and feelings. Therapy can help clients recognize when they’re acting in a way to avoid distress and how to move forward with addressing their emotions using healthy coping mechanisms.

Strengths and weaknesses of psychodynamic theory

There are several strengths to psychodynamic theory. It recognizes that a person’s childhood impacts their mental health as an adult. This idea is readily accepted in modern psychology and social work.

It recognizes that an adult is the product of both nature and nurture. People have internal drives that influence their behavior. Childhood experiences affect them, too.

Freud’s psychodynamic theory also led to psychoanalysis, which used talking as a way to identify and treat mental health conditions. Conversation is a fundamental aspect of therapy today.

There are also recognized weaknesses of psychodynamic theory (PDF, 129 KB). For example, it doesn’t account for a person’s ability to think and control their behavior. Many theorists believe it doesn’t consider free will enough.

It can also be considered unscientific because it’s difficult to prove. The theories are largely unsubstantiated. But modern medical advances have provided supporting evidence for the benefits of psychodynamic therapy.

How does psychodynamic theory apply to social work?

Social workers can benefit from applying the fundamental assumptions of psychodynamic theory to their clients. Every client’s behavior has a reason. It isn’t random or happening in a vacuum. Their behavior can also be in response to unconscious processes. The client might not realize why they behave a certain way.

Object relations theory and self-psychology moved psychodynamic theory from a one-person issue, focused on the unconscious issues of an individual, to two-person psychology, focused on relationships. This aligns with social work. Social workers often focus on a client’s interpersonal relationships, including the client-worker relationship, to learn about the client’s behavior and promote change.

Social workers often work with clients with multiple difficulties. Psychodynamic theory in social work provides a conceptual framework for understanding seemingly unrelated symptoms or patterns of behavior. The framework of theories offers social workers a way to address all of the client’s issues.

Social workers hope to promote change and improvement in a client’s life. By using psychodynamic therapy, they can help clients get to the root of their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. This provides a chance for self-discovery. A client has the opportunity to learn more about themselves, recognize harmful patterns of emotions in relationships, and alter their behavior.

Types of psychodynamic treatments

There are many different treatments social workers can use as part of a psychodynamic approach to modern types of therapy. Psychotherapy focuses on talking. Clinicians let the clients direct the conversation, but other techniques can be complementary to talk therapy including:

Transference: A person redirects their feelings and expectations of one person onto another—usually unconsciously. Transference is common in therapy. The client applies emotions toward their clinician and acts toward them as if they were the other person in the relationship. Transference can happen in a variety of relationships, and it doesn’t necessarily demonstrate a mental health issue. When a social worker identifies and understands the client’s transference, they can gain a better understanding of a part of the client’s life and their condition.

Free association: A clinician might encourage a client to write down or speak all the thoughts that come to their mind. It might be an incoherent stream of words or a random assortment of memories and emotions. The purpose of free association is to make connections between topics that might go unnoticed. This was originally developed by Freud, though it’s not a common therapy technique today.

Dream analysis: Freud also developed the technique of analyzing dreams as a way of learning more about a person’s unconscious. Modern psychodynamic clinicians use dream analysis as part of person-centered therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and Gestalt therapy (in Gestalt therapy, there’s the belief that dreams are messages a person sends themselves).

Criticism of psychodynamic theory

Critics in the field argue that psychodynamic theory may be too deterministic and could result in victim-blaming, making it unsuitable for application in contemporary psychology and social work. The original theories believed people had no control over their own behavior—there was a lack of personal agency.

Another criticism of psychodynamic theory, as defined by Freud, is that it is sexist. Freud believed women were inferior to men. He also believed men had stronger superegos. Women’s weaker superegos made them more prone to anxiety. It’s important to remember that Freud predominantly treated and studied middle-aged women in Vienna.

In more recent decades, psychodynamic theory has been criticized as not only sexist, but also not a sufficient theory or treatment tool for people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Psychodynamic theory originally didn’t account for social issues like sexism, racism, poverty, and homophobia. Some practitioners felt psychodynamic theory focused too much on psychotherapy treatment rather than addressing broader social concerns. In other words, practitioners focused on finding the underlying, personal cause of a client’s problems instead of addressing larger social systems that impact the client.

This is a particular concern for social workers who identify social justice as a core value of their profession. Modern social workers and practitioners consider the broader social structures that affect the client.

Summary of resources for further learning

To learn more about psychodynamic theory, consider reading Freud’s texts. You also can learn more from:

  1. Mitchell, S.A., Black, M.J. (1995) Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought, New York: Basic Books.
  2. Moore, B.E. (1995) Psychoanalysis: The Major Concepts, New Haven, Yale University Press.
  3. Moore, B.E., Fine, B.R., eds. (1990) Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts, New Haven: Yale University Press.
  4. Gabbard, G.O. (2004) Long-Term Psychodynamic Psychotherapy: A Basic Text, Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press.
  5. McWilliams N. (2004) Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, New York: Guilford Press.
  6. Greenson, R. (1967) The Theory and Technique of Psychoanalysis, New York: International Universities Press.
  7. McWilliams, N. (2004) Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy: A Practitioner’s Guide. New York: Guilford Press.
  8. Rockland, L. (1989) Supportive Psychotherapy: A Psychodynamic Approach. New York: Basic Books.
  9. Lazar, S. (2010). Psychotherapy is Worth It; A Comprehensive Review of Cost Effectiveness, American Psychiatric Publishing.
  10. Shedler, J. (2010). The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, American Psychologist, 65, 98-109.
  11. Summers, R., Barber, J. (2009). Psychodynamic Psychotherapy: A Guide to Evidence Based Practice. The Guilford Press.
  12. Berzoff, J., L. M. Flanagan, and P. Hertz, eds. (2011) Inside out and outside in: Psychodynamic clinical theory and psychopathology in contemporary multicultural contexts. 3d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  13. Berzoff, J., ed. (2012) Falling through the cracks: Psychodynamic practice with vulnerable and oppressed populations. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
  14. Brandell, J. R. (2004) Psychodynamic social work. Foundations of Social Work Knowledge. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
  15. Goldstein, E. G. (2001) Object relations theory and self psychology in social work practice. New York: Free Press.
  16. Sudbery, J. (2002) Key features of therapeutic social work: The use of relationships. Journal of Social Work Practice 16.2: 149–162.
  17. Greene, R.R., & Ephross, P.H. (1991) Classic psychoanalytic thought, contemporary developments, and clinical social work. In R.R. Green & P.H. Ephross (Eds.), Human behavior theory and social work practice (pp. 39-78). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Social work students benefit from learning about different theories and practice models, including psychodynamic theories and treatments. Delving into the history of psychodynamic theory can give students a deeper appreciation for the benefits and possibilities of talk theory. It also can provide them with different strategies to use based on their clients’ unique needs and goals. The flexibility within psychodynamic therapy gives social workers many ways to help clients address their circumstances and drive change.

If you’re interested in becoming a social worker, check out our social work guide, or find and compare online social work degrees.

Last updated November 2023