In a nutshell: We work to understand how thoughts, feelings, actions/reactions—many that you don’t even realize you have—fit together in your mind and use that insight to make the changes you want.
Ever have a strange dream? There’s a person who is sort of your sister and sort of the gym teacher you had a crush on? Or you’re on a train and then all of sudden you’re on a boat? How do you even make this stuff up?
Actually, let’s give credit where it’s due: to your unconscious mind.
The unconscious holds so much for us. A lot of it is the very stuff we need to know to do psychodynamic therapy. (More on this later.) The catch is, we’re usually not able to see it. So… how do we access it?
Reading the water
Let’s go back to the boat. When you’re on the water, you usually can’t see much beneath the surface. But anyone who spends time in a boat (kayak, etc.) will tell you that you can learn a lot about what’s going on under the water by looking at what’s happening on the surface.
And that’s what we can do. What we can see on the surface is your behavior, conscious thoughts and feelings. They don’t give an exact picture, but they can alert us to giant rocks near the boat. Then (carefully) we can go check out the rocks—yes, might need scuba gear— and learn more about them and how to avoid running aground on them.
Ok, enough with the water metaphor. For now.
Is it just talking about your past?
Or is it going to the source…
This is psychodynamic therapy’s bad rap. “How does it make things better to talk about what my mother said to me 20 years ago?”
Fair enough. We do talk about experiences from childhood. But the idea isn’t to go back and rehash old grievances or blame our problems on the past.
Hey, our early experiences of life shape us in the most basic and long-lasting ways. So the point is to examine—with the compassion you would have for a kid (in this case, you)— how your past experiences shaped your present ones:
Why do certain things get under your skin every time?
What are the unspoken rules you’ve been living by?
How were all these negative self-perceptions formed (and why so harsh)?
Why did you just sabotage yourself (again) in that interview?
So those are the signs on the surface—something is making those ripples. Maybe you already have an idea about what that is. Maybe not. Either way, more understanding will help you be aware of, and hopefully able to avoid, getting stuck on those particular rocks.
As you put all the bits of understanding together into a bigger (if weirdly dream-like) picture, you can gain a new perspective on yourself and start making more conscious choices about the way you respond to yourself and to the world around you.