Psychodynamic psychotherapy creates an atmosphere of safety, consistency, and containment. In this environment, the unfolding and reworking of a client’s unconscious internalized beliefs or organizing principles can take place. These beliefs are often maladaptive and serve to impede functioning. Furthermore, they may prevent the achievement of desired goals, cause symptom formation, and negatively impact self-esteem and self-regulation, (i.e., the capacity to tolerate difficult feelings). Such organizing principles begin to form in early childhood as an individual’s experience emerges in relation to others and the world around.
Traumatic experiences and the absence of validating responsiveness shape and define the nature of such unconscious emotional expectations, causing one to make specific inferences about oneself and the environment in which one lives. For instance, a woman who complained of feeling lonesome and unable to get along with others revealed that she withdrew in social situations whenever she felt the slightest tension. Through the therapeutic process, she recognized that she had organized her mother’s criticism and rejection of her childhood exuberance to mean that her feelings were too much for others to handle. In adulthood, she preserved ties to her critical mother through a reenactment in which she often isolated herself and forfeited any opportunities to speak her mind around people. Psychotherapy illuminated the woman’s previously unknown beliefs, helping her articulate and make sense of her emotional experience.
It is not unusual for a person thinking about starting psychotherapy to feel both hope and dread. There is a sense of hopefulness that one’s current of way of being and relating in the world will be transformed. In other words, there exists a developmental longing to repair what was traumatically broken or to accomplish what was insufficient or missing from childhood. Moreover, with the anticipation of revisiting the past, there may also be dread that one’s hope will be shattered leading to retraumatization, or a repetition of the original childhood experience that thwarted development.
Alleviating such fear occurs when safety and trust develop in the therapeutic arena, and when the clients’s unconscious organizing principles begin to be known, verbalized, and understood from the historical context in which they originated. The therapist’s influence in disconfirming these emotional convictions facilitates the emergence of new personal meanings in the interactive, relational field between the therapist and client. The exploration of new meanings allows the client to reorganize, expand, and enrich his or her subjective experience, altering maladaptive expectations that adversely affect his or her overall functioning and sense of self.
By assembling experience in a new way with the therapist, the client transcends old wounds and is able to have a different experience of him or herself in the world. This enables the client to relate differently in the presence of others and risk being more open to intimate connection. With enhanced flexibility and capacity to connect to others, the client restores needed emotional supplies for self-cohesion and psychological integrity.