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Systemic psychodynamic perspective of mental health and human behaviour

Systemic psychodynamic is an integrative perspective of human behaviour that brings together systems thinking and traditional psychodynamic psychology. Traditional psychodynamic theory (often referred to as psychoanalytic theory) as initially developed by Freud had a strong emphasis on internal urges and drives. It was often criticised for failing to account for the social and systemic factors influencing behaviours. Post Freudian thinkers developed psychodynamic theory to include social relationships as a driving force of behaviour. This has allowed psychodynamic thinking to grow beyond the therapy room and has now entered the realm of every day social life.

The importance of ego strength

Moreover, a subset of psychodynamic thinkers operates from a systemic stance. This view promotes the importance of systemic factors such as religion, culture, work organisations, to name but a few as crucial drivers of behaviour. The systemic stance consider behaviour as the outcome of our outgoing struggle to manage our internal urges and needs with systemic demands. Crucial to psychoanalytic and psychodynamic thinking, these ongoing struggle is largely considered to happen outside of conscious awareness. Successful management of these ongoing struggle requires what is known as ego strength. This is our ability to manage external and internal demands in an adaptable manner. Therefore, the goal of systemic psychodynamic is to grow our ability to remain adaptable in the face of increasing demands.

Doing so require certain mental abilities. For example, the ability to become aware of our internal drives and needs which operates largely outside of awareness. The ability to self-regulate and the ability to foster strong social relationships. These are necessary conditions for the development of ego strength. However, the development of these skills often happen during early childhood experiences. Thus difficulties with these skills in adulthood can often be traced back to our earlier experiences in life. However, instead of solely focusing on earlier relationships, the systemic perspective goes a step further to emphasize the role of systemic factors such as socio-economic status. So individual differences in socio-economic status is associated with differences in systemic demands that shape the development of ego strength differently for each individual.

Mental health

According to systemic psychodynamics, our behaviours then is a reflection of our unique systemic demands and our internal wishes or needs. When these demands (e.g. socio-economic status) impedes our internal wishes and needs then health issues and dysfunctional behaviours are the outcome. The reason being that this prevents adaptive ego development which is necessary to effectively manage these demands. As mentioned earlier, the conditions needed for adaptive ego development are both internal and external. The internal conditions are strongly associated with optimal development of the brain and nervous system which are necessary for adapative responses and regulation. External conditions are more strongly tied to quality social relationships. So most mental health problems usually manifest behaviourally as difficulties with adapting behaviours and/or difficulties with relationships. A systemic psychodynamic approach of mental health is therefore more in line with the transdiagnostic perspective of mental health.

Key considerations

Overall, working with human behaviour from a psychodynamic stance means a constant consideration of both external and internal factors influencing behaviour and our ongoing attempt to manage these frequently conflicting dynamics. Some key considerations are:

  • Awareness of systemic and social demands

  • Early childhood experiences and development

  • Awareness of unconscious motivations

  • Interpersonal relationships

  • Self regulation and management

How these factors interacts and manifest for each individual is unique based on each persons biological, psychological, and social predispositions. An in depth psychological interview or observation is usually needed to understand these predispositions before working from a systemic psychodynamic stance. Because of its emphasis on both systemic and individual differences, this approach to human behaviour is perfectly placed to tackle problems at both the social and individual level.

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