Psychodynamic Coaching – An Introduction to Theory and Practice

Psychodynamic Theory and Practice in Coaching

Psychodynamic Coaching – An Introduction to Theory and Practice

As the field of coaching continues to evolve and mature, the integration of different theoretical perspectives enriches its practice and effectiveness. 

One such perspective, psychodynamic theory, rooted in the pioneering work of Freud and later theorists, offers profound insights into human behaviour and motivation. 

It opens up new avenues for understanding clients’ internal experiences, providing coaches with a framework to explore below the surface of conscious thought and behaviour.

Introduction to Psychodynamic Theory

Psychodynamic theory is founded on the belief that an individual’s behaviour and feelings are strongly influenced by unconscious aspects of the mind, often originating in early experiences. 

This theory highlights the importance of understanding the complex interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind, defence mechanisms, and the role of early experiences in shaping one’s personality and behaviour. 

Historically, the roots of psychodynamic theory lie in the work of Sigmund Freud, who proposed that the human mind comprises the id, ego, and superego, working in dynamic interplay. 

Later psychoanalysts extended and refined these concepts, contributing to a rich and nuanced psychodynamic tradition.

The field of psychoanalysis continues to evolve but, historically, we can identify a number of influential theorists and practitioners including:

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939): Developed the theory of psychoanalysis, introducing the concepts of the unconscious mind, defence mechanisms, and dream symbolism.

Carl Jung (1875-1961): Developed the field of analytical psychology, introducing concepts such as the collective unconscious and archetypes.

Otto Rank (1884-1939): Developed the birth trauma theory, emphasising the anxiety experienced during birth as a fundamental psychological event.

Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957): Highlighted the role of sexual energy (or “orgone”) in mental health and developed a therapeutic approach known as character analysis.

Melanie Klein (1882-1960): Made significant contributions to object relations theory and provided insights into the psychological world of infants.

Karen Horney (1885-1952): Proposed a social and cultural approach in contrast to Freud’s biological emphasis and pioneered feminist psychology.

Harry Stack Sullivan (1892-1949): Developed the interpersonal theory of psychiatry, emphasising the role of interpersonal relations and societal expectations in personality development.

Donald Winnicott (1896-1971): Contributed to understanding early child development, introducing the idea of the “good enough” mother and the concept of transitional objects.

Jacques Lacan (1901-1981): Emphasised the linguistic and symbolic aspects of psychoanalysis and proposed the triadic structure of the psyche – the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic.

Erik Erikson (1902-1994): Expanded Freud’s psychosexual stages by developing an eight-stage theory of psychosocial development.

John Bowlby (1907-1990): Developed attachment theory, focusing on the importance of early relationships with caregivers in shaping future relational abilities.

Heinz Kohut (1913-1981): Known as the father of self psychology, Kohut focused on the development of the self and the crucial role of empathic responses from caregivers in early life.

Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999): Collaborated with John Bowlby in developing attachment theory and introduced the concept of the “secure base” and the “strange situation” procedure for studying children’s attachment patterns. 

These individuals have each made significant contributions to the field of psychodynamic theory and practice, all of which in some way affect how coaching can integrate psychodynamic ideas and ways of working.

Psychodynamic Theory in Coaching

In the coaching context, psychodynamic theory offers a valuable lens through which the coach may help clients explore their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. 

Psychodynamic coaching assumes that clients’ current experiences are shaped, in part, by unconscious processes, with unresolved past conflicts and experiences manifesting in present behaviours and patterns. 

Through a deep and nuanced understanding of these internal dynamics, coaches can facilitate meaningful change in clients’ lives. 

More than a surface-level alteration of behaviour, psychodynamic coaching seeks to unearth and address the unconscious drivers of actions, leading to profound and lasting transformation.

Unconscious Dynamics

A key concept in psychodynamic theory, the unconscious mind, carries significant implications for coaching. 

This part of the mind, largely inaccessible to conscious introspection, houses memories, desires, and experiences that may powerfully influence a person’s decisions and behaviours.

Coaches, aware of these dynamics, can guide clients to uncover and explore unconscious patterns, beliefs, and motivations. 

This exploration might involve discussing dreams, slips of the tongue, recurring themes in clients’ stories, or reactions to specific situations, all of which can provide valuable clues to unconscious influences.

The Unconscious Mind and Freud’s Structural Model

According to Freud, the unconscious mind holds thoughts, memories, and desires that are beyond our conscious awareness yet significantly influence our behaviours, decisions, and emotions. 

These unconscious elements, Freud suggested, are often unpleasant or unacceptable, such as feelings of pain, anxiety, or conflict, and thus are kept out of conscious awareness by various defence mechanisms.

Freud proposed a structural model of the mind, dividing it into three parts: the id, ego, and superego, each playing a unique role in our psychological functioning.

The Id: This is the most primitive part of the mind, present from birth. The id operates based on the pleasure principle, seeking immediate gratification of instinctual needs and desires, without regard for reality or moral considerations.

The Ego: The ego develops to mediate between the id’s demands and the realities of the external world. It operates on the reality principle, navigating the tension between the id’s impulses and societal expectations or constraints. The ego uses defence mechanisms to manage this conflict and protect the individual from experiencing anxiety or discomfort.

The Superego: The superego is the moral component of the mind, representing internalised societal and parental standards of behaviour. It seeks perfection and judges the actions of the ego, leading to feelings of pride, guilt, or shame.

In Freud’s view, healthy psychological functioning involves a balance between these three entities. 

In the context of coaching, an understanding of this tripartite structure can provide insights into a client’s behaviour and decision-making processes, particularly if they are experiencing internal conflict or tension. 

For example, a client might be grappling with a decision that satisfies their desires (id) but conflicts with their moral or ethical standards (superego). 

As a coach, understanding these dynamics can help guide your client towards greater self-awareness and effective strategies for managing such conflicts.


Repression is a key concept in psychodynamic theory and is considered one of the primary defence mechanisms utilised by the ego. 

In Freud’s tripartite structure of the mind, repression functions as a mechanism by which the ego protects the conscious mind from distressing or threatening thoughts, feelings, or memories that originate in the id or superego. 

Essentially, repression involves pushing these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings out of conscious awareness and into the unconscious mind. 

For example, if a person had a traumatic experience in their childhood, the ego might use repression to prevent the conscious mind from remembering this event, as a means to avoid the anxiety or pain associated with it. 

However, just because something is repressed doesn’t mean it no longer affects the individual. 

According to Freud, these repressed memories and feelings can influence a person’s behaviour, decisions, and emotions in significant but often subtle ways. 

They might emerge indirectly, such as in dreams, slips of the tongue (what Freud called ‘Freudian slips’), or through behaviours and patterns that seem irrational or self-defeating.

In a coaching context, it’s important to be aware that clients may have repressed experiences or emotions that are influencing their current behaviour or perspectives. 

However, as coaches are not typically equipped or ethically permitted to help clients unearth or process deeply repressed traumas, the role of the coach is to facilitate greater self-awareness and help the client make connections between their present behaviour and possible unconscious influences. 

If it appears that a client may need to work through significant repressed material, it would be appropriate to refer them to a trained therapist or counsellor.

Psychodynamic Theory and Practice in Coaching

Transference and Countertransference

Transference and countertransference represent another crucial psychodynamic concept relevant to coaching. 

Transference occurs when a client unconsciously redirects or “transfers” feelings and attitudes from past relationships onto the coach. 

A client might start viewing their coach as a parental figure, transferring onto the coach the feelings, expectations, and patterns of interaction that they had with their own parents. For instance, if a client had a critical father, they might perceive benign feedback from the coach as harsh criticism, even if the coach’s comments are constructive and balanced.

Alternatively, a client might start feeling a strong romantic attraction towards their coach, even if there is no objective basis for these feelings in the coach-client relationship. This could be a form of transference if the client is unconsciously reenacting patterns from past romantic relationships.

Countertransference, conversely, involves the coach projecting unconscious feelings onto the client.

A coach might start feeling excessively protective and nurturing towards a client who reminds them of their younger sibling. The coach’s reactions are not objectively based on the client’s behaviour or needs, but are instead influenced by the coach’s feelings and attitudes towards their own sibling.

On the other hand, a coach might find themselves becoming unusually irritated or impatient with a client who, for instance, consistently arrives late for sessions. While lateness can understandably be frustrating, if the coach’s reaction is disproportionately strong, it might be a sign of countertransference – perhaps the client’s behaviour is unconsciously reminding the coach of someone else in their past who disrespected their time.

These phenomena can significantly impact the coach-client relationship. 

An aware and self-reflective coach can identify and manage these dynamics to enhance the coaching process, using them as valuable information about the client’s internal world and relational patterns.

In both transference and countertransference, the feelings and attitudes being transferred are usually unconscious, which is why self-awareness and supervision are so important for coaches. 

These dynamics aren’t inherently negative – they can provide valuable insights into a client’s unconscious patterns and the coach’s own blind spots. 

However, they can also potentially hinder the coaching process if not properly understood and managed.

Object Relations Theory

Object Relations Theory (ORT) is a branch of psychodynamic thought that places emphasis on interpersonal relations, primarily in the family and especially between mother and child. 

It holds that the relationships and experiences during one’s early years become internalised as ‘object relations’, which shape the individual’s expectations and patterns of relating to others throughout their life. 

In this theory, an ‘object’ refers to a significant person or figure in one’s life, typically a parent or caregiver during infancy and early childhood. The ‘relation’ refers to the interpersonal interaction or relationship between the self and the object. 

These ‘object relations’ become a part of the individual’s psyche, forming templates for future relationships and interactions.

ORT proposes that the nature of these early relationships – whether they are secure, inconsistent, or neglectful – influences the development of the self and informs the individual’s emotional and relational patterns in adulthood.

The work of John Bowlby is particularly influential in the area of attachment theory.

John Bowlby proposed that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others as a means of survival. His theory focuses on the importance of a secure and trusting mother-infant bond on development and wellbeing. 

Bowlby’s work was further developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth, who introduced the concept of the “secure base” and developed a methodology called the Strange Situation Protocol to observe the variations in attachment behaviours, leading to the identification of different styles of attachment. These styles are secure attachment, anxious-resistant insecure attachment, anxious-avoidant insecure attachment, and disorganised/disoriented attachment. 

Attachment theory has had a significant influence not only on psychodynamic therapy, but also on areas such as developmental psychology, evolutionary biology, and others. 

In a coaching context, understanding a client’s attachment style can provide useful insights into their patterns of behaviour and interaction, particularly in their relationships.

Implications for Coaches and Therapists

For coaches and therapists, understanding the Object Relations Theory provides a framework to explore the client’s past and present relationships, and how these may be impacting their current circumstances, emotional well-being, and interaction patterns.

Insight into Interpersonal Dynamics: Coaches can use ORT to understand the client’s interpersonal dynamics. Clients may unknowingly recreate patterns from their early ‘object relations’ in their current relationships. 

Coaches can help clients identify these patterns and understand their origins, providing a foundation for change.

Understanding Attachment Styles: ORT informs our understanding of attachment styles – secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganised – which are thought to stem from early interactions with caregivers. 

Identifying a client’s attachment style can help a coach understand their relational patterns and fears, and provide tailored support.

Working with Transference: In coaching, understanding object relations can help in managing transference. Clients may project their internalised object relations onto the coach, recreating dynamics from past relationships. 

Recognising this can enable the coach to navigate the coaching relationship effectively and ethically.

Addressing Self-Concept Issues: Object relations can shape one’s self-concept – their beliefs about themselves. If a client has internalised negative object relations, it may manifest as low self-esteem, self-criticism, or impostor syndrome. 

Coaches can work with clients to challenge these internalised beliefs and foster a healthier self-concept.

Fostering Personal Growth: By exploring object relations, coaches can assist clients in recognising unhealthy patterns, developing healthier relational skills, and fostering personal growth and emotional well-being.

The key to applying ORT in coaching is to remember that it is not about diagnosing or treating psychological conditions, but about using these insights as a lens to better understand the client’s world and to support them in their goals. 

As always, respecting the client’s pace and readiness to explore these areas is crucial.

Psychodynamic Theory and Practice in Coaching

Defence Mechanisms and Coping Strategies

Defence mechanisms serve as protective strategies individuals use to cope with emotional pain or anxiety. These unconscious processes can include denial, repression, projection, and rationalisation, among others. 

While they can be helpful in the short term, defence mechanisms can also limit personal growth and self-awareness if relied on excessively or inappropriately.

In psychodynamic coaching, coaches can help clients identify and explore their defence mechanisms, fostering greater self-awareness. Recognising these patterns offers the first step towards addressing them, enabling clients to develop healthier coping strategies and expand their behavioural repertoire.

Denial: Denial involves refusing to acknowledge the reality of a situation, particularly one that might be painful or uncomfortable to accept. For example, a client may be in denial about a significant issue in their life, such as a problematic relationship or a chronic health condition, and act as if it doesn’t exist.

Repression: This defence mechanism involves burying distressing thoughts, feelings, or memories in the unconscious to avoid dealing with them consciously. A client might repress memories of a traumatic event and may not remember it at all.

Projection: This involves attributing one’s own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or motivations to someone else. For example, a client who harbours hostility towards a colleague might believe the colleague is hostile towards them.

Displacement: This mechanism involves redirecting emotions from the original source to a safer or less threatening target. A client might displace anger intended for their boss, who they perceive as threatening, onto a family member or a pet who is less threatening.

Reaction Formation: This involves converting unwanted or dangerous thoughts, feelings, or impulses into their opposites. For example, a client might react to feelings of dislike towards a person by becoming overly friendly towards them.

Rationalisation: This defence mechanism involves explaining away actions or feelings in a way that avoids the true explanation. A client might rationalise a bad habit by stating that it helps them relax or deal with stress, avoiding the fact that it’s detrimental to their health.

Regression: This involves reverting to childlike behaviours when faced with anxiety-provoking situations. For example, a client might start having tantrums or resorting to childish language when they feel under significant stress.

Sublimation: This mechanism involves transforming unacceptable impulses into socially acceptable behaviours or actions. For instance, a client with aggressive tendencies might channel their aggression into activities like sports or martial arts.

Understanding these defence mechanisms can give coaches a deeper understanding of their clients’ behaviours and reactions, enabling them to facilitate their clients’ journey towards increased self-awareness and healthier coping strategies.

Insight and Self-Reflection

Central to psychodynamic theory and practice in coaching is the promotion of insight and self-reflection. 

By encouraging clients to delve deeply into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations, coaches can guide them towards profound self-understanding. 

This increased self-awareness can lead to personal growth, improved decision-making, and greater self-empowerment.

The reflective process is not just about identifying issues or patterns; it also involves considering alternative perspectives, connecting past experiences to present behaviour, and envisioning future changes. 

Through this in-depth reflective practice, clients can gain new insights, leading to transformative shifts in their lives.

Ethical Considerations

The use of psychodynamic theory in coaching carries several ethical implications. 

Some ethical considerations for coaches integrating psychodynamic theory and practise into their work include:

Depth of Exploration: Psychodynamic work often involves exploring elements of a client’s unconscious and past experiences, which can bring up intense emotions. Coaches must ensure they have the competence and capacity to support clients through this process without causing harm.

Transference and Countertransference: As previously mentioned, transference and countertransference can occur in coaching relationships, especially when using psychodynamic approaches. Coaches must be aware of these dynamics and manage them effectively to maintain objectivity and avoid damaging the coaching relationship.

Boundary Management: The intimacy of psychodynamic work can blur the boundaries between coach and client. It’s essential to maintain clear professional boundaries to protect both parties. This includes not entering into personal relationships with clients and being clear about the nature and limits of the coaching relationship.

Interpretation: Psychodynamic approaches often involve the interpretation of clients’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Coaches must be careful not to impose their own interpretations or narratives onto the client, respecting the client’s autonomy and self-perception.

Confidentiality: The sensitive nature of topics discussed in psychodynamic coaching underscores the importance of confidentiality. Coaches must ensure that clients understand the limits of confidentiality, especially when discussing deeply personal or traumatic experiences.

Dealing with Trauma: Psychodynamic approaches may uncover past traumas. Coaches must be prepared to handle this responsibly and refer the client to a trained therapist if necessary. 

Awareness of Own Biases: Coaches must be aware of their own biases and how these might influence their approach to psychodynamic coaching. This includes reflecting on their own unconscious biases and ensuring these don’t negatively impact the coaching relationship.

Ensuring Informed Consent: Clients should understand what psychodynamic coaching involves, including the exploration of past experiences and unconscious beliefs, before agreeing to this approach. This enables them to make an informed choice about whether this method of coaching is suitable for them.

Remember, ethical guidelines are there to protect both the coach and the client. Coaches integrating psychodynamic theory into their practice in a significant way should seek out relevant training and supervision to ensure they can navigate these ethical considerations responsibly.

psychodynamic theory in coaching

Challenges and Limitations

Despite its profound insights and potential benefits, the use of psychodynamic theory in coaching is not without challenges and limitations. 

Some clients may resist delving into their past or exploring unconscious dynamics, finding this process uncomfortable or distressing. The time-intensive nature of psychodynamic coaching may also prove challenging for clients seeking quick solutions.

Furthermore, the risk of delving too deeply into painful past experiences underscores the importance of coaches working within their professional boundaries and competence. 

It is crucial to acknowledge these potential issues and develop strategies to address them effectively.

Time-Intensive: Psychodynamic work is often a long-term process, requiring substantial time to explore past experiences and unconscious patterns. This may not align with the goals or expectations of coaching clients who are seeking short-term, solution-focused interventions.

Requires Extensive Training: Coaches need substantial training to effectively and ethically employ psychodynamic techniques, understanding and managing phenomena like transference and countertransference.

Potential for Overreach: Coaches, unlike psychotherapists, are not trained to deal with serious mental health issues. There’s a risk of overreach if psychodynamic exploration uncovers significant trauma or psychological distress that falls outside the scope of coaching.

Difficulties Measuring Outcomes: The outcomes of psychodynamic work, such as increased self-awareness or understanding, can be challenging to measure and quantify, making it harder to assess progress or effectiveness.

Client Resistance or Discomfort: Clients may resist or feel uncomfortable with the level of personal exploration involved in psychodynamic coaching, particularly if they are more accustomed to solution-focused or action-oriented approaches.

Unconscious Bias: Coaches need to be aware of their own unconscious biases and how these may influence their interpretations within a psychodynamic framework. 

Client Readiness: Not all clients will be ready or willing to explore past experiences and unconscious beliefs. This requires a level of vulnerability that some individuals may not be prepared for in a coaching context.

As with any coaching approach, it’s important to consider these challenges and limitations and ensure that the application of psychodynamic principles aligns with the client’s needs, goals, and preferences.

Integration with Other Coaching Approaches

Psychodynamic theory is just one approach within the broader coaching landscape. 

While it offers powerful insights into human behaviour and motivation, it is not a panacea. As a result, it can be useful to take an integrative approach to psychodynamic principles, blending it other coaching approaches.

Psychodynamic theory can complement and deepen cognitive-behavioural approaches, positive psychology, solution-focused coaching, among others. 

The integration of multiple theoretical perspectives can lead to a comprehensive, tailored coaching experience that addresses clients’ unique needs, circumstances, and goals.

Skills and Training for Coaches

Appropriate skills and training are vital for coaches intending to incorporate psychodynamic principles into their practice. 

This training might involve courses, workshops, or supervision sessions focusing on psychodynamic theory and its application in coaching.

As coaches deepen their understanding of psychodynamic concepts, they can more effectively support clients in exploring their unconscious dynamics, developing self-insight, and creating lasting change.

For instance, concepts such as transference and countertransference, defence mechanisms, and the influence of past experiences can provide valuable insights into your client’s behaviour and patterns of thinking. These concepts can enhance your understanding of your clients and potentially improve the effectiveness of your coaching.

However, it’s crucial to remember that psychodynamic theory originates from a therapeutic context and delves into the depths of an individual’s unconscious mind and often their past experiences, which can surface powerful emotions and reactions. 

While some of these concepts can be applied lightly and with care in a coaching context, a deeper or more extensive use of these principles would require a solid understanding and specific training.

The following considerations might indicate that further training in psychodynamic theory could be beneficial:

Increased Interest in Psychodynamic Theory: If you find yourself constantly drawn to psychodynamic concepts and see potential in its application within your coaching practice, this is a strong indication for further exploration and training.

Client Needs: If your clients consistently present issues that seem rooted in past experiences or unconscious patterns and are open to exploring these areas, gaining more knowledge in psychodynamic theory could enhance your ability to support them effectively.

Inability to Navigate Transference and Countertransference: These phenomena are common in coaching relationships. If you’re struggling to manage these dynamics or feel your objectivity is being compromised, training in psychodynamic theory can provide valuable tools and insights.

Limitations in Current Approach: If you find that your current coaching approaches are not facilitating the desired changes or depth of understanding for your clients, psychodynamic training might offer new techniques and perspectives to enhance your coaching effectiveness.

Ethical Considerations: As previously discussed, the use of psychodynamic theory in coaching carries certain ethical implications. If you’re unsure how to navigate these, further training can provide clarity and guidance.

In deciding to pursue further training, it’s essential to choose a credible programme that provides not only theoretical understanding but also practical, ethical, and supervised experiences. 

This will ensure that you’re equipped to apply psychodynamic principles in a way that is safe, respectful, and beneficial for your clients.


Psychodynamic theory offers a rich, nuanced perspective on human behaviour and motivation, enhancing the effectiveness of coaching. 

By incorporating psychodynamic principles into their practice, coaches can help clients gain profound self-insight, identify unconscious influences on their behaviour, and foster meaningful, lasting change. 

However, this approach requires careful, ethical application and appropriate training to ensure its potential benefits are realised responsibly and effectively.

Author Details
Nick is the founder and CEO of Animas Centre for Coaching and the International Centre for Coaching Supervision. Nick is an existentially oriented coach and supervisor with a passion for the ideas, principles and philosophy that sits behind coaching.
Nick Bolton Avatar
Nick Bolton

Nick is the founder and CEO of Animas Centre for Coaching and the International Centre for Coaching Supervision. Nick is an existentially oriented coach and supervisor with a passion for the ideas, principles and philosophy that sits behind coaching.

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