Psychotherapy: the Definition and Theory explained

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Psychotherapy: This article explains psychotherapy in a practical way. The article includes the definition of this concept, followed by information about its origins and the different forms used today. Enjoy reading!

What is Psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy is a form of therapy aimed at increasing happiness and overcoming problems such as anxiety disorders, personality disorders and other forms of mental illness or psychological complaints. Psychotherapy involves different methods, especially if the therapy is based on regular face-to-face interaction.

The ultimate goal for clients who start a program is to improve their mental health condition and well-being, remove difficult behaviors, compulsions, thoughts or emotions and improve relationships and social skills.

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Different forms of psychotherapy have been designed, for example, therapy catering especially to children, adults, or families and adolescents. Some forms are considered evidence-based, others are criticized and classified as pseudoscientific.


The term psychotherapy originates from the Greek language and is a combination of psyche and therapy. Psyche means as much as spirit or soul. Therapy means medical treatment. Psychotherapy can therefore be defined as the treatment of the mind or personality through psychological means.

Psychotherapy is also popularly referred to as talk therapy. Yet not all forms of it depend on speech. People who cannot communicate verbally can also use psychotherapy.

Development of psychotherapy

Psychotherapy has developed a lot over the centuries. Philosophers, physicians, and spiritual practitioners have employed various psychological methods to help others.

In Western culture, for example, a movement for non-invasive therapeutic methods developed in the nineteenth century. Another movement was started by Franz Mesmer and his student Armand-Marie Jacques de Chastenet, which would greatly influence the rise of dynamic psychology, psychiatry and the use of hypnosis.

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Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud also used methods of hypnosis years later. After encountering the work of Josef Breuer, he began to focus on disorders that seemed to have psychological causes that originated in childhood and the unconscious mind of people. Techniques that he subsequently developed include dream interpretations and the transfer and analysis of the ID, ego and superego.

He became best known as the father of psychotherapy for developing psychoanalysis coupled with a system of theories and methods. Many famous figures in history such as Carl Jung, daughter Anna Freud, Erik Erikson and Heinz Kohut built on Freud’s work.


Behaviorism then developed in the 1920s. Behavior modification through therapy became popular in the years after World War II. Key figures in this were, for example, B.F. Skinner and Joseph Wolpe. They all built on the principles of operant conditioning, classical conditioning and social learning theory.

The patient-therapist relationship is central to many therapeutic approaches. Carl Rogers was another therapist who worked on this. Based in part on the work of Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of human needs, Rogers brought psychotherapy to the fore.

Albert Ellis followed in the 1950s with rational-emotive behavioral therapy. A few years later, cognitive therapy was developed by Aaron T. Beck.

Increasingly, these cognitive and behavioral therapy methods were combined and referred to under the term cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). These approaches are still recognized today as primary modes of treatment for a variety of conditions.

Types of psychotherapy

It is clear that there are hundreds of approaches to psychotherapy. All of them are based on several of the theories described above. In practice, when we work with a therapist, the therapy is therefore not based on one approach only, but more often on a variety of different approaches.

Therapy can address specific types of problems and conditions that can be diagnosed, as well as everyday problems such as maintaining healthy relationships and achieving personal goals.

Sometimes the therapies are classified by the therapy session amount. Some require a small number of psychotherapy sessions over a few weeks or months. Other forms involve scheduling regular sessions and are long term.

Psychotherapy can furthermore be done one-on-one or in group therapy. Below you can read an introduction to different types of psychotherapy.

Humanistic psychology

Humanistic forms of psychotherapy are also referred to as ‘experiential’. Based on humanistic psychology, they arose after behaviorism and psychoanalysis. They were called the third force.

Humanistic psychotherapy focuses primarily on human development and needs, emphasizing subjective meanings and concern for positive growth. Person-centered therapy is also part of this, or client-centered therapy. The same goes for gestalt therapy, or concentration therapy. This form focuses on promoting awareness in different contexts of life.

Insight-oriented therapy

Insight-oriented therapy focuses on uncovering unconscious processes. This term is often used to refer to psychodynamic therapy, of which psychoanalysis is the oldest method.

There are six schools of thought in psychoanalysis:

  • Freudian
  • Ego Psychology
  • Object Relationship Therapy
  • Self Psychology
  • Interpersonal Psychoanalysis
  • Relational Psychoanalysis

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapies use behavioral techniques, such as behavior analysis, to address maladaptive behavior patterns. Examples are functional analytic psychotherapy or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). These forms of therapy are empirical (data-driven), contextual, functional, probabilistic, monistic, body dualistic, or relational. All of them are aimed at changing thoughts in order to improve emotions and behaviors.

Systemic therapy

Systemic therapy focuses on treating people in groups and their interactions, dynamics, and patterns. Systemic therapy includes family therapy and couples therapy by marriage and family therapists. The term was first used around 1920 by Jacob L. Moreno, an important figure in the development of psychodrama.

Expressive psychotherapy

Expressive therapy is a form of psychotherapy in which certain expressions such as improvisation, composition and recreation are used as the main means of treating the client. It includes dance therapy, drama therapy, music therapy, and writing therapy, among others.

Postmodernist therapy

Postmodernist therapy is also referred to as post-structuralist or constructivist. An example of this is narrative therapy, which focuses on people’s dominant narrative through therapeutic conversations. Useless ideas are also examined, as are social and cultural influences.

Psychotherapy for children

Methods of psychotherapy must be adapted when used with children. Depending on the age of the child, the needs of the child must be adapted in the context of family members / environment. Training programs for therapists or mental health professionals who will treat children therefore include various courses in human development.

Children are often unable to express thoughts and feelings in a way that is understood by adults. Therefore, psychotherapists may use a variety of instruments, such as music, toys, board games, or puppets. The use of play therapy is also popular. It is rooted in psychodynamic therapy.

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Now it’s your turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about psychoanalysis? Do you have experience with a therapy based on Freud’s studies? How do you deal with traumatic events? Do you think therapy is always necessary for a traumatic event? Do you have other tips or comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Ekstein, R., & Wallerstein, R. S. (1958). The teaching and learning of psychotherapy.
  2. Eysenck, H. J. (1952). The effects of psychotherapy: an evaluation. Journal of consulting psychology, 16(5), 319.
  3. Fox, R. (2017). Research in psychotherapy. Routledge.
  4. Lambert, M. J., Bergin, A. E., & Garfield, S. L. (1994). The effectiveness of psychotherapy. Encyclopedia of psychotherapy, 1, 709-714.
  5. Richardson, L. (2020). Schema Therapy: A psychotherapy addressing core needs. Retrieved 02/14/2024 from Udemy.

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Original publication date: 03/22/2023 | Last update: 02/14/2024

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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