Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was the founder of psychoanalysis. His groundbreaking work delved into the unconscious mind, proposing that it influences human behavior and emotions. Freud's concepts, such as the id, ego, and superego, defense mechanisms, and psychosexual development, transformed psychology and shaped modern therapy. His ideas sparked both acclaim and criticism, leaving an enduring impact on the understanding of human psychology and the field of psychotherapy.

Here, for your review, everything you might possibly need to know about Freud and his work for the social work licensing exam:

Psychoanalysis: Freud's approach to understanding the mind and behavior, emphasizing the role of unconscious thoughts and feelings. He observed that our conscious experiences are influenced by unconscious motivations, and uncovering these hidden aspects can lead to personal growth and healing.

  • Structure of Personality:
    • Id: The primal, instinctual part of the mind that seeks pleasure and gratification. It operates based on the pleasure principle, demanding immediate satisfaction of desires.
    • Ego: The rational part of the mind that mediates between the demands of the id and the constraints of reality. It operates based on the reality principle and seeks to balance the desires of the id with the demands of the superego.
    • Superego: The moral conscience, representing societal norms, rules, and values. It acts as an internalized parent figure, striving for moral and ethical behavior.

Psychosexual Stages of Development: Freud proposed that personality develops through distinct stages in childhood, each focusing on a different erogenous zone. These stages are the oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital stages. Unresolved conflicts during these stages can lead to personality issues later in life.

  • Oral Stage (0-18 months):
    • Focus: Pleasure centers on the mouth through activities like sucking, biting, and chewing.
    • Erogenous Zone: Mouth
    • Key Conflict: Weaning, transitioning from breast/bottle feeding to solid foods.
    • Outcome: Successful resolution leads to a balanced approach to dependency and autonomy. Oral fixation can lead to behaviors like smoking, overeating, or excessive talking.
  • Anal Stage (18 months-3 years):
    • Focus: Pleasure derived from bowel and bladder control.
    • Erogenous Zone: Anus
    • Key Conflict: Toilet training, mastering self-control over bodily functions.
    • Outcome: Successful resolution leads to a sense of autonomy. Anal fixation can lead to anal-retentive or anal-expulsive behaviors.
  • Phallic Stage (3-6 years):
    • Focus: Pleasure shifts to the genital area; curiosity about genitals.
    • Erogenous Zone: Genitals
    • Key Conflict: Oedipus (boys) or Electra (girls) complex, involving attraction to opposite-sex parent.
    • Outcome: Resolving the complex leads to superego development and gender identity formation.
  • Latency Stage (6 years-puberty):
    • Focus: Suppression of sexual feelings; emphasis on social and cognitive development.
    • Erogenous Zone: Dormant
    • Key Theme: Building friendships, hobbies, and skills.
    • Outcome: Sexual impulses are temporarily dormant as attention shifts externally.
  • Genital Stage (puberty-adulthood):
    • Focus: Reawakening of sexual interests; forming mature relationships.
    • Erogenous Zone: Genitals
    • Key Theme: Seeking mutual pleasure and intimacy in adult relationships.
    • Outcome: Successful resolution of earlier stages contributes to healthy adult relationships.

Defense Mechanisms: Psychological strategies that the ego employs to protect itself from anxiety and distress. 

  • Repression: This is the most basic defense mechanism. It involves pushing distressing or unacceptable thoughts, memories, or feelings into the unconscious mind. These repressed thoughts can still influence behavior and emotions but are not consciously accessible.
  • Denial: Involves refusing to accept reality or the truth of a situation. It's a way to protect oneself from the discomfort of facing a painful reality. For example, someone might deny a serious medical diagnosis even when presented with clear evidence.
  • Projection: In projection, individuals attribute their own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or traits to others. It can help them avoid taking responsibility for their emotions by attributing them to someone else. For instance, someone who is jealous might accuse others of being jealous of them.
  • Displacement: Involves redirecting emotions from the original source of distress to a safer target. For example, a person who is angry at their boss might come home and take out their frustration on their family members.
  • Sublimation: Channeling socially unacceptable impulses or urges into more socially acceptable outlets. For instance, someone with aggressive tendencies might become a successful athlete, using their energy in a constructive way.
  • Rationalization: The process of creating logical or reasonable explanations for behaviors or thoughts that are actually driven by irrational or unconscious motives.
  • Regression: This mechanism involves reverting to earlier, more childlike behaviors and thought patterns in times of stress. For example, an adult might start sucking their thumb or throwing a temper tantrum when faced with a challenging situation.
  • Reaction Formation: Reaction formation is when an individual expresses the opposite of what they truly feel. It's a way to manage inner conflicts and keep unacceptable feelings hidden. For instance, someone who feels attraction to a coworker might behave coldly or rudely toward them.
  • Intellectualization: Distancing oneself emotionally from difficult emotions by focusing on the intellectual aspects rather than the emotional ones. This can help individuals feel more in control, but it can also lead to emotional detachment.

Oedipus Complex: A concept from the phallic stage, where a young child experiences unconscious sexual desires for the parent of the opposite sex and perceives the same-sex parent as a rival. In Freud's work, it's a key aspect of understanding parent-child dynamics.

Dream Analysis: Freud believed that dreams provide insight into the unconscious mind. He developed a method of analyzing dreams to uncover hidden conflicts and desires, known as dream interpretation.

Transference and Countertransference: In therapy, transference occurs when a client unconsciously projects feelings and attitudes onto the therapist that are based on past relationships. Countertransference is when the therapist responds to the client based on their own unresolved feelings. Social workers need to be aware of these dynamics in therapeutic relationships.

Unconscious Mind: Freud emphasized the importance of the unconscious mind, which contains thoughts, memories, and feelings that are not in conscious awareness but can still influence behavior and emotions.

It's important to note that while Freud's ideas have significantly contributed to the field of psychology, many of his concepts have been critiqued and revised over time. Contemporary social work practice often integrates a wide range of theories and approaches to better address the diverse needs of clients. While knowing about Freud's theories can provide a foundation (and help you on the exam), it's important to be familiar with more recent developments in the field of social work and psychology.

How might a Freud question look on the ASWB exam? Something like this:

A teenager who is struggling with intense feelings of attraction toward their best friend starts openly expressing strong disgust and disapproval whenever the topic of dating comes up. This behavior is an example of which defense mechanism?

A) Repression 

B) Reaction Formation 

C) Projection 

D) Rationalization

Do you know?

The teenager is exhibiting reaction formation. They’re expressing the opposite of a feared (unconscious) idea or impulse. They’re feeling attraction; they’re expressing disgust. Textbook!

For more questions about Freud and the full range of topics covered on the social work exam, use SWTP’s full-length practice tests. Nothing prepares you like realistic practice.

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August 7, 2023
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