The ASWB exam content outline journeys into ego psychology with this item: Psychological defense mechanisms and their effects on behavior and relationships. Let's take a look and then take an educated guess how the material may look on the social work licensing exam.

Defense Mechanisms

Psychological defense mechanisms are unconscious strategies employed by individuals to cope with anxiety, stress, and unacceptable thoughts or impulses. They were originally proposed by Sigmund Freud and further developed and expanded upon by his daughter, Anna Freud. These mechanisms serve to protect the ego from threatening or distressing feelings. While they can be adaptive in managing emotional distress, defense mechanisms can also have negative impacts on behavior and relationships. Here are some common defense mechanisms and their impact:

  • Denial: Denial involves refusing to accept reality or the truth of a situation. While it may provide temporary relief from anxiety, prolonged denial can prevent individuals from addressing and resolving problems. In relationships, denial can lead to a lack of communication and intimacy, as individuals avoid acknowledging issues that need to be addressed.

  • Displacement: Displacement involves redirecting one's feelings or impulses from a threatening target to a safer or more acceptable one. While displacement can provide temporary relief from intense emotions, it can also lead to misdirected anger, aggression, or resentment toward innocent parties. In relationships, displacement can result in conflicts over minor issues that serve as outlets for underlying frustrations or conflicts.
  • Intellectualization: Focusing excessively on abstract or intellectual aspects of a situation to avoid dealing with its emotional significance. Intellectualization can lead to a lack of emotional intimacy and understanding in relationships, as individuals may avoid addressing underlying emotional needs or conflicts.

  • Projection: Projection involves attributing one's own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or impulses to others. This can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts in relationships, as individuals may project their own insecurities or fears onto their partners, friends, or colleagues. It can also hinder self-awareness and personal growth, as individuals may not recognize their own contributions to conflicts or problems.

  • Rationalization: Rationalization involves creating logical explanations or justifications for one's thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, often to avoid confronting uncomfortable truths. While rationalization can help individuals feel better about their choices in the short term, it can also lead to self-deception and a lack of accountability. In relationships, excessive rationalization can erode trust and intimacy, as partners may perceive the rationalizer as being dishonest or unwilling to take responsibility for their actions.

  • Reaction Formation: Adopting attitudes or behaviors that are the opposite of one's true feelings or impulses. Reaction formation can create a facade of conformity or morality, masking underlying conflicts and inhibiting genuine emotional expression in relationships.

  • Repression: Repression involves unconsciously blocking or suppressing thoughts, memories, or emotions that are too threatening or distressing to acknowledge. While repression may help individuals avoid immediate discomfort, repressed feelings often resurface in unexpected ways, such as through dreams, physical symptoms, or emotional outbursts. In relationships, repressed emotions can create distance and resentment, as individuals may struggle to express their true feelings or needs.

  • Regression: Regression involves reverting to an earlier stage of psychological development in response to stress or anxiety. While regression may temporarily reduce distress, it can also lead to immature or maladaptive behavior. In relationships, regression can strain dynamics and communication patterns, as individuals may resort to childish or passive-aggressive behaviors to cope with conflict or insecurity.

  • Sublimation: Channeling unacceptable impulses or emotions into socially acceptable activities or pursuits. While sublimation can be adaptive, suppressing emotional expression in favor of productivity can lead to emotional disconnect and interpersonal difficulties in relationships.

  • Suppression: Consciously pushing unwanted thoughts or feelings out of awareness. While suppression can provide temporary relief from distress, unresolved emotions may resurface unexpectedly, impacting behavior and communication in relationships.

Developing awareness of these mechanisms--usually in therapy--recognizing threatening thoughts and feelings, and seeking healthier coping strategies can promote emotional resilience and more satisfying relationships. For more on the topic--with some examples of defense mechanisms in action--take a look at this article from VeryWellMind.

On the Exam

How might this material look on the ASWB exam? Some possibilities to anticipate:

  • Which defense mechanism involves attributing one's own unacceptable thoughts or feelings to others?
  • What is the main consequence of suppression as a defense mechanism?
  • Which of the following best characterizes the primary focus of ego psychology?

Get questions about defense mechanisms, ego psychology, and lots more from the ASWB exam content outline on Social Work Test Prep's full-length practice tests.

There's no better way to prepare for the licensing exam than practice, practice, practice. Stick with denial : ), or get started with SWTP now!

February 9, 2024
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