Understanding Psychological Phenomena: LCSW & MFT Exam Prep

By Bethany Vanderbilt on August 15, 2012

A storm breaking on a lake

Okay, so a couple of weeks ago, my colleague Emily Pellegrino did an excellent blog post on defense mechanisms (if you haven't seen it yet, check it out!).  We're going to be looking at them again tonight as our attention turns to psychological phenomena.  It may seem redundant, but defense mechanisms come up repeatedly on exams, and you, the test-taker, need to understand not only what purpose they serve, but also how to identify major defense mechanisms when they are described in a stem.

Let's take a look at a sample question.

Sample: A 35 year-old woman seeks the services of a therapist in private practice.  She tells the therapist in the initial appointment that she is recently divorced and has been feeling "down" since her husband left.  She goes on to say that while she misses her husband, she knows that "we're much better at being friends than we were at being married -- this is the best thing that could have happened."  The client's response represents:

A. Denial

B. Cognitive Dissonance

C. Rationalization

D. Repression

Even though it will give the answer away, I'm going to go through a brief definition for each of the answers above.  Denial refers to a process of refusing to acknowledge an emotion that is uncomfortable, often through a distortion of reality.  Cognitive Dissonance refers to the discomfort that results from holding conflicting cognitions (ideas, beliefs, feelings, values) simultaneously.  Rationalization refers to a process in which plausible reasons are used to justify a feeling or action, or a process in which disappointments are blamed or explained by external circumstances to decrease feelings of discomfort.  Repression refers to a process in which unacceptable feelings or impulses are kept out of conscious awareness, but continue to influence behavior on an unconscious level.  Knowing these definitions is helpful, but it's even more helpful to understand what the terms look like in a real-life situation -- what does it look and sound like when a person is using denial as a defense mechanism?  How about reaction formation (this is one that always trips me up)?

Answer: Hopefully it's no surprise that the correct answer is C, rationalization.  The client is demonstrating this process by saying things that intellectually make sense: "we're better as friends" and "this is the best thing that could have happened" instead of talking about why she's feeling "down" after the end of her marriage.  Rationalization is a defense mechanism that is associated with a higher level of functioning.

Coming up next week: Consent for Treatment

Think our straightforward, sensible approach could help you PASS your social work or MFT exam? If you're preparing for a social work exam, check out our Social Work Study Materials. If you're preparing for an MFT exam, check out our MFT Study Materials. Learn more about our offerings at The Therapist Development Center.

Looking for more practice questions and some study tips? Check out our new Social Work Exam Study Guide:

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