Psychoanalytic Theory and the Social Work Exam

While it would take years to completely review the depth of psychoanalytic theory and its branches (Freudian/classical, Jungian, Ego Psychology, Object Relations, Self-Psychology…), the social work exam doesn’t expect you to be a fully trained analyst.

Freudian “slippers”. Psychoanalysis has since evolved into several branches of thought since Freud’s first steps. Source: Miss_millions on flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

Psychoanalytic theory can initially seem archaic or “out of use” to many students (A question I hear often: “What does Freud have to do with my job in a community mental health agency seeing 100 clients for 30 minute, short term therapy?”). However, upon closer look, it is very much “a living theory” that impacts practice, even if it originated among more socioeconomically privileged circles.

In addition, contrary to managed care fiats, psychoanalysis forms the pillars of evidence-based practice. No matter which modality you’re using, “common factors” research in therapy place the primacy of the treatment relationship as an important vehicle of change and/or insight (Gurman & Messer, 2010), an important “ingredient” of therapy (Shedler, 2009) first written about and used as a central treatment tool by psychoanalytic thinkers. Additionally, the presence of transference and resistance as well as new research supporting attachment theory (see Dan Siegel) on a biological level will inevitably play into many of the presenting interpersonal and intrapersonal struggles people go through.

Psychoanalytic theory represents an important departure from the demonizing of people living with mental illness (sometimes quite literally) to a more humanistic craft that centers on the importance of “talking through” instead of the “warehousing away” treatment people received.

Inevitably, many reasoning questions on both the Masters and Clinical Examination will rely on your knowledge of some basic psychoanalytic theory as it shows up in the working relationship:

  • Transference and countertransference (as vehicles for insight and material for supervision)
  • Active listening as an “attunement function”
  • Resistance
  • Defense mechanisms
  • The maturation process/childhood development
  • Attachment theory and attachment styles
  • Freudian/classical analysis and its focus on the drive-directed psyche
  • Ego psychology and its focus on identifying the “ego functions” the ego/self uses to navigate the world
  • Object relations (several schools) and its focus on the “object-seeking” relational psyche
  • Self-psychology and its focus on the “self-object” functions to treat different personality presentations and development of a cohesive self

With the help of prolific authors in the field, I will devote different posts to each of the above topics as we review KSAs throughout the year.


Gurman, A.S. & Messer, S.B. (2011). Essential psychotherapies: Theory and practice. 3rd Edition. New York: Guilford Press.

Siegel, D. (2020). The verdict is in – the case for attachment theory. Dr. Dan Siegel. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from

Shedler J. (2009). The efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy. Am Psychol. 2010 Feb-Mar;65(2):98-109. doi: 10.1037/a0018378. PMID: 20141265.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s