Introjection, Internalization and Identification
As an LCSW and LMSW exam coach, there are no defense mechanisms I get more emails and questions about than introjection, internalization and identification. Introjection and internalization are used pretty interchangeably on the exam, so going forward in this blog I will just use ‘introjection’ for the sake of simplicity. There is a lot of confusion out there regarding the differences between these defense mechanisms, and our hope is that today’s blog will help you distinguish between these as you prepare for your LCSW and LMSW exams!
Introjection and Identification: A Continuum
First, I want you to think about introjection and identification as being very similar and on a continuum; introjection usually leads to identification. It is highly unlikely that they will have you discriminate between the two on the exam given their similarities. It is more likely that you’ll have one of these terms as an answer choice with three others that aren’t so similar, or that the question will use the term and you’ll have to choose an answer that reflects the closest definition (or an understanding of the definition).
Introjection occurs when a person internalizes the ideas or voices of other people-often external authorities. An example of introjection might be a dad telling his son “boys don’t cry”- this is an idea that a person might take in from their environment and internalize into their way of thinking. The child isn’t necessarily identifying with the person who said this (their dad), but they take it in and it becomes part of how they see the world (and consequently, how they believe they should behave). Over time, this might lead to identification with the individual who said it. This would look like the son following in their dad’s footsteps and becoming like their dad in more ways than just this belief. They might follow a similar career path, dress similarly, and take on other similar belief systems. So are not only taking on the single belief that “boy’s don’t cry” but also begin to identify with the person who said it.
Another simple example is a child is being bullied at school. The bullied child may unconsciously begin acting like the bully to avoid being further picked on. At this point, it’s just introjection. If the child then began to identify with the bully, acting like them in all respects, thinking “I’m just like him-we rule the school!”, dressing like the bullyet, etc. then identification has occurred.
Let’s apply this knowledge to a practice question!
A young married couple presents for counseling due to ongoing disagreements about roles within their marriage. The wife explains that she “never signed up to be his mom” and resents being expected to do all of the cooking and cleaning. The husband states, “I’m not asking for anything different than what my parents had. As the head of the house, I expect to be respected like my mother respected my father.” What defense mechanism is the husband using?
- Reaction Formation
The correct answer is C, identification.
- Introjection (A) occurs when a person internalizes an idea or voice of another person-often an authority figure. So if it said the husband just internalized his father’s idea that “women do the housework” this would be introjection. While this has occurred, more than this has occurred. Remember, introjection and identification are very similar and on a continuum; introjection often leads to identification (as has happened in this scenario).
- Intellectualization (B) is when a person removes themselves emotionally from something stressful by focusing on reasoning/thinking to avoid feeling. This is not occuring in the scenario above.
- Identification (C) occurs when a person not only takes on a belief or voice of another person, but also begins to identify with that individual. In this case, the husband has not merely taken on the idea that women should do the housework; rather, he sees himself as the head of his household, like his father. He is identifying with his father. Because of this identification, he expects to be treated like his father, with his wife respecting him and treating him as his mom treated his dad.
- Reaction formation (D) is when a person acts opposite to their unacceptable thoughts and emotions. We do not see the husband acting opposite to his thoughts or emotions in this scenario.
Share your answer and rationale in the comments section below and check back in tomorrow for an explanation of the correct answer!
Curious about specific qualifications for becoming an LCSW or LMFT in your state? Check out our social work licensure requirements by state page to find out what you need to do and how to get started.