Psychological repression

Psychological repression, or simply repression, is the psychological attempt made by an individual to direct one's own desires and impulses toward pleasurable instincts by excluding the desire from one's consciousness and holding or subduing it in the unconscious. In psychoanalytic theory repression plays a major role in many mental illnesses, and in the psyche of the average person.[1]

Repression (German: Verdrängung), 'a key concept of psychoanalysis, is a defense mechanism, but it pre-exists the ego, e.g., 'Primal Repression'. It ensures that what is unacceptable to the conscious mind, which would arouse anxiety if recalled, is prevented from entering into it';[2] and is generally accepted as such by psychoanalytic psychologists.[3]

There is debate as to whether (or how often) memory repression really occurs[4] and mainstream psychology holds that true memory repression occurs only very rarely.[5]

Freud's theory

As Freud moved away from hypnosis, and towards urging his patients to remember the past in a conscious state, 'the very difficulty and laboriousness of the process led Freud to a crucial insight'.[6] The intensity of his struggles to get his patients to recall past memories led him to conclude that 'there was some force that prevented them from becoming conscious and compelled them to remain unconscious...pushed the pathogenetic experiences in question out of consciousness. I gave the name of repression to this hypothetical process'.[7]

Freud would later call the theory of repression "the corner-stone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests" ("On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement").[8]

Freud developed many of his early concepts with his mentor, Josef Breuer. Moreover, while Freud himself noted that Arthur Schopenhauer in 1884 had hinted at a notion of repression (but he had only read him in later life), he did not mention that Johann Friedrich Herbart, psychologist and founder of pedagogy whose ideas were very influential in Freud's environment and in particular with Freud's psychiatry teacher Theodor Meynert, had used the term in 1824 in his discussion of unconscious ideas competing to get into consciousness.[9]


Freud considered that there was 'reason to assume that there is a primal repression, a first phase of repression, which consists in the psychical (ideational) representative of the instinct being denied entrance into the conscious', as well as a 'second stage of repression, repression proper, which affects mental derivatives of the repressed representative: distinguished what he called a first stage of 'primal repression' from 'the case of repression proper ("after-pressure").'[10]

In the primary repression phase, 'it is highly probable that the immediate precipitating causes of primal repressions are quantitative factors such as...the earliest outbreaks of anxiety, which are of a very intense kind'.[11] The child realizes that acting on some desires may bring anxiety. This anxiety leads to repression of the desire.

When it is internalized, the threat of punishment related to this form of anxiety becomes the superego, which intercedes against the desires of the id (which works on the basis of the pleasure principle). Freud speculated that 'it is perhaps the emergence of the super-ego which provides the line of demarcation between primal repression and after-pressure'[12]


Abnormal repression, as defined by Freud, or neurotic behavior occurs when repression develops under the influence of the superego and the internalized feelings of anxiety, in ways leading to behavior that is illogical, self-destructive, or anti-social.

A psychotherapist may try to ameliorate this behavior by revealing and re-introducing the repressed aspects of the patient's mental processes to their conscious awareness - 'assuming the role of mediator and lift the repression'.[13] In favourable circumstances, 'Repression is replaced by a condemning judgement carried out along the best lines',[14] thereby reducing anxiety over the impulses involved.

Later developments

Otto Fenichel stressed that 'if the disappearance of the original aim from consciousness is called repression, every sublimation is a repression (a "successful" one: through the new type of discharge, the old one has become superfluous)'.[15]

Lacan stressed the role of the signifier in repression — 'the primal repressed is a signifier' — examining how the symptom is 'constituted on the basis of primal repression, of the fall, of the Unterdrückung, of the binary signifier...the necessary fall of this first signifier'.[16]

Family therapy has explored how familial taboos lead to 'this screening-off that Freud called "repression"', emphasising the way that 'keeping part of ourselves out of our awareness is a very active process...a deliberate hiding of some feeling from our family'.[17]

Repressed memories

Main article: Repressed memory

One of the issues Freud struggled with was the status of the childhood "memories" recovered from repression in his therapy. He concluded that "these scenes from infancy are not always true. Indeed, they are not true in the majority of cases, and in a few of them they are the direct opposite of the historical truth".[18] Controversy arose in the late 20th century about the status of such "recovered memories", particularly of child abuse, with many claiming that Freud had been wrong to ignore the reality of such recovered memories.

While accepting "the realities of child abuse", Elaine Showalter considered it important that one "distinguishes between abuse remembered all along, abuse spontaneously remembered, abuse recovered in therapy, and abuse suggested in therapy".[19] Memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus, has shown that it is possible to implant false memories in individuals, it is possible to "come to doubt the validity of therapeutically recovered memories of sexual abuse...[as] confabulations".[20] However, criminal prosecutors continue to present them as evidence in legal cases .

There is debate about the possibility of the repression of psychological trauma. While some evidence suggests that "adults who have been through overwhelming trauma can suffer a psychic numbing, blocking out memory of or feeling about the catastrophe",[21] it appears that the trauma more often strengthens memories due to heightened emotional or physical sensations.[22] (However these sensations may also cause distortions, as human memory in general is filtered both by layers of perception, and by "appropriate mental schema...spatio-temporal schemata").[23]

Researchers cannot put an experimental group of people through a traumatic experience for ethical and methodological reasons. For example, one could not secure a trauma-free control group. Thus, there are limits to the information about repression that experimental research can provide, despite the claims of psychologists and psychiatrists about repressed memory. However, because of its aversive character, ignoring (rather than suppressing) information being gathered in research could influence what will be available for investigation.

See also


  1. Laplanche pp. 390, 392
  2. Richard L. Gregory, The Oxford History of the Mind (1987) p. 681
  3. "Defenses". Retrieved 2008-03-11.
  4. McNally, R.J. (2004). "The Science and Folklore of Traumatic Amnesia". Clinical Psychology Science and Practice. 11 (1): 29–33. doi:10.1093/clipsy/bph056.
  5. "Repressed Memories and Recovered Memory Therapy". Jan Groenveld. Retrieved November 2008. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  6. Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (1998) p. 15
  7. Sigmund Freud, Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (Penguin 1995) p. 28–9
  8. Repression
  9. xxii Introduction to Studies on Hysteria
  10. Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11) p. 147 and p. 184
  11. Sigmund Freud, On Psychopathology (PFL 10) p. 245
  12. Freud, On Psychopathology p. 245
  13. Freud, Five Lectures p. 35
  14. Freud, Five Lectures p. 87
  15. Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 153
  16. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1994) p. 176, p. 236, and p. 251
  17. R. Skynner/J. Cleese, Families and how to survive them (1993) p. 36–7
  18. Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (PFL 1) p. 414
  19. Elaine Showalter, Hystories (London 1997) p. 158 and p. 148
  20. Showalter, p. 147
  21. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (1996) p. 209
  22. NPR: Why It's Hard to Admit to Being Wrong
  23. Richard L. Gregory, The Oxford Companion to the Mind (1987) p. 679–80


External links

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