Repression (psychological)

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

'Repression, a key concept of psychoanalysis, is not a defense mechanism as it pre-exists the ego e.g. 'Primal Repression'. It ensures that what is unacceptable to the conscious mind, and would, if recalled, arouse anxiety, is prevented from entering into it';[2] and is generally accepted as such by psychoanalytic psychologists.[3]

However, regarding the distinct subject of repressed memory, there is debate as to whether (or how often) memory repression really happens[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 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").'[9]

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'.[10] The child realizes that acting on some desires may bring anxiety. This anxiety leads to repression of the desire.

The threat of punishment related to this form of anxiety, when internalized, 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'[11]


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 process to her or his conscious awareness - 'assuming the role of mediator and lift the repression'.[12] In favourable circumstances, ' Repression is replaced by a condemning judgement carried out along the best lines',[13] 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)'.[14]

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'.[15]

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'.[16]

Related concepts: repressed memories

Main article: Repressed memory

One of the issues Freud struggled with was the status of the childhood "memories" recovered in his therapy from repression. 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'.[17] 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'.[18] Given that psychologists, such as Elizabeth Loftus, have 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'.[19] Many however continue to give them evidential weight.

There is related debate about the very 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',[20] it appears that the trauma more often strengthens memories due to heightened emotional or physical sensations.[21] (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').[22]

Because of ethical and methodological reasons—for example, a researcher cannot put an experimental group of people through a traumatic experience, and one could not prospectively secure a trauma-free control group, in essence—the information about repression that experimental research can provide is especially limited, despite claims of psychologists and psychiatrists about repressed memory. However, the ignoring (rather than suppression) of information chosen for consideration in the present or future - because it is viewed as aversive - has a powerful relationship to what will be drawn out of the unconscious to be made available for honest, conscious deliberation..

See also



  • Boag, S. (2012) Freudian repression, the unconscious, and the dynamics of inhibition, London: Karnac.
  • The language of psycho-analysis, Originally published in French as Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse [1967].

External links

  • Primal Repression