Open main menu

Wikipedia β

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 them from one's consciousness and holding or subduing them in the unconscious. According to psychoanalytic theory, repression plays a major role in many mental illnesses, and in the psyche of the average person.[1]

Repression is a key concept of psychoanalysis, where it is understood as a defence mechanism that "ensures that what is unacceptable to the conscious mind, and would if recalled arouse anxiety, is prevented from entering into it."[2]

There has been debate as to whether (or how often) memory repression really occurs[3] and mainstream psychology holds that true memory repression occurs only very rarely.[4]


Freud's theoryEdit

As Sigmund 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'.[5] 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'.[6]

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").[7]

Freud developed many of his early concepts with his mentor, Josef Breuer. Moreover, while Freud himself noted that the philosopher 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.[8]

The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre challenged Freud's theory by maintaining that there is no "mechanism" that represses unwanted thoughts. Since "all consciousness is conscious of itself" we will be aware of the process of repression, even if skilfully dodging an issue.[9] The philosopher Thomas Baldwin, writing in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995), stated that Sartre's argument that Freud's theory of repression is internally flawed is based on a misunderstanding of Freud.[10] Roger Scruton, writing in Sexual Desire (1986), argued that Freud's theory of repression disproves the claim, made by Karl Popper and Ernest Nagel, that Freudian theory implies no testable observation and therefore does not have genuine predictive power, since the theory has "strong empirical content" and implies testable consequences.[11]


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").'[12]

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'.[13] 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'[14]


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 peacemaker ... to lift the repression'.[15] In favourable circumstances, 'Repression is replaced by a condemning judgement carried out along the best lines',[16] thereby reducing anxiety over the impulses involved.

Later developmentsEdit

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)'.[17]

Jacques 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'.[18]

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'.[19]

Experimental attempts to study repressionEdit

According to the psychologist Donald W. MacKinnon and his co-author William F. Dukes, American psychologists began to attempt to study repression in the experimental laboratory around 1930. These psychologists were influenced by an exposition of the concept of repression published by the psychoanalyst Ernest Jones in the American Journal of Psychology in 1911. Like other psychologists who attempted to submit the claims of psychoanalysis to experimental test, they did not immediately try to develop new techniques for that purpose, instead conducting surveys of the psychological literature to see whether "experiments undertaken to test other theoretical assertions" had produced results relevant to assessing psychoanalysis. In 1930, H. Meltzer published a survey of experimental literature on "the relationships between feeling and memory" in an attempt to determine the relevance of laboratory findings to "that aspect of the theory of repression which posits a relationship between hedonic tone and conscious memory." However, according to MacKinnon and Dukes, because Meltzer had an inadequate grasp of psychoanalytic writing he misinterpreted Freud's view that the purpose of repression is to avoid "unpleasure", taking the term to mean simply something unpleasant, whereas for Freud it actually meant deep-rooted anxiety. Nevertheless, Meltzer pointed out shortcomings in the studies he reviewed, and in MacKinnon and Dukes's view he also "recognized that most of the investigations which he reviewed had not been designed specifically to test the Freudian theory of repression."[20]

In 1934, the psychologist Saul Rosenzweig and his co-author G. Mason criticized Meltzer, concluding that the studies he reviewed suffered from two basic problems: that the studies "worked with hedonic tone associated with sensory stimuli unrelated to the theory of repression rather than with conative hedonic tone associated with frustrated striving, which is the only kind of 'unpleasantnesss' which, according to the Freudian theory, leads to repression" and that they "failed to develop under laboratory control the experiences which are subsequently to be tested for recall". In MacKinnon and Dukes's view, psychologists who wanted to study repression in the laboratory "faced the necessity of becoming clear about the details of the psychoanalytic formulation of repression if their researches were to be adequate tests of the theory" but soon discovered that "to grasp clearly even a single psychoanalytic concept was an almost insurmountable task." MacKinnon and Dukes attribute this situation to the way in which Freud repeatedly modified his theory "without ever stating clearly just which of his earlier formulations were to be completely discarded, or if not discarded, how they were to be understood in the light of his more recent assertions."[21]

MacKinnon and Dukes write that, while psychoanalysts were at first only disinterested in attempts to study repression in laboratory settings, they later came to reject them. They comment that while "the psychologists had criticized each other's researches largely on the grounds that their experimental techniques and laboratory controls had not been fully adequate, the psychoanalysts rejected them on the more sweeping grounds that whatever else these researches might be they simply were not investigations of repression." They relate that when Freud was sent reprints of Rosenzweig's attempts to study repression, he responded with a dismissive letter which concluded that Rosenzweig's studies "can do no harm." They state that, in contrast to Freud, most psychoanalysts eventually concluded that "such studies could indeed be harmful since they misrepresented what psychoanalysts conceived repression to be."[22]

Repressed memoriesEdit

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".[23] 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", the feminist 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".[24] The 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".[25] However, criminal prosecutors continue to present them as evidence in legal cases[citation needed].

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",[26] it appears that the trauma more often strengthens memories due to heightened emotional or physical sensations.[27] (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").[28]

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[original research?]. However, because of its aversive character, ignoring (rather than suppressing) information being gathered in research could influence what will be available for investigation.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Laplanche pp. 390, 392
  2. ^ Davis, Derek Russell (2004). Gregory, Richard L., ed. The Oxford Companion to the Mind, Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 803. ISBN 0-19-866224-6. 
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ "Repressed Memories and Recovered Memory Therapy". Jan Groenveld. Archived from the original on 2009-01-23. Retrieved November 2008.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  5. ^ Janet Malcolm, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession (1998) p. 15
  6. ^ Sigmund Freud, Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (Penguin 1995) p. 28–9
  7. ^ Repression Archived 2010-09-06 at the Wayback Machine.
  8. ^ xxii Introduction to Studies on Hysteria
  9. ^ Wilson, John G. (2016-12-01). "Sartre and the Imagination: Top Shelf Magazines". Sexuality & Culture. 20 (4): 775–784. doi:10.1007/s12119-016-9358-x. ISSN 1095-5143. 
  10. ^ Baldwin, Thomas (2005). Honderich, Ted, ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 835–7. ISBN 0-19-926479-1. 
  11. ^ Scruton, Roger (1994). Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation. London: Phoenix. p. 201. ISBN 1-85799-100-1. 
  12. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 11) p. 147 and p. 184
  13. ^ Sigmund Freud, On Psychopathology (PFL 10) p. 245
  14. ^ Freud, On Psychopathology p. 245
  15. ^ Freud, Five Lectures p. 35
  16. ^ Freud, Five Lectures p. 87
  17. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 153
  18. ^ Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1994) p. 176, p. 236, and p. 251
  19. ^ R. Skynner/J. Cleese, Families and how to survive them (1993) p. 36–7
  20. ^ MacKinnon, Donald W.; Dukes, William F. (1962). Postman, Leo, ed. Psychology in the Making: Histories of Selected Research Problems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 663, 673-674. ISBN 0-19-866224-6. 
  21. ^ MacKinnon, Donald W.; Dukes, William F. (1962). Postman, Leo, ed. Psychology in the Making: Histories of Selected Research Problems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 674–675. ISBN 0-19-866224-6. 
  22. ^ MacKinnon, Donald W.; Dukes, William F. (1962). Postman, Leo, ed. Psychology in the Making: Histories of Selected Research Problems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 701–703. ISBN 0-19-866224-6. 
  23. ^ Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (PFL 1) p. 414
  24. ^ Elaine Showalter, Hystories (London 1997) p. 158 and p. 148
  25. ^ Showalter, p. 147
  26. ^ Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (1996) p. 209
  27. ^ NPR: Why It's Hard to Admit to Being Wrong Archived 2018-01-08 at the Wayback Machine.
  28. ^ Richard L. Gregory, The Oxford Companion to the Mind (1987) p. 679–80


External linksEdit

  • Primal Repression
  • Wilson, J. G. (2010). Repression. Existential Analysis: Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis, 21(2). (pdf available through Sci- Hub)