This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 11 table of contents.


Freud believed the id was a source of childish or uncivilized thoughts and feelings, many of which (like lust or hatred for parents) were unacceptable to the ego. Painful memories, or unacceptable thoughts from the id, could make the conscious part of the mind recoil and turn away. Freud felt this was one of his greatest insights and most original contributions. He wrote, in 1925:

I named this process REPRESSION; it was a novelty, and nothing like it had ever before been recognized in mental life.

What was repression, as Freud described it?

Freud described repression as pushing things under the surface or simply turning away. If a painful memory or unthinkable thought is buried deeply enough, it causes no anxiety. Repression is successful. The conscious mind is spared the pain or discomfort of confronting this part of the psyche. But if repression is incomplete, or threatens to fail, a person may become anxious. Then the memory starts to behave like a cork that is being held under water. It threatens to rise to the surface unless a person exerts constant pressure to keep it down.

What was the libido? How did this relate to repression?

A core concept in Freudian psychology is that of the libido (pronounced li-BEE-do). Freud saw the libido as generallife energy, generated by the id, sexual in origin, but expressed in many different ways. Freud believed repression tied up libidinal energy. This was suggested by the metaphor of a cork held under water. If the analogy is correct, as Freud believed, then a person must expend mental energy to keep something repressed, particularly when the repression is failing. Therefore, a person repressing important things feels depressed or lacking in energy.

When a person finally allows a repressed thought back into consciousness, a great deal of energy is released. The person feels "a weight has been lifted from my shoulders." Much of Freud's therapy, which we will discuss in Chapter 13 (Therapies), was aimed at bringing unconscious problems to the surface, so the psychic energy tied up in repressing them could be freed up and used for constructive living.

What happens when repression starts to fail?

As long as repression succeeds, the ego is protected from unpleasant urges and memories. When repression fails, a troublesome thought will threaten to intrude into everyday consciousness. At this point, Freud suggested, a person will perform mental maneuvers to avoid confronting the unacceptable thought. The maneuvers are known collectively as defense mechanisms. They occur automatically, according to Freud, as the ego seeks to protect itself. Freud thought that defense mechanisms were never the result of conscious, rational thought processes.

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