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Repression and Defense Mechanisms

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. That made some sort of repression necessary.

Freud felt this was one of his greatest insights and most original contributions. In a 1925 autobiographical essay, he wrote:

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

Freud described repression as pushing things under the surface or simply turning away. If an instinctual urge was threatening in some way, it had to be stopped, and the way to do this was not to think about it.

If an unthinkable thought was buried deeply enough, there was no possibility of acting on it, so it caused no anxiety or difficulty. That happened (Freud thought) if repression was successful. The conscious mind was spared the pain or discomfort of confronting dangerous and uncomfortable parts of the psyche.

But if repression is incomplete, or threatens to fail because a person is reminded of the forbidden impulses, the result may be anxiety or dread. The instinctual urge or drive then behaved like a cork held under water. It threatened to rise to the surface unless a person exerted constant pressure to keep it down.

What was repression, as Freud described it?

Recall that a core concept of Freudian psychology is that of the libido (pronounced li-BEE-do). Freud saw the libido as a general life 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.

Freud believed a person had to expend mental energy to keep something repressed, particularly when the repression was failing. Therefore, a person repressing important things was likely to feel both anxious (because of the threat) and depressed or lacking in energy (because of having libidinal energies tied up in repression).

How did the libido relate to repression?

If repression threatened to fail, Freud suggested, a person would perform mental maneuvers to avoid confronting an unacceptable thought or action. The maneuvers are known collectively as defense mechan­isms.

The concept of repression changed after Freud's death. Psychologists interpreted the idea as forgetting painful memories. That was not Freud's conception, except at the very beginning of his career, as Boag (2006) points out.

Freud started out with a "forgetting painful memories" version of repression in the 1880s. However, by the end of his career, Freud did not see repression as avoiding painful memories. Now it was about preventing the expression of forbidden drives or instincts.

Freud believed people had to repress "phantasies" or wish-fulfillment ideas generated by the id. ("Phantasy" was a spelling adopted by Freud's translators to refer to id impulses, not pleasant daydream-type fantasies.) Murdering a parent or lusting for a parent would be examples of id phantasies.

If the urge from the id broke through into consciousness, it might cause dangerous or unacceptable behavior. That made repression necessary. Again: Repression was directed at censoring forbidden wishes and phantasies, not actual memories.

This is not how repression is usually defined in today's popular media. It is also not how repression was defined in the scholarly literature about repression over the last 20 or 30 years.

When Holmes (1994) asserted there was "no evidence" for repression, he meant, "Research shows that painful memories are no more likely to be forgotten than other memories."

When Loftus and Ketchum (1994) wrote The Myth of Repressed Memory, they were not referring to forbidden id impulses. They were pointing out that memories recovered in therapy are often inaccurate.

Defense Mechanisms

Freud's description of defense mechanisms can be evaluated as insightful observations. No Freudian theory is needed to understand mental gymnastics aimed at avoiding unpleasant thoughts or conflicts.

Freud was a keen observer and identified many interesting defense mechanisms. He said defense mechanisms in general were aimed at protecting pretenses of the ego.

A pretense is something we pretend or want to believe about ourselves, for example, that we are honest. A person might engage in a defense mechanism like rationalization if they stole something, to keep from seeing themselves as dishonest.

Perhaps the simplest defense mechan­ism is denial–refusing to admit the truth of something. Denial, like many other defense mechanisms, is especially clear in little children. A child breaks a vase in full view of everybody and immediately exclaims, "I didn't do it!"

In adults, denial is common when a person suffers the sudden and unexpected loss of a loved one. People confronted with sudden death of a loved one commonly say, "It can't be true." Psychiatrists who work in Emergency Rooms of major hospitals see this reaction so often that they expect it.

Denial is commonly seen in alcoholism. Alcoholics are notorious for denying they have a problem when everybody else can see it. Perhaps the same is true of many other problems that are not pleasant to realize about oneself.

What is denial? How do children show it? How is rationalization distinguished from lying?

A common defense mechanism is rationalization. Rationalization occurs when people construct false explanations for their behavior, without realizing the explanations are false.

As Freud described it, rationalization was supposed to be an automatic self-protective reaction. It was carried out by the unconscious part of the ego.

Therefore rationalization would be a defense mechanism in the Freudian sense only when a person is unaware of lying. This distinguishes rationalization from ordinary deception, which occurs when people know the truth but try to fool other people.

Rationalization probably happens all the time when we try to explain behavior originating from unconscious sources. One of the "pretenses of the ego" is that we control our own behavior, so if our behavior originates from outside con­scious control, we will tend to rationalize it by explaining how we intended it.

This was shown clearly by the split brain experiments. A special apparatus could send messages only to the (non talking) right hemisphere, so the left hand would do something and the talking part of the brain would not know why. But it would confabulate an explanation instantly.

In other words, the talking half of the brain would always have an explanation for the activity of the left arm, directed by the non-talking half of the brain, but the explanation would be false. One could say, "This prevents the discomfort of realizing half your brain is out of communication with the other half" but these patients were fully aware of their status as split-brain patients.

More likely, rationalization is a habit gained from long experience. We cannot possibly know all the reasons a thought might pop into our heads. But we need a narrative, an explanation, so we try to make up something plausible. Either that or we give a non-explanation like, "It just occurred to me."

The defense mechanism called intellec­tualization occurs when a person adopts a cool, scientific attitude toward something threatening to cause emotional upset. A friend who taught gross anatomy at a medical school told me how he saw it in action every term.

Each first-year medical student had a cadaver to work on, so the room looked like a morgue. But (he explained) the students quickly learned to regard the bodies as nothing but laboratory material for dissection. Whether or not they realized it, this professional attitude probably helped them combat feelings of dread and fear.

Projection is a defense mechanism that occurs when people avoid a negative evaluation of themselves by seeing their own unpleasant thoughts or actions in other people. A student who cheats will tell you "everybody cheats." A man who cheats on his wife acts genuinely surprised to find out some men are faithful.

Many college students experience projection in the context of a fading romance. The person who wants to end the relationship accuses the other of "acting funny" or "wanting to break up" when it is actually the person who makes the accusation who feels that way.

What is projection? What are common examples of it?

Displacement is a defense mechanism in which libidinal energy is supposedly redirected from a desired (but unavail­able) goal to a substitute. One girl found herself sleeping with a big stuffed dog–a gift from her father–after she broke up with her boyfriend. She even kissed the stuffed animal good night. When she got back with her boyfriend, the animal returned to the corner of her room.

Displaced aggression is another common variety of displacement. Instead of killing a teacher who gives you a bad grade (which Freud would probably suspect as an id phantasy) one might kick a can or punch a wall.

What is displacement, as Freud explained it?

Reaction formation is an intriguing defense mechanism, if you accept Freud's logic. In reaction formation a person defends against unacceptable thoughts or impulses by converting them to their opposite on the surface.

The ego thereby fortifies itself at its point of greatest weakness. Freud said reaction formation has a compulsive or excessive quality.

For example, a student once wrote an essay in which he described, with shock and sorrow, having a fist fight with his father, who he deeply resented for abandoning his mother. The student peppered his essay with statements about how much he loved his father. The strong impression was that he was struggling with that idea, fighting off the exact opposite emotion.

What is reaction formation?

Sublimation is a defense mechanism that Freud thought occurred when libidinal energy is channeled into socially acceptable, approved activities. Freud had a background in chemistry, where sublime means to pass from a solid to a vaporous state.

The defense mechanism of sublimation causes earthy id impulses to be channeled into refined and civilized behavior. Alfred Adler called sublimation "the healthy defense mechanism" because if it worked like Freud said, it produced socially beneficial outcomes for humanity.

Why did Adler call sublimation "the healthy defense mechanism"?

Undoing is a ritualistic effort to undo damage and reduce guilt over some action in the past. Nobody can change the past, so the act of undoing is usually symbolic.

An example of undoing occurs when a girl sends a pleasant Valentine's Day card to an ex-boyfriend with whom she broke up. The girl who sends the card feels guilty about having hurt the other person's feelings. The message is, "I am really not such a bad person."

A boy who received such a card thought his ex-girlfriend was being sadistic, trying to make him hurt. But Freud would probably say her unconscious purpose was to convince herself that she was not such a bad person.

What is the goal of "undoing"?

Isolation occurs when somebody takes a problem or conflict and shuts it off in a corner of the mind, isolating it from day to day thought processes. A person who is using isolation may give no external clue to the conflict, except for a tendency not to react when you expect a reaction.

Why might isolation be hard to detect in another person?

A conversion reaction occurs when somebody converts psychological problems into a physical ailment. For example, a person who witnesses a horrible incident may go blind for psychological reasons, although the person's eyes are still good.

What is a conversion reaction?

See the story of Anna O. in Chapter 13 for many examples of conversion reactions. (Today this is called a somatization disorder.)

Identification is a defense mechanism that occurs when a person avoids painful thoughts and emotions by identifying with some symbolic sources of strength. For example, people who are weak or have troubled lives often become fanatically devoted to comic book or science fiction heroes, soap opera characters, political parties, or favorite sports heros.

How might Freud explain a fanatical devotion to comic books or sports teams?

Regression occurs when a person under stress reverts to behavior characteristic of a younger age. Under severe stress, people may curl up in the fetal position like a tiny unborn baby. A less extreme form of regression occurs when adults, under stress, show childish behavior.

What is regression as Freud described it?

Are the defense mechanisms "real"? On a behavioral level, they are familiar to most of us from everyday experience. Freud attributed them to protecting the pretensions of the ego, and it is true they are all the result of some challenge, by definition.


Boag, S. (2006) Freudian repression, the common view, and pathological science. Review of General Psychology, 10 74-86.

Freud, S. (1925/1959) An Autobiographical Study. London: Hogarth.

Holmes, D. S. (1994, June 4-6). Is there evidence of repression? Doubtful. Harvard Mental Health Letter.

Loftus, E. & Ketcham, K. (1994). The Myth of Repressed Memory. New York: St. Martin's Press.

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