Repression as a Defense Mechanism

repression vs. suppression

Verywell / Daniel Fishel

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What Is Repression?

Repression is the unconscious blocking of unpleasant emotions, impulses, memories, and thoughts from your conscious mind. Introduced by Sigmund Freud, the purpose of this defense mechanism is to try to minimize feelings of guilt and anxiety.

However, while repression might initially be effective, it can lead to greater anxiety down the road. Freud believed that repression could lead to psychological distress.

Repression vs. Suppression

Repression is often confused with suppression, another type of defense mechanism. Where repression involves unconsciously blocking unwanted thoughts or impulses, suppression is entirely voluntary. Specifically, suppression is deliberately trying to forget or not think about painful or unwanted thoughts.

History

In order to understand how repression works, it is important to look at how Sigmund Freud viewed the mind. Freud conceived of the human mind as being much like an iceberg.

The top of the iceberg that you can see above the water represents the conscious mind. The part of the iceberg that is submerged below the water, but is still visible, is the preconscious. The bulk of the iceberg that lies unseen beneath the waterline represents the unconscious.

It was the unconscious mind, Freud believed, that had such a powerful impact on personality and could potentially lead to psychological distress.

We may not be aware of what lies in the unconscious, but its contents can still affect behavior in a number of different ways.

As Freud worked to help patients uncover their unconscious feelings, he began to believe that there was some mechanism at work that actively kept unacceptable thoughts hidden. This led to his development of the concept of repression.

Repression was the first defense mechanism Freud identified and he believed it to be the most important. In fact, the entire process of Freudian psychoanalysis focused on bringing these unconscious feelings and urges into awareness so they could be dealt with consciously.

Impact of Repression

Research has supported the idea that selective forgetting is one way that people block awareness of unwanted thoughts or memories. One way this can occur is through what is referred to as retrieval-induced forgetting.

Retrieval-induced forgetting occurs when recalling certain memories causes other related information to be forgotten. So repeatedly calling forth some memories might lead other memories to become less accessible. Traumatic or unwanted memories, for example, might be forgotten by repeated retrieval of more positive ones.

Dreams

Freud believed that dreams were one way to peek into the unconscious mind. By analyzing the manifest content of dreams (or the literal events that take place in a dream), he believed that we could learn more about the latent content of the dream (or the symbolic, unconscious meanings).

Repressed feelings may pop up in the fears, anxieties, and desires that we experience in these dreams.

Slips of the Tongue

Freudian slips of the tongue are another example of how repressed thoughts and feelings can make themselves known. Freud believed that mistaken slips of the tongue could be very revealing, often showing what we really think or feel about something on an unconscious level.

While these feelings may be repressed, they have a way of sneaking out when we least expect them. Calling your romantic partner the name of someone you work with might just be a simple mistake—but Freud would suggest that it might be a sign that you have repressed sexual desires for that co-worker.

The Oedipus Complex

During Freud’s stages of psychosexual development, he suggested that children go through a process during the genital stage where they initially view their same-sex parent as a rival for the opposite-sex parent's affections. In order to resolve this conflict, they repress these feelings of aggression and instead begin to identify with their same-sex parent.

For boys, these feelings are known as the Oedipal complex, while for the analogous feelings in young girls are called the Electra complex.

Phobias

Phobias can sometimes be an example of how a repressed memory might continue to exert an influence on behavior. For example, a young child is bitten by a dog while playing at the park.

He later develops a severe phobia of dogs but has no memory of when this fear originated. He has repressed the painful memory of the fearful experience with the dog, so he is unaware of exactly where this fear came from.

Latest Thinking

The notion of repressed memories, or the existence of memories that are so painful or traumatic that they are kept out of conscious awareness, has been a controversial topic in recent decades.

Repression and Psychoanalysis

While repression is a term frequently used in psychology, it is considered a loaded and controversial concept. It has long served as a core idea within psychoanalysis, yet there have been a number of critics who have questioned the very validity and even existence of repression.

Psychoanalysis also suggests that repression plays a role in distorting an individual’s reality, which may then lead to neurosis and dysfunction. However, some research suggests that these distortions may have a beneficial impact in some circumstances.

It is also important to note that even if repression does exist and certain things are hidden from awareness, this does not mean that this process necessarily contributes to mental disorders.

Yet one review of the research concluded that distorting reality in this way most often helps improve an individual's psychological and social functioning. Research has found that people who have what is known as a repressive coping style tend to experience less depression and cope better with pain.

While it was thought that psychoanalysis helped people by surfacing repressed memories, it is currently believed that there are many other therapeutic actions that contribute to the success of any type of psychological therapy, psychoanalysis or otherwise.

Repression and Memory

Repressed memories came to the spotlight during the 1980s and 1990s when a number of high-profile cases involving recovered memories of childhood abuse captured media attention.

Researchers such as Elizabeth Loftus have repeatedly demonstrated that false memories of events that did not actually happen form quite readily. People are also prone to confabulation of memories in some cases. People may fully believe that such memories are accurate, even though the events did not actually occur as remembered.

Freud himself noted that people sometimes experienced a "recovery" of repressed childhood memories during the course of psychoanalytic therapy. In his book "Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis," 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."

One of the key assumptions in the classic tradition of psychoanalysis has been that traumatic memories can be repressed. However, most research has found that trauma actually tends to heighten memory of the painful event.

In many cases, trauma can actually strengthen the memory of an event. People may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of these traumatic experiences, causing them to experience vivid flashbacks of the events. Rather than experiencing repression of the painful memories, people are forced to relive them again and again.

This does not necessarily mean that memories of these events are completely accurate. Memory distortions are common, especially because the encoding, storage, and retrieval processes are prone to errors.

A Word From Verywell

While Freud believed that lifting repression was the key to recovery, this has not been supported by research. Instead, some experts believe that bringing repressed material to light can be the first step toward change. Understanding something, after all, is not enough to fix a problem. But it can lead to further efforts that can lead to real relief and lasting changes.

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