Repression As a Defense Mechanism

How Repression Works

In This Article

Repression is a type of psychological defense mechanism that involves keeping certain thoughts, feelings, or urges out of conscious awareness. The goal of this form of defense is to keep unacceptable desires or thoughts out of the conscious mind in order to prevent or minimize feelings of anxiety.

How does repression work? This process involves pushing painful or disturbing thoughts into the unconscious in order to remain unaware of them. The concept was first identified and described by Sigmund Freud, who was most famous for the development of psychoanalysis.

It is important to note that repression is about more than simply avoiding an issue or trying not to think of it. True repression, in the Freudian view, involves completely hiding something from conscious awareness. When a thought, feeling, or urge is repressed, you do not even know it exists. However, these hidden feelings may still continue to exert an influence on your behaviors and relationships.

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. Consider how an iceberg would look if you were viewing it from above the water. Only the small tip of the iceberg is visible above the water’s surface, much like our conscious mind.

The Conscious Mind

When we talk about consciousness representing only the ‘tip of the iceberg,’ we are referring to the fact that only a small portion of the iceberg is actually visible. Analogous to consciousness, this includes all the thoughts, feelings, and memories that we are currently aware of or that we can call into awareness.

The Unconscious Mind

Underneath the surface of the water lies the enormous bulk of the iceberg that simply dwarfs what is visible to the eye, much like the unconscious mind. The ice below the water represents our unconsciousness, the enormous reservoir or impulses, memories, and thoughts that are hidden from our awareness.

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, yet its contents can still affect behavior in a number of different ways.

As he worked to help patients uncover their unconscious feelings, however, Freud began to believe that there was some mechanism at work that actively resisted these efforts in order to keep unacceptable thoughts hidden. He named this process repression, believing that it played one of the most critical roles in the human psyche. He even suggested that repression was "the foundation-stone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests."

Repression was the first defense mechanism Freud identified and he believed it to be the most important. The entire process of Freudian psychoanalysis rested on the idea that bringing unconscious feelings into conscious awareness could lead to the relief of psychological distress.

Repression vs Suppression

Repression is sometimes confused with suppression, another type of defense mechanism. Where repression involves the unwanted impulses or thoughts being unconsciously pushed out of awareness, suppression occurs when a person consciously tries to force these feelings out of awareness. Suppression is purposely trying to forget or not think about painful or unwanted thoughts.

Types of Repression

Freud also used the term repression in two different ways. These are often also presented as different stages of repression.

Primary repression refers to hiding unwanted material before it ever reaches consciousness. This process occurs entirely unconsciously. While the information may be hidden from awareness, however, it can sometimes enter awareness in disguised forms.

Repression proper occurs when a person becomes aware of repressed material but then purposely tries to remove it from awareness.

Some research suggests that some cases of repression might be explained by looking at certain memory processes. 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. Retrieving some memories more often can lead to others being 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.

How It Works

Like other defense mechanisms, repression keeps people from becoming aware of possibly disturbing or threatening thoughts from entering awareness. The purpose of this process is to try to minimize feelings of anxiety.

In order to better understand how repression works, it is important to take a closer look at Freud’s views of how personality is structured. He believed that personality was composed of three parts.

  1. The Ego: In Freud’s psychoanalytic view of personality, the ego is the component that deals with and mediates between the demands of reality and the other two aspects of personality.
  2. The Id: The id is the unconscious reservoir of basic urges, desires, and needs that drive behavior.
  3. The Superego: The superego is the idealistic and moralistic side that includes values and ideas internalized from caregivers and society.

It is the id that fuels these often unacceptable urges and it is the superego that tries to impose a sense of morality on the individual’s behavior. The ego must strive to balance these two often competing demands, while at the same time taking into account an individual’s everyday reality.

The constant push-and-pull of these often competing forces is what can lead to ego anxiety. The basic urges of the id are often repressed, so the ego must deal with those feelings as well as the conflicts between the demands of reality and moralistic pressure from the superego.

While repression might be effective in some ways, it can ultimately lead to greater anxiety down the road. Freud believed that repression could lead to psychological distress. While these thoughts, feelings, and desires might be outside of conscious awareness, they can still create anxiety. The entire process of Freud’s approach to psychoanalysis was focused on bringing these unconscious urges into awareness so they could be dealt with consciously.

Impact

The painful thoughts hidden from awareness through repression may not be conscious, but they can still cause a person pain and anxiety. The things that are repressed do not just disappear.

By failing to properly cope with these thoughts or feelings, they may eventually build up to the point where they begin to appear through feelings of anxiety or dysfunctional behavior. We might not know why or where these anxious feelings and disturbing behaviors come from, however, because the source is being hidden from our consciousness. Things that are repressed may start to slip into awareness in subtle ways.

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.

Have you ever had a slip of the tongue that seemed to reveal what you might really be thinking about? Freud suggested that these accidental misstatements (called Freudian Slips) were one way that repressed material makes its way into awareness.

Examples

Exploring some examples of repression can provide a better look at how it can influence behavior.

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 coworker.

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 parents 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.

Controversy

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 suggests that reality distortion accomplished through repression is what leads to psychopathology and neurosis. Yet one review of the research concluded that distorting reality in this way most often helps improve an individual's psychological and social functioning. One study found that people who have what is known as a repressive coping style tend to experience less depression and cope better with pain.

Repression and Memory

Freud himself had 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.”

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.

Many psychologists today suggest that while some memory repression may be possible, it is likely very rare. Memory expert Elizabeth Loftus has 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.

In many cases, trauma can actually strengthen the memory of an event. People may develop post traumatic stress disorder as the 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.

Key Takeaways

Memory: 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.

Neurosis: Psychoanalysis also suggests that repression plays a role in distorting an individual’s reality, which may then lead to neurosis and dysfunction. However, one review of the research concluded 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.

Therapy: The Freudian approach to psychoanalysis suggested therapeutic success hinged on lifting repression. However, it is currently believed that there are many types of therapeutic actions that contribute to the success of any type of psychological therapy, psychoanalysis or otherwise.

A Word From Verywell

Repressed information, while not conscious, is still present and can resurface in a number of ways. Freudian psychoanalysis suggested that repression was the root of neurosis and that bringing repressed material into awareness could lead to relief. Contemporary psychologists tend to believe that true repression of memory is quite rare.

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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