What Is Sublimation in Psychology?

A Mature Defense Mechanism That Helps Us Deal With Unwanted Impulses

Sigmund Freud reading at his desk

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The American Psychological Association (APA) defines sublimation as "a defense mechanism in which unacceptable sexual or aggressive drives are unconsciously channeled into socially acceptable modes of expression and redirected into new, learned behaviors, which indirectly provide some satisfaction for the original drives."

We all experience unwanted impulses or urges from time to time. We want to yell and scream at someone who cuts in front of us at the store, for instance. Or we see an attractive person and feel an urge to flirt with them even though we are in a committed relationship.

How we deal with those feelings can influence whether we engage in acceptable or socially unacceptable behaviors. Acting on these urges in the wrong way can be inappropriate, so finding more suitable ways to deal with such desires is critical.

One way that people deal with these urges in an acceptable way is through a process known in psychology as sublimation. Through sublimation, people are able to transform unwanted impulses into something that is less harmful and often even helpful.

How Does Sublimation Work?

Sublimation can transform negative impulses into behaviors that are not only less damaging but sometimes productive in nature. For example, consider what might happen if you are overcome with anger.

An emotional blow-up is one way of dealing with this feeling, but this type of emotional response can be harmful. You might find yourself with damaged relationships, for example, or earn the reputation of being a hothead.

Rather than fly off in a fit of rage, what if you channeled your angry emotions into some type of physical activity, such as cleaning your house? After spending a few hours angrily scrubbing down your kitchen and bathrooms, your feelings eventually subside and you are left with a positive result—a sparkling clean home.

Sublimation in Psychoanalysis

Sublimation is a defense mechanism, which is an unconscious psychological defense that reduces the anxiety that may result from unacceptable urges or harmful stimuli. The concept of sublimation has a central role in Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory.

According to Freud's psychoanalytic theory, there are three components of personality: the id, the ego, and the superego.

  • The id is the first to form and serves as the source of the libido or the energy that drives behavior. The id is primitive and basic, composed of all the urges and desires that are often socially unacceptable if we simply acted upon them whenever we pleased.
  • The ego emerges later during childhood and is the part of the personality that reigns in the id, making it conform to the demands of reality. Rather than simply acting out on urges, the ego forces us to deal with these desires in ways that are more realistic.
  • The superego is the component of personality that is made up of all the morals, rules, standards, and values that we have internalized from our parents and culture. This part of personality strives to make us behave in ways that are moral.

The ego must mediate between the primal urges of the id, the moralistic standards of the superego, and the demands of reality.

Sublimation is one way that the ego reduces the anxiety that can be created by unacceptable urges or feelings. It works by channeling negative and unacceptable impulses into behaviors that are positive and socially acceptable.

Freud and Sublimation

Freud's idea of sublimation originated while he was reading the story of a man who tortured animals as a child and later went on to become a surgeon. Freud believed that the same energy that once drove the child's sadism was eventually sublimated into positive and socially acceptable actions that benefited others.

Freud considered sublimation a sign of maturity that allows people to behave in civilized and acceptable ways. This process can lead people to pursue activities that are better for their health, for instance, or to engage in behaviors that are positive, productive, and creative.

Examples of Sublimation

Participation in sports and athletic competitions can sometimes be examples of sublimation in action. Rather than acting on an unacceptable urge to be physically aggressive with others, people may play competitive sports to satisfy their impulse to dominate and win.

In another example, imagine that you get into an argument with your next door neighbor. Your feelings of anger might create an urge to physically strike them. Because this action is inappropriate, you might deal with your feelings more appropriately by going for a jog.

Through sublimation, you are able to turn your unwanted or unacceptable impulses into an action that dissipates your anger and benefits your physical health.

Other real-world examples of sublimation include:

  • You feel an urge to be unfaithful to your partner. Rather than act on this unacceptable urge, you channel your energy into projects around the yard.
  • You become distraught at the end of a relationship. To deal with these negative emotions, you begin writing poetry. You are able to transfer your heartbreak and emotional upset into a creative activity.
  • You are reprimanded by your manager at work. You are fearful that you might lose your job and decide to walk home from work in order to think and release your frustrations. This activity not only gives you time to calm down and reflect, but also benefits your physical health.
  • You have an almost obsessive need to have control over even the smallest details in your life. So, you sublimate this energy into becoming a successful business owner and leader.

Research on Sublimation

Much of the research on sublimination is analytical, discussing how sublimination may exist in certain situations. For instance, in one article, the authors talk about how people just sentenced to life in prison for murder likely use sublimation to 'defend against' their new reality. Another article contends that religious experiences serve as sublimation in their role as selfobjects.

A selfobject (or self-object) is a person, activity, or object that is experienced as part of one's self.

A 2013 study involved actual subjects. In it, researchers looked at whether Protestants were more likely to sublimate taboo feelings into creative endeavors. They found that individuals who experienced sexual problems related to anxieties over taboo desires were more likely to have greater creative accomplishments than those reporting no sexual problems or those with sexual problems unrelated to taboo feelings.

The researchers suggested that this study represented "possibly the first experimental evidence for sublimation." They further proposed that their findings indicate a cultural psychological approach to our defense mechanisms.

Effectiveness of Sublimation

How effective is sublimation for channeling our inappropriate urges into more acceptable, and possibly even productive actions? To answer this question, some have compared it with other defense mechanisms to see how it stacks up.

A 2020 study looked at students under high stress during COVID-19 due to preparing for school entrance exams, looking for work, etc. In this case, sublimation was compared to regression. It was noted that while regression was effective for one in five students, sublimation enabled roughly one-half of the subjects to channel their stress constructively, leading to positive results.

It should be noted that this study also stated that, when used as a coping mechanism, sublimation did not meet the standard required to be considered an effective coping strategy since it does not fundamentally resolve the stressor.

Others stress that sublimation is a critical part of art therapy. In a chapter in Art Therapies in Psychiatric Rehabilitation, the author states that sublimation serves two purposes in this context. One is that it helps the patient transform themself through the therapeutic process. The second is that art is created which symbolizes the sublimation that exists.

How Sublimation Can Influence Your Life

So, what role might the process of sublimation have in your life? As Freud suggested, sublimation is usually considered a healthy and mature way of dealing with urges that may be undesirable or unacceptable.

Rather than act out in ways that could cause us or others harm, sublimation allows us to channel that energy into things that are beneficial. Thus, this defense mechanism can actually end up having a positive effect on your health and wellness.

While we sometimes might be able to see how our negative feelings can drive us to act in certain ways, we are often very much unaware of such things since sublimation operates at a subconscious level. There also may not be a direct correlation between the cause of the negative emotion and the behavior that results from sublimation.

While earlier examples showed anger being sublimated into physical action, such feelings can result in a variety of behaviors. For example, instead of angrily cleaning the house, experiencing this emotion could also lead a person to engage in a relaxing hobby such as fishing or painting.

A Word From Verywell

Sublimation can be a powerful influence on behavior, although one of which we are largely unaware. Even though this defense mechanism may operate on a subconscious level, you can take advantage of it by intentionally finding ways to substitute more healthy and productive behaviors for one that are potentially harmful. 

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Jang JE. Conclusion: Sublimation, oceanic feeling, and the selfobject. In: Religious Experience and Self-Psychology. 2016:149-167. doi:10.1057/978-1-349-95041-6_6

  5. Kim E, Zeppenfeld V, Cohen D. Sublimation, culture, and creativity. J Personal Soc Psychol. 2013;105(4):639-66. doi:10.1037/a0033487

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Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."