What Is Sublimation in Psychology?

Sigmund Freud reading at his desk

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We all experience unwanted impulses or urges from time to time. How we deal with those feelings, however, can mean the difference between acceptable or unacceptable behaviors. Acting on these urges in the wrong way can be inappropriate, so finding ways to deal with such desires is critical. One way that people deal with such urges through a process that is 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?

Consider what might happen if you find yourself overcome with anger. Having an emotional blow-up is one way of dealing with such feelings. But such expressions of emotion can be harmful in more ways than one. You might find yourself with damaged relationships and a reputation as a hothead.

Rather than fly off in a fit of rage, what if you channeled those angry emotions into some type of physical activity, such as cleaning your house? You might spend a few hours angrily scrubbing down your kitchen and bathrooms. Once your feelings of frustration eventually subside, you are left with a positive result—a sparkling clean house. This is one example of how sublimation can transform negative impulses into behaviors that are less damaging and even productive.

Sublimation in Psychoanalysis

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

According to Freud's psychoanalytic theory, there are three components of personality. 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 and makes 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.

Finally, 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 then mediate between the primal urges of the id, the moralistic standards of the superego, and the realistic demands of reality.

Sublimation is one of these ways that the ego reduces the anxiety that can be created by unacceptable urges or feelings. Sublimation works by channeling negative and unacceptable impulses into behaviors that are positive and socially acceptable. 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 or engage in behaviors that are positive, productive, and creative.

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.

Examples of Sublimation

Participation in sports and athletic competition can sometimes be examples of sublimation in action. Rather than acting on unacceptable urges to fight with others, people may play competitive sports in order to dominate and win. This can also extend to exercise activity as well. Imagine that you get in an argument with your next door neighbor. Your feelings of anger might create an urge to physically strike out at the neighbor. Because such an action is inappropriate, you might deal with your feelings of frustration by going for a jog. Through sublimation, you are able to turn your unwanted impulses into an action that dissipates your anger and benefits your own physical health.

Some other examples of sublimation in the real world:

  •  You feel an urge to be unfaithful to your partner. Rather than act on these unacceptable urges, you channel your feelings into doing projects around the yard.
  • You become distraught at the end of a relationship. In order 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 feel fearful that you might lose your job, but you decide to walk home from work in order to think and release your frustrations. This activity not only gives you time to cool off and reflect; it also benefits your physical health.
  • You have an almost obsessive need to have control over even the smallest details in your life. You sublimate this energy into becoming a successful business owner and leader.

Research on Sublimation

In a 2013 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 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 also have greater creative accomplishments than those who reported no sexual problems or those with sexual problems unrelated to taboo feelings. The researchers suggest that their studies represent "possibly the first experimental evidence for sublimation and suggest a cultural psychological approach to defense mechanisms."

How Can Sublimation 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 may cause us or others harm, sublimation allows us to channel that energy into things that are beneficial. This defense mechanism can actually end up having a positive effect on your health and wellness.

It is important to remember that sublimation is not always obvious because it operates at a subconscious level. 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. We may be even less aware of the underlying defense mechanisms that are at work.

There also may not be a direct correlation between the cause of the negative emotion and the behavior that results from sublimation. While are earlier examples showed anger being sublimated into physical action, such feelings could result in a variety of behaviors. Frustration and anger might lead to a person engaging in a relaxing hobby such as fishing or painting, for example.

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 inspiration from it by intentionally finding ways to substitute more healthy and productive behaviors for harmful ones. 

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Article Sources
  • Geller, J. "Of snips... and puppy dog tails": Freud's sublimation of "Judentum." American Imago. 2009;66(2):169-184.
  • Kim, E, Zeppenfeld, V, & Cohen, D. Sublimation, culture, and creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2013;105(4):639-666. DOI: 10.1037/a0033487