Repression: A Defense Mechanism
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | September 8, 2022
Definition, examples, history, and complications of the defense mechanism of repressing
Repression is a defense mechanism employed to exclude distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings from the conscious mind. Repression often is used to keep unwanted sexual or aggressive urges or painful childhood memories from intruding on consciousness, creating anxiety and disrupting homeostatic balance.
Repression is a coping strategy. Susan David, an instructor in psychology at Harvard University, explains that coping strategies "arise from discomfort with 'negative' emotions" (2016, location 754).
However, repression is thought to only exclude conscious acknowledgement of tensions that continue to exist inside. Repression is theorized to create stress that may eventually be expressed through as a variety of neurotic and physical ailments.
Freudian psychoanalysis seek to bring repressed events and emotions to consciousness where they can be confronted and managed.
Repression is a defense mechanism employed to exclude distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings from the conscious mind.
Why Do We Repress?
Kendra Cherry wrote that "repression is one way the mind can deal with difficult thoughts or emotions" (2022). There are many helpful ways to deal with emotion overload, and repression is one of them. Dealing with reality is important, and escaping important details may handicap choices, however, being paralyzed by worry also can be destructive.
Erich Fromm wrote "there are many reasons why a person may repress certain strivings, often throughout his life. He might be afraid of being punished, of not being loved, or of being humiliated if his repressed impulses were known to others (or to himself...)" (1973, location: 4077).
Dr. Gabor Maté wrote "in between repression and hyper-reactiveness is a healthy median" (2011, location: 2,268). Most defense mechanisms have a sweet spot where they beneficially provide relief so we can continue to perform at a high level.
The police officer chasing a dangerous criminal that posses a threat to the community, would not be able to perform if her thoughts were constantly ruminating over the possibility of death. The doctor performing a sensitive surgery where the slightest wrong move could kill the patient, represses interfering thoughts, and then acts according to his expertise, with complete attention focused on the operation. While the man drinking at the bar, may do well to not repress thoughts of his family waiting at home.
These repressions are examples of temporary repressing of thoughts, however, another type of repression, the Freudian defensive repressions tend to hold much more in the unconscious then a momentary reprieve from distracting thoughts. These repressions are automatic, unconscious mechanisms employed to regulate emotion.
Simon Boag, Ph.D. explains that "repression shifts awareness from distress-laden targets (e.g., distressing memories, anxiety-arousing desires, or threats to self-esteem), which thereby terminates or decreases distress" (2020).
Distorting Reality Through Repression
Several studies support the benefits of repression, finding that those that cope with high-stress events with repression have lower incidents of depression (Phipps, et al. 1997; Prasertsri, et al. 2011). These studies coincide with the psychological concept of depressive realism.
Sometimes our histories are too devastating, our futures to bleak. We must blunt the reality, filtering the data, keeping our allostatic load within a reasonable and manageable level.
Here's the problem, repression is an unconscious function. We can't decide how much to repress. Our unconscious mind has already made these determinations. Sigmund Freud writes, "this unconscious state then coincides with the latent ability to become conscious" (1920, Kindle location: 65).
The repressions may push undesirable thoughts, facts and feelings so far into unconscious realms that we struggle to effectively function in the real world.
Rollo May questions uninhibited repression in his book Freedom and Destiny, he asks, "is the purpose of the therapist to help people to be happy? Happy in a world in which unemployment and inflation burgeon at the same time?" He continues, "such happiness can be purchased only at the price of repressing and denying too many of the facts of life, a denial that works directly against what most of us believe is the optimum state of mental health" (1981).
If we repress too much, it is almost as if we are creating our own experience machine, like the one proposed by Robert Novak. He asked his readers, "suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain" (1974, p. 42).
We can paint a rosy picture of reality through repression without completely losing touch, keeping a realistic optimism that keeps life in manageable levels while allowing enough information to flow to consciousness that we can still effectively function.
T. Franklin Murphy explains, "unmitigated repression presents a problem. Our denial of personal temptations prevents corrective and protective action. Perhaps, repression is involved when notoriously conservative (liberal) politicians are caught violating standards that they vehemently protect. They repress thoughts associated with an impulse and consciously keep their tidy conservative self image, but occasionally act on contrary impulses in an airport's bathroom stall" (2021).
Cherry warns that, "repression can also be used to avoid confronting difficult experiences and feelings, and this can have meaningful consequences" (2022).
The trick is coming to terms with life the way it is, they theorize, allowing the unconscious to become conscious and then utilizing the more mature mechanism of suppression to keep life in functional levels.
Repression and Suppression
Murphy wrote, "repression is similar to its cousin suppression. The major difference is that repression occurs unconsciously while suppression is a conscious act" (2021).
In his powerful book, Adaptations of Life, George Valliant lists suppression as a Highly Adaptive Defense (Level 7). Because of repressions susceptibility to being over used, blocking essential information, Valliant considers repression as a Neurotic Defense (Level 5A) (2012).
Freud 's Concept of Repression
Freud's Conscious and Unconscious:
Sigmund Feud's work centered around the conscious and unconscious workings of the brain. He taught that there were three plains of consciousness: unconscious, preconscious, and conscious (1923). Within the dynamic interactions of personality, these three realms of knowing influence behavior and sense of being.
Repression is the unconscious process of delegating unacceptable desires away from conscious awareness. The repressed, he explains, is not readily retrievable.
"The repressed is for us the paragon of the unconscious. We see, however, that we have a twofold unconscious, the latent, yet able to become conscious, and the repressed, which, in and of itself and by implication, is unable to become conscious" (1923).
Freud's psychoanalytical therapy focused on bringing the repressed to consciousness. He wrote, "now all our knowledge is bound always to consciousness. Only through it too can we become acquainted with the unconscious, by rendering it into consciousness" (1923).
"For Freud self-knowledge means that man becomes conscious of what is unconscious; this is a most difficult process, because it encounters the energy of resistance by which the unconscious is defended against the attempt to make it conscious" (Fromm, 1974).
The entire struggle is that those repressing do not know they are repressing or what they are repressing. We found in the 80's and 90's that several therapists, believing they were retrieving repressed memories of abuse, were actually facilitating false memories of abuses that never occurred.
Freud's Ego Ideal and Repression:
Freud believed that the ego was the motivating factor for repression. "Repression, we have said, proceeds from the ego; we might say with greater precision that it proceeds from the self-respect of the ego" (1914).
We create an ideal of who we believe we are. Freud called this the ego ideal, later he referred to the ideal as the superego. When events, thoughts, or emotions challenge the ideal, instead of working through the cognitive dissonance, we repress to preserve our ego ideal.
"As we have learnt, the formation of an ideal heightens the demands of the ego and is the most powerful factor favouring repression" (1914). Our world surrounding us, social connections, and family rules are primary factors in the formation of an ego ideal.
"We have learnt that libidinal instinctual impulses undergo the vicissitude of pathogenic repression if they come into conflict with the subject's cultural and ethical ideas" (1914). Instead of seeing ourselves as not fitting in, we repress elements of our selves (instinctual drives).
Freud's Repression Libidinal Energy:
Murphy wrote, "Sigmund Freud emphasizes that thoughts and feeling affects are individual components. In the case of repression, the thought associated with a feeling affect is repressed while the feeling affect remains" (2021).
In his Book Civilizations and Discontents Freud wrote, "when an instinctual trend undergoes repression, its libidinal elements are transformed into symptoms and its aggressive components into a sense of guilt" (1930).
Anna Freud, Sigmund's youngest daughter, helped clarify many of her father's concepts of defense mechanisms. She wrote, "the term psychoanalysis should be reserved for the new discoveries relating to the unconscious psychic life, i.e., the study of repressed instinctual impulses, affects, and fantasies" (1936).
Anna Freud explains that for successful repression "the ego knows nothing of it; we are aware of it only subsequently, when it becomes apparent that something is missing." She further expounds on this concept, writing "all the defensive measures of the ego against the id are carried out silently and invisibly. The most that we can ever do is to reconstruct them in retrospect: we can never really witness them in operation" (1936).
Leslie S. Greenberg, Ph.D. expands on this concept. He wrote that "emotions and motivations, however, do not reside in the unconscious fully formed waiting to be unveiled when the forces of repression are overcome." Like Sigmund's theory that the thoughts and emotions are split off from each other, Greenberg teaches of the repressed emotions residing in our bodies are not fully formed. He continues to explain once pulled back into consciousness "implicit emotion, or bodily felt sensations, can be transformed into discrete conscious experiences of specific emotions by putting the felt sensations into words" (2022, location: 1,071).
Basically, what is repressed is stored in fragments, and pulling them back into consciousness "is to reconstruct them in retrospect."
Anna Freud explains the psychoanalyst's task is to "undo what has been done by the defense, i.e., to find out and restore to its place that which has been omitted through repression, to rectify displacements, and to bring that which has been isolated back into its true context."
Repression, Anna Freud explains, "is not only the most efficacious, it is also the most dangerous mechanism." She wrote that "if the ego employs repression, the formation of symptoms relieves it of the task of mastering its conflicts" (1936).
Repression and Denial
Repression and denial share similar features with subtle differences. They share the common goal of pushing discomforting information away, protecting the ego from the work of assimilating unpleasant information.
Since the introduction of repression as a defense mechanism by Freud, and the development of the concept by his daughter, the definition of repression has fluctuated, often used interchangeably with denial. However, a more fundamental psychoanalyst may maintain the original definition that repression is the repressing of internal urges or instinctual drives and denial is used to describe denying external realities.
Of course, depending on the psychic processes involved, these often overlap.
Freud remarked in An Outline of Psychoanalysis that "denial disclaims the external world as repression disclaims the instincts" (Jacobson, 1957). Denial is an attack on the perceptions.
The Adaptiveness of Repression
Defenses are not independent of each other. They change over time and change with circumstances. One defense may mature or regress into another defense.
External influences and context create dynamics where defense may intervene. Once the external environment changes the protective mechanism may weaken. In the case of repression, the hidden secrets may emerge, puncturing consciousness, once the protection is no longer necessary.
Fromm wrote, "how much a person represses his passionate desires depends not only on factors within himself but on the situation; if the situation changes, repressed desires become conscious and are acted out" (1974).
Valliant shared an example of one of a man that repressed information but "once the danger of career stagnation was averted, the repressed could return, and he could share with the Study the account of his previous job dissatisfaction" (2012, location: 1,703).
While solving one set of problems, repression often masks another set of problems. As Anna Freud stated it relieves "the task of mastering its conflicts." We may repress, avoid and deny but many problems are more than a temporary obstacle. Our failure to confront them leaves them in place to continually haunt our development.
One study found that 'repressors' remained very defensive, perhaps, carefully guarding the repressed material. The researchers discovered that "dispositional repressors report feeling little or no anxiety but are defensive and protective about their self-esteem... repressors are extremely self-protective" (Furnham & Lay, 2016).
Repression and Illness
Freud theorized that "inhibited negative feelings can lead to severe diseases like phobias, neurosis, or conversion hysteria" (Mund & Mittle, 2012).
Research has found that repressors still experience physical stress when confronted with stimuli. They "typically react with increased heart rate and decreased skin conductance resistance" (2012). We can theorize that stress is still felt in response to stressful stimuli but the repressor will self report no reaction, meaning they repress their experiencing of the stress.
Dr. Gabor Mate wrote in his classic book When the Body Says No that, "when emotions are repressed...this inhibition disarms the body’s defences against illness. Repression—dissociating emotions from awareness and relegating them to the unconscious realm—disorganizes and confuses our physiological defences so that in some people these defences go awry, becoming the destroyers of health rather than its protectors" (2011).
Myers and Brewin wrote "a growing body of evidence documents a link between repression...and the development and course of disease" (1997).
Research has linked an array of signs and symptoms with repressed emotions. These include:
Perhaps, the extreme stress, without normal mechanisms of discharge through expression of emotions, contribute to a weakened system unable to defend against other diseases.
Murphy wrote that "we have a window of tolerance where we can process life's demands. The stresses motivate action, we respond and our life returns to a healthy homeostatic balance where we heal from the event" (2021a). If repressions interfere with resolving the original conflict, these stresses may accumulate and repeat, leading to larger physiological demands, leaving the biological system more susceptible to disease.
The repeated stress may also stress our systems by the repeated physiological demands of heightened blood pressure, rapid heart rate, and the other biological functions associated with a fired up the sympathetic nervous system. T. Franklin Murphy explains that "the sympathetic nervous system is the branch of the autonomic nervous system that mobilizes our bodies to act" (2022).
A Few Final Words on Repression
A Chinese sage said "reading prescriptions does not make one well." While repression has some serious side affects, bringing to light repressed information does not magically heal the wounded. In many cases, if the only thing we do is bring to light memories and feelings we wish to forget, we will only cause more harm.
Healthy adaptation depends on what we do with the knowledge. Do we use it to motivate growth by solving reoccurring problems in our lives, or do we use it to seek to critically criticize ourselves of others? Information is only as good as what we do with it.
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