Thursday, January 31, 2013

Repression and Suppression: Defense mechanisms by Sigmund Freud


Repression was the first defense mechanism that Freud discovered, and arguably the most important. Repression is an unconscious mechanism employed by the ego to keep disturbing or threatening thoughts from becoming conscious. 

At some point, Freud moved away from hypnosis, and towards urging his patients to remember the past in a conscious state, “the very difficulty and laboriousness of the process led Freud to a crucial insight”. The intensity of his struggles to get his patients to recall past memories led him to conclude that “there was some force that prevented them from becoming conscious and compelled them to remain unconscious...pushed the pathogenetic experiences in question out of consciousness. I gave the name of repression to this hypothetical process”.

Freud would later call the theory of repression "the corner-stone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests" ("On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement").

Repression and suppression are very similar defense mechanisms. They both involve a process of pulling thoughts into the unconscious, and preventing painful or dangerous thoughts from entering consciousness. The difference is that repression is an unconscious force, while suppression is a conscious process, a conscious choice not to think about something.

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What is Repression?

Repression involves placing uncomfortable thoughts in relatively inaccessible areas of the subconscious mind. Thus when things occur that we are unable to cope with now, we push them away, either planning to deal with them at another time or hoping that they will fade away on their own accord.

The level of “forgetting” in repression can vary from a temporary abolition of uncomfortable thoughts to a high level of amnesia, where events that caused the anxiety are buried very deep.

Repressed memories do not disappear. They can have an accumulative effect and reappear as unattributable anxiety or dysfunctional behavior. A high level of repression can cause a high level of anxiety or dysfunction, although this may also be caused by the repression of one particularly traumatic incident.

Because repression is unconscious, it manifests itself through a symptom, or series of symptoms, sometimes called the "return of the repressed." A repressed sexual desire, for example, might re-surface in the form of a nervous cough, vivid dreams, or a slip of the tongue. In this way, although the subject is not conscious of the desire and so cannot speak it out loud, the subject's body can still articulate the forbidden desire through the symptom.

It has often been claimed that traumatic events are "repressed," yet it appears that it is more likely that the occurrence of these events is remembered in a distorted manner. One problem from an objective research point of view with this situation is that a "memory" is usually defined as what someone says or does. It cannot be measured or recorded objectively, since there is no way to verify the existence and/or accuracy of a memory except through its correspondence to some other, independent representation of past events (written records, photographs; reports of others, etc).

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What is Suppression?

Suppression is very similar defense mechanism, when you consciously forget something, or make the choice to avoid thinking about it. The term "suppression" in its broadest sense was used by Sigmund Freud to describe a conscious mechanism intended to eliminate undesirable psychical content from consciousness. This is where the person consciously and deliberately pushes down any thoughts that lead to feelings of anxiety. Actions that take the person into anxiety-creating situations may also be avoided.

This approach is also used to suppress desires and urges that the person considers to be unworthy of them. This may range from sexual desires to feelings of anger towards other people for whatever reason.

The difference between suppression and repression lies in the fact that this latter defense mechanism is unconscious and under its influence repressed content becomes or remains unconscious.

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Repression Examples

* A child who is abused by a parent later has no recollection of the events, but has trouble forming relationships.
* A woman who found childbirth particularly painful continues to have children (and each time the level of pain is surprising).
* An optimist remembers the past with a rosy glow and constantly repeats mistakes.
* A man has a phobia of spiders but cannot remember the first time he was afraid of them.
* A person greets another with “pleased to beat you” (the repressed idea of violence toward the other person creeping through).

Suppression Examples

* An older man has sexual feelings towards a teenager and quickly suppresses the thought.
* I want to kick the living **** out of an idiot at the office. Instead, I smile at them and try to feel sorry for their Freudian plight.
* I am about to take a short-cut down an alleyway. There are some people down there. I decide to take the longer, but more “interesting” route.

Therapy Approach

Repression (sometimes called motivated forgetting) is a primary ego defense mechanism since the other ego mechanisms use it in tandem with other methods. Repression is unconscious. When we deliberately and consciously try to push away thoughts, this is suppression.  It is not all bad. If all uncomfortable memories were easily brought to mind we would be faced with a non-stop pain of reliving them. To Freud, the goal of treatment, i.e., of psychoanalysis, was to bring repressed memories, fears and thoughts back to the conscious level of awareness.

Talking about suppression, it is understandable that by avoiding situations or thoughts that lead to anxiety, the person minimizes their discomfort. However, as the feelings are still held in the subconscious, they continue to gnaw and create a sense of underlying and wearying low-level discomfort.  To work with suppressed feelings, the person should try to create environment that there will be no reasons for being suppressed. For example, person, who is in love with Jazz, should find away to sneak out from the hypothetic social environment where the classical music is only acceptable. Another approach would be to analyze the incidents in the past, where the feelings were originally suppressed, and then use therapeutic methods to enable them to re-experience the situation more appropriately.

Suppression generally has more positive results than does repression. First of all, it deals with unpleasant but not totally despicable actions or thoughts. It actually may be even useful and rational to focus on one thing at a time, suppressing other problems until that one is solved. Counting to ten when angry—prior to taking action—is not only an example of suppression, it is also a technique very useful in everyday life.

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