Repression: A Primer

Repression: A Primer

Repression in psychological terms is a defence mechanism that involves keeping our feelings, thoughts and urges out of our conscious awareness. Our unacceptable desires are kept away from our consciousness so that we are less anxious.

It is a process by which painful and disturbing thoughts are intentionally hidden, and was first identified by Sigmund Freud. He compared the mind to an iceberg, where only the tip is visible and the major portion is hidden.

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Memories aren’t set in stone like we all believe and can be repressed, suppressed and even falsified. Imagination, dreams and past memory feel similar to the mind.

Memory repression, false memories, and amplified memories (vividly repeating a traumatic experience) can be a result of trauma, leading to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

  • Primary repression is when unwanted impulses are hidden even before it reaches consciousness, and happens entirely in the unconscious mind. There is almost no awareness of the repression activity on the individual.
  • Repression proper is when a person becomes aware of the impulses and desires that are repressed, but still intentionally tries to remove it from awareness. This ‘selective forgetting’ is a way for people to block awareness of unwanted memories, especially the traumatic ones.

The visible aspects of our mind consist of the thoughts, feelings and memories that we are aware of, and are in the conscious mind. The impulses, desires, memories and thoughts below the surface, are out of sight and reside in the unconscious mind.

Repression was a crucial finding for Freud, as the entire concept of psychoanalysis rested on the fact that unconscious and repressed feelings are blocking the mind of the person and leading to psychological distress.

Suppression (often confused with repression) is a type of defence mechanism, where a person consciously tries to forget or not think of certain unwanted impulses or thoughts.

With repression, this activity happens automatically without any conscious effort or intention.

The ego strives to balance the two aspects of our personality, the hidden desires and the idealistic conscience.

The repressed desires and impulses can simmer inside and come out in the form of dysfunctional behaviour and phobias.

Our Personality, according to Sigmund Freud, has three components:

  1. The Ego: The main conscious component of the brain that acts as an interface between reality and the other two aspects of our personality listed below.
  2. The Id: The invisible, unconscious reservoir of our desires and urges that drive our basic behaviour.
  3. The Superego: The idealistic and moralistic side of our personality that includes our conscience.

Repressed feelings can also pop up in our dreams, and the specific events that happen in the dream world. Analysing dreams, a speciality of Sigmund Freud, results in a lot of hidden impulses being revealed.

One can also find repressed content in fears, slips of the tongue and feelings towards our loved ones, something known as the Oedipus Complex.

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Repression as a defense mechanism

Repression can best be defined as the psychological defense mechanism that involves pushing undesired thoughts into the unconscious in order to not think about them anymore.

While our consciousness keeps the thoughts and feelings we want to be aware of, the unconscious mind holds our entire history which, without the help of repression, might actually lead us to psychological distress.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud was the founder of the psychoanalytic theory. His work had a profound influence on psychology, sociology, anthropology, literature, and even art.

When Freud formed his personality development theory, he relied heavily upon the observations and case studies of his patients.

Sigmund Freud's theory of personality

Freud proposed that the human psyche comprises three separate but related parts that form a person's personality.

  • The id
  • The ego
  • The superego

Freud suggested that the three parts develop at different times and have different roles but work together to form a whole.

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