In psychology, repression refers to the unconscious mechanism by which the mind prevents certain thoughts, memories, or feelings from entering conscious awareness. It is a defense mechanism proposed by Sigmund Freud to protect the individual from potentially distressing or harmful content.
Freud believed repression would shield the ego from anxiety-inducing thoughts and memories. He theorized that by repressing distressing or unacceptable impulses and memories, the mind could maintain psychological equilibrium and prevent overwhelming anxiety (Sandler & Sandler, 2018; Zhang, 2020).
Repression in Psychology Definition
For a simple definition of the concept of repression, I’d turn to this one from Kearns and Lee (2016, p. 366):
“repression (the most basic ego defense, according to Freud) involves removing from consciousness upsetting thoughts and feelings, and moving those thoughts and feelings to the unconscious. When you read about a person who “blocked out” upsetting memories of child abuse, that’s an example of repression.”
The term is relevant to psychologists and therapists because it provides insight into the unconscious processes that influence an individual’s behavior, emotions, and thought patterns.
Understanding repression allows professionals to delve deeper into the root causes of certain symptoms or behaviors.
This knowledge is beneficial in therapeutic settings, for example, where addressing underlying, often unconscious, unwanted thoughts and conflicts can facilitate healing and growth (Boag, 2018; Kahr, 2021).
While Freudian psychoanalytic psychologists often seek to bring up repressed memories (through, for example, hypnosis), cognitive psychology, cognitive behavioral therapy, person-centered therapies (i.e. humanist psychology) and trauma-informed practice tend not to centralize unconscious memories in the therapy process (Zhang, 2020).
Freudian Repression Theory
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, introduced the concept of repression as a central tenet of his psychological theories.
Freud (1922) believed that repression, was a defense mechanism that involved the unconscious exclusion of distressing or threatening thoughts, memories, and desires from consciousness.
This mechanism was essential for the ego, which constantly strives to mediate between the primal urges of the id, the moralistic standards of the superego, and the demands of external reality (see table below).
By repressing certain memories or desires, the ego could prevent overwhelming anxiety and maintain psychological equilibrium (Boag, 2018; Zhang, 2020).
The Impact of Repression on Patients
Freud believed that while repression protected the individual from immediate distress, it often led to longer-term psychological issues. Repressed memories don’t just vanish but remain in the unconscious. They exert influence on behavior, dreams, and even physical symptoms (Boag, 2018).
This idea formed the basis for his theory of neurosis (Sletvold, 2016).
According to Freud, neurotic symptoms were manifestations of unresolved and even forgotten conflicts. For instance, a phobia might be the result of a repressed traumatic event, and a physical symptom without an apparent organic cause (like a conversion disorder) might be the expression of a repressed emotional conflict.
The goal of psychoanalytic therapy, in this context, was to bring these repressed conflicts to conscious awareness, allowing the patient to confront and resolve them.
However, his theories on repression, especially those concerning the repression of childhood traumas and sexual desires, have been subjects of debate and criticism. While many of his ideas laid the groundwork for modern psychology and psychotherapy, subsequent research has questioned the accuracy and validity of some of his claims, especially those related to the recovery of repressed memories (Kahr, 2021; Zhang, 2020).
Nevertheless, the concept of repression and the broader idea of defense mechanisms remain influential in understanding human behavior and the complexities of the mind.
Examples of Repression in Psychology
- Childhood Trauma: A person who was the victim of abuse as a child might unconsciously push down abuse in adulthood, having repressed the traumatic memories to cope.
- Painful Breakup: Someone might not recall certain painful events from a past relationship, even though they were significantly hurtful at the time.
- Accidents: A person who experienced a traumatic accident might not remember the details of the event due to the emotional distress it caused.
- Witnessing Violence: A child who witnessed a violent act might push down the memory and not recall it in later life.
- Unacceptable Desires: A person might repress feelings or desires deemed inappropriate or unacceptable, such as certain sexual desires or aggressive impulses.
- War Experiences: Soldiers might push down traumatic memories from their time in combat, leading to issues like PTSD.
- Loss of a Loved One: The painful memories associated with the sudden death of a loved one might be repressed to cope with the overwhelming grief.
- Embarrassing Moments: An individual might repress memories of particularly embarrassing or humiliating events to avoid the associated feelings of shame.
- Medical Procedures: Someone who underwent a traumatic medical procedure as a child, like a surgery, might not remember it in adulthood.
- Failing at an Important Task: A person might push down memories of failing a significant exam or not achieving a crucial goal, especially if it led to intense disappointment or shame.
Repressed Memories vs Suppressed Memories
Students often conflate repression with suppression. Both refer to the act of keeping thoughts and feelings out of conscious awareness, but they differ in their mechanisms and awareness:
- Repression: This is an unconscious process where distressing thoughts, memories, or impulses are kept out of our consciousness. Since it’s unconscious, individuals are not aware they are doing it. It’s considered a defense mechanism in psychoanalytic theory to protect the individual from potentially distressing content.
- Suppression: This is a conscious process where individuals intentionally push away or try not to think about certain thoughts or feelings. People are aware they are doing it, and it’s often seen as a more adaptive strategy to manage overwhelming emotions or distractions temporarily (Boag, 2018; Kanaan, 2016).
The Trustworthiness of Repressed Memories
Freud initially believed in the literal truth of his patients’ recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. However, as he further developed his theories, he began to recognize that some of these memories might be symbolic or distorted representations of underlying desires and conflicts, rather than factual recollections.
This shift led him to propose the idea of “screen memories,” (Mahon, 2016) which are distorted or fabricated memories that mask deeper, unconscious material. He warned that psychologists should be aware and conscious of the fact that hidden memories raised through processes such as hypnosis may be of great value to the therapy process and can reveal important information, but nonetheless, may be inaccurate.
The potential for false memories, especially when using suggestive techniques to uncover repressed content, remains a significant concern and point of contention in modern psychology (Kahr, 2021; Sletvold, 2016).
Boag, S. (2018). Freudian repression, the unconscious, and the dynamics of inhibition. New York: Routledge.
Freud, S. (1922). Repression. The Psychoanalytic Review (1913-1957), 9, 444.
Kahr, B. (2021). Sigmund Freud’s concept of repression: Historical and empirical perspectives. Trauma and Memory, 84-94.
Kanaan, R. A. (2016). Freud’s hysteria and its legacy. Handbook of clinical neurology, 139, 37-44. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-801772-2.00004-7
Kearns, T., and Lee, D. (2015). General Psychology: An Introduction. Milwaukie: NOBA Project.
Mahon, E. J. (2016). Screen memories: A neglected Freudian discovery?. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 85(1), 59-88. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/psaq.12058
Sandler, J., & Sandler, A. M. (2018). A psychoanalytic theory of repression and the unconscious. In Recovered memories of abuse (pp. 163-181). London: Routledge.
Sletvold, J. (2016). Freud’s three theories of neurosis: Towards a contemporary theory of trauma and defense. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 26(4), 460-475. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/10481885.2016.1190611
Zhang, S. (2020, April). Psychoanalysis: The influence of Freud’s theory in personality psychology. In International Conference on Mental Health and Humanities Education (ICMHHE 2020) (pp. 229-232). Georgia: Atlantis Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]