Sublimation involves channeling unwanted or disturbing thoughts, impulses or desires into something positive and constructive. This is one of several defense mechanisms proposed by Sigmund Freud (1905/2000).
The premise is that confronting unwanted impulses produces intrapsychic conflict that must be attenuated by some means. One method of attenuation is to transform the energy from that internal conflict into an act or behavior that is socially acceptable.
In the paraphrasing of Freud’s words by Kim, Zeppenfeld and Cohen (2013):
“The unacceptable wishes provided the energy to be harnessed for productive or creative ends, and the unacceptable wishes could also be worked out or transmogrified into art, with the forbidden desires often taking a disguised or symbolic form, as they do in a dream” (p. 640).
As with most defense mechanisms, Freud identified this process as unconscious. The person is completely unaware that the beautiful art they have created, for example, is a result of an inner turmoil deep within their psyche.
However, a modern definition of sublimation may allow for both unconscious and conscious transformation of unwanted thoughts and feelings.
Sublimation in Psychology Examples
- Jessica creates amazingly detailed paintings that depict predators stalking prey, which may or may not symbolize her inner hostilities towards society.
- Some children really want to misbehave, so they try to exert control over that feeling by telling the teacher when other children don’t follow the rules.
- Jamal has a secret crush on the girl that sits next to him in class, so when his buddies start making jokes about her hair, he defends her vigorously and gets angry with them.
- Lucy has a lot of pent-up hostility toward her coworkers, who she finds lazy and irresponsible. So, several times a week she goes to the gym for one-to-one kick-boxing lessons.
- Bill has very strong feelings for his best friend’s sister. Instead of acting on those urges, he writes a lot of poems about her that she will never see.
- Adrian grew up in a household that was full of chaos. Now that he is an adult, he is obsessively neat. Everything in his home has a very precise placement that he checks every morning before leaving for work.
- Kumar often feels overwhelmed with sadness about the state of world poverty. To help himself cope, he frequently volunteers at the local soup kitchen for the homeless.
- Deep down inside, Adrian never feels like his parents are proud of him, so he spends an excessive amount of time studying to earn good grades.
- Maria doesn’t like being alone; it makes her feel unwanted and is deeply hurtful. To compensate, she has joined so many social groups at school that nearly every moment outside of class is filled with club activities.
- James comes from a poor family and he feels quite embarrassed by his upbringing. That is why he works 3 jobs and spends all of his money on designer clothes and accessories.
Case Studies of Sublimation in Psychology
1. Violent Sports
There are several professional sports that involve a great deal of violence. For example, Rugby, American football, boxing, and mixed-martial arts. These sports require participants to purposively inflict pain on others. In some cases, the ultimate goal is to simply hit the opponent so hard that they lose consciousness.
Each one of these sports could be an example of sublimation. People that participate in these kinds of activities may have an innate desire for violence and inflicting harm on other human beings.
However, to do so on the street or in a parking lot is against the law. A person could easily end up in prison.
But those destructive inner urges have to be dealt with somehow.
Fortunately, many people with this psychology can find an outlet through sports. Playing the sports mentioned above is a socially acceptable way to express those violent impulses.
In fact, it is so socially acceptable that a person can literally make millions of dollars a year sublimating those impulses.
2. The Antique Collector
Growing up, Wilbur had a terrible case of stuttering. The family dynamics of the household in which he was raised was very tumultuous. His parents would often fight, one of them might leave for several days at a time, and the other would take it out on him by being especially strict and scornful.
All of this turmoil created a need for control that Wilbur manifest by “hanging on” to his words.In an attempt to gain control over his life, he found it difficult to just express himself freely.
As a result, he developed a terrible stuttering problem which led to being teased and tormented at school.
Then one day, he went to see a therapist. While in session, Wilbur mentioned that he often felt at peace when looking at antiques, many of which came from his family’s farm.
Gradually, over a period of nearly a year, the therapist got Wilbur to sublimate his impulse for control. Instead of all of that energy being focused on his words, it became focused on “holding on” to antiques.
This eventually turned into a quite lucrative hobby. As his need for control dissipated and was replaced with business savvy, he became quite successful financially.
3. The CGI Animator
A CGI animator creates stunning visual works through computer programming. Those works can be presented on various media sources such as film, TV, or social media. The job requires long hours, attention to detail, and an incredible degree of imagination and creativity.
Most animators specialize in a certain domain, such as creating sci-fi scenes or landscape backgrounds in fantasy movies. Jennifer is one of those specialists.
She is well-known in the industry as having the ability to imagine and then create dynamic fight scenes between fantasy characters like those found in Godzilla and King Kong.
She especially likes working on these projects because they involve large creatures with incredible strength.
You might find this ironic if you were to meet Jennifer in person. She is slightly under 5’ and very petite. She was often tormented in school because of her stature.
Deep down inside she always wished she could pummel and thrash her harassers about…sort of like the creatures she creates today.
4. Law Enforcement
There can be many reasons a person chooses a career in law enforcement. Some may strive to make the world a safer place for their community.
Others may enjoy the sense of power and control it offers. While others may choose to enforce the law because of a sublimated impulse to commit crime.
As society looks down upon criminal activity, it can create a deep sense of shame in some children. As they grow older, they begin to internalize the values of society. However, wants those internalizations make contact with the child’s desire to “make trouble”, it can generate an inner anxiety.
The energy from that inner struggle must be resolved in some way. According to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, one way it can be resolved is by channeling that energy into something positive.
For some, working in law enforcement may be a perfect route. Instead of feeling guilty for one’s inner desires, they can feel proud to be contributing to the development of a safer society.
5. The Micromanager
A lot of sublimation comes from anxiety about control; more specifically, a lack of control. Human beings have a very strong need to believe they live in a stable and predictable world. This belief allows us to exist in relative peace.
If the world is unstable and unpredictable, then it means that harm could come our way at any moment. That can be a frightening realization to live with every single day.
This need to feel in control is stronger in some than in others. The sense of a lack of control creates a steady state of anxiety that must be managed in some way.
Micromanagement may be the perfect solution, even though it is often defined in quite negative terms: “Micromanagers are accused of being control freaks, suspicious, incompetent and their psychopathic personalities are always a hindrance to organizational effectiveness” (Mishra, Rajkumar, & Mishra, 2019, pp. 2949-2950).
Even so, Mishra and colleagues identify several circumstances in which micromanagement is just what the doctor ordered.
Micromanagement can be beneficial when:
- The task is new and complicated
- An organization is in crisis
- Resolving small issues before they escalate
- Quick decisions needed on critical tasks
Sublimation is a defense mechanism that can help people cope with unwanted or disturbing thoughts and feelings by channeling that energy into constructive activity.
There can be many ways to cope with inner struggles, such as keeping an incredibly tidy household, dressing impeccably, or, in some cases, striving for a leadership position that enables one to exert control over a lot of things, including other people.
Without sublimation, many wonderful pieces of art would have never been created; fantastic movies that allow escapism of the masses might never have materialized; and amazing CEOs might not have ever created life-changing gadgets like the iPhone or iPad.
Freud, S. (2000). Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. New York, NY: Basic Books. (Original work published 1905).
Freud, S. (1958). On Creativity and the Unconscious. New York, NY: Harper.
Freud, S. (1977). Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. New York, NY: Norton.
Kim, E., Zeppenfeld, V., & Cohen, D. (2013). Sublimation, culture, and creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105(4). 639-666. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033487
Mishra, N., Rajkumar, M., & Mishra, R. (2019). Micromanagement: An employers’ perspective. International Journal of Scientific and Technology Research, 8(10), 2949-2952.
Weber, M. (2002). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (P. Baehr, Ed.). New York, NY: Penguin. (Original work published 1905). https://doi.org/10.1522/cla.wem.sec