Repression is the operation by which the subject repels and keeps at a distance from consciousness representations (thoughts, images, memories) that are disagreeable because they are incompatible with the ego. For Sigmund Freud repression is the privileged mode of defense against the instincts.
Closely linked to the discovery of the unconscious, the notion of repression accompanies all the developments of Freudian theory. It is one of its major points, "the corner-stone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests" ("On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement" [1914d], p. 16).
Initially described in conjunction with hysteria, repression plays a major role in other mental disorders as well as in normal psychic activity. It can be considered a "universal" psychic process insofar as it is constitutive of the unconscious, itself conceived of as a separate realm of the psyche.
More generally, repression is one of the defenses (in fact the primary one) mobilized by the mind to deal with conflicts and to protect the ego from the demands of the instincts.
Four main phases relating to the development of the notion of repression can be schematically described in Freud's writings. Until 1895, based on the idea of the "intentionality" of forgetting in the neuroses, Freud assumed the existence of "unconscious motivation." From 1895 to 1910, his research into the repressed and its contents led to the great discoveries of this period: infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex. Repression became the mainspring of ordinary psychic functioning. From 1911 to 1919, Freud reconsidered the process of repression in terms of the threefold metapsychological viewpoint, and he described a "primal repression." From 1920 to 1939, with the second topography (instinctual theory), repression became one "defense mechanism" among others, but at the same time remained a "separate" process. It remained at the center of analytic discourse.
Although the word had already been used in Johann F. Herbart's psychology, it stood out to Freud as a clinical fact. He deduced from his treatment of hysterics that forgetting is an active, intentional phenomenon, since the return of forgotten memories under hypnosis and their abreaction caused the symptoms to disappear. In Studies on Hysteria (1895d) Freud and Josef Breuer explained that it was "a question of things which the patient wished to forget, and therefore intentionally repressed from his conscious thought and inhibited and suppressed" (p. 10).
The term repression, borrowed from everyday language, thereafter followed a remarkable trajectory. Not only did it return to common speech with a different meaning, but it became one of the four main concepts of psychoanalysis.
Freud showed the existence of a veritable intentionality of the mind that seeks to forget, to cause certain disagreeable representations to disappear. These representations are isolated in a "second consciousness, a condition seconde" (p. 12) separated from the mainstream of thought. The psyche is thereafter "dissociated," the unpleasant idea having been relegated to another place, "repressed," thus blocking any discharge of painful emotion that might be associated with it. It can be seen that the notion of repression, here seized at its origins, from the outset appears as a correlate to that of the unconscious. For a long time in Freud's work, until his positing of the idea of unconscious ego defenses, the term repressed was essentially synonymous with the action of the unconscious.
Moreover, the term intentionality used by Freud in 1895 must be understood in a nuanced way. As Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis emphasized in The Language of Psycho-Analysis (1967; trans. 1974), the splitting of consciousness is only "introduced" by an intentional act. As a "second consciousness," repressed contents elude the subject's control and are governed by the laws proper to the primary processes. The specific processes of the unconscious thus mark the operation of repression. The repressed representation in itself constitutes what Freud described in Studies on Hysteria as an initial "nucleus and centre of crystallization" (p. 123) that can attract other unbearable representations, without any conscious intention having to intervene. From the outset, then, repression is conceived as a dynamic process involving the maintenance of a counter-cathexis; it is always capable of being stymied by unconscious desire that seeks to return to conscious awareness, which is what is meant by "return of the repressed" ("Repression," [1915d], p. 154).
Moreover, representations are what are repressed, but it is affect, or rather its conversion from pleasure to unpleasure, that is the raison d'être of repression. The vicissitude of the affect is far more important than that of the representation, for it is affect that determines the judgment bearing upon the process of repression. If the vicissitude of the representation is to disappear or be held back from consciousness, the vicissitude of the affect, the quantitative factor of the instinctual representative, is somewhat independent.
An instinct may be suppressed, or else the affect may be affirmed under a given qualitative coloring, or, in yet another case, affect itself may be transformed into anxiety. The difference, Freud explained in "Repression," stems from the fact that representations are cathexes, whereas affects correspond to processes of discharge whose final manifestations are perceived as sensations.
The term repression appeared in Freud's writings for the first time in the "Preliminary Communication" (1893a). It was identified as a cause of pathogenic amnesia, an etiological explanatory principle leading to the envisioning of a therapeutic method that would put an opposing tendency into action. At this early date, repression was still presented as "intentional" and was not well distinguished from simple suppression. A representation appears to be painful because it is incompatible with an ego that, at this time, is still synonymous with consciousness. The ego thus treats the disagreeable idea as a "non-arrival" by repressing it.
This repression is thus posited as being a mechanism common to all mental disturbances, to hysteria, obsessional neurosis, and hallucinatory confusion. It affects only the representation; the vicissitude of the affect, for its part, determines the specificity of the disorder: conversion, isolation, or rejection ("The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence" [1894a]).
With the metapsychological writings of 1915, Freud distinguished different phases in the process of repression: fixation, "repression proper" ("Repression," p. 148) and finally, the "return of the repressed" (p. 154), which occurs at the point of the fixation itself.
Freud described several stages in the organization of repression, for if "repression and the unconscious are correlated" (p. 148) there was a good basis for accepting the idea of a "primal repression" (Urverdrängung, p. 148) that represents its earliest stage. This repression does not affect the instinct, the limit concept between the psychic and the somatic, but rather its "representatives," which thus do not gain access to consciousness. An initial unconscious nucleus is created that will function as a first pole of attraction about which elements will be repressed. This is accompanied by a "fixation," and the so-called representative "persists unaltered" (p. 148), along with the instinct attached to it, in the unconscious.
The second stage of repression is that of "repression proper" (eigentliche Verdrängung) or "after-pressure" (Nachdrängen, p. 148), which occurs through deferred action. It involves the psychic derivatives of the repressed representative, or else a given associative chain, a predetermined train of thoughts that is related to it by association. This is a double process that joins to the attraction of the primal repressed (the earliest unconscious nucleus) a force of repulsion (Abstossung) that comes from consciousness and acts upon material that is to be repressed. These two forces act in tandem, with "something previously repressed ready to receive what is repelled by the conscious" (p. 148). In a note added in 1915 to the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), Freud compared this dual process with "the manner in which tourists are conducted to the top of the Great Pyramid of Giza by being pushed from one direction and pulled from the other" (pp. 175-176, note 2). Finally, the third stage is that of the "return of the repressed" (Wiederkehr der Verdrängten) (p. 154), expressed in the form of symptoms, dreams, slips of the tongue, or parapraxes.
Repression does not entail the destruction or disappearance of the repressed representation. As Freud explained in "Repression," it does not prevent the instinctual representative "from continuing to exist in the unconscious, from organizing itself further, putting out derivatives and establishing connections. . . . [T]he instinctual representative develops with less interference and more profusely if it is withdrawn by repression from conscious influence. It proliferates in the dark, as it were, and takes on extreme forms of expression, which when they are translated and presented to the neurotic are not only bound to seem alien to him, but frighten him by giving him the picture of an extraordinary strength of instinct" (p. 149).
Thus Freud in 1915 envisioned the operation of repression from a threefold metapsychological perspective. From the topographical point of view, repression is initially described, in the first theory of the instincts, as being maintained outside of consciousness. Censorship is what ensures the role of the repressing agency. In the second topography, it is posited as a defensive operation of the ego that is considered to be partially unconscious.
From the economic point of view, repression presupposes an interplay of opposing forcesf cathexis, decathexis, and anticathexishat affect the instinctual representatives. "We may suppose that the repressed exercises a continuous pressure in the direction of the conscious, so that this pressure must be balanced by an unceasing counter-pressure. Thus the maintenance of a repression involves an uninterrupted expenditure of force, while its removal results in a saving from an economic point of view" ("Repression," p. 151). Similarly, in "The Unconscious" (1915e), Freud specified that the preconscious protects itself from the drive of unconscious repression by means of an anti-cathexis: "It is this which represents the permanent expenditure (of energy) of a primal repression, and which also guarantees the permanence of that repression" (p. 181). The fate of the instinctual representative is to disappear from consciousness and to be kept apart from the conscious mind, but the fate of the affect, which, according to Freud, represents the quantitative factor of the instinctual representative, is different. The instinct can be suppressed, or else affect can be either expressed under a given qualitative coloration or transformed into anxiety.
Finally, from a dynamic point of view, the main question is that of the reason for repression. According to Freud, the process of repression is linked to the group of defensive processes whose goal is to reduce, or even eliminate, any modification that might endanger the integrity and constancy of the psychobiological individual. Repression is one of the great "vicissitudes" of the instinct (along with sublimation and double reversal). Freud considered it a mode of defense against the instincts.
This dynamic conception of the repressed and the unconscious is not without consequences. The unconscious tends to produce material that is connected with it to varying degrees, which Freud calls "derivatives of the unconscious" (Abkömmlinge des Unbewussten) ("Repression," p. 152), and which reemerge in conscious life and behaviors. These derivatives encompass, for example, symptoms, fantasies, slips of the tongue, or meaningful associations during the analytic session. They are thus also "derivatives of the repressed" (p. 149) that become, in turn, the object of new defensive measures. In his essay on repression Freud stressed that "it is not even correct to suppose that repression withholds from the conscious all the derivatives of what was primally repressed. If these derivatives have become sufficiently far removed from the repressed representative, whether owing to the adoption of distortions or by reason of the number of intermediate links inserted, they have free access to the conscious. It is as though the resistance of the conscious against them is a function of their distance from what was originally repressed" (p. 149).
In analytic practice, the analyst constantly invites the patient to produce these so-called derivatives of the repressed, which, following their distancing or distortion, can pass through the censorship of consciousness. Based on the patient's associations, "we reconstitute a conscious translation of the repressed representative" (p. 150).
Freud explained that "Neurotic symptoms, too . . . are derivatives of the repressed, which has by their means finally won the access to consciousness which was previously denied to it. . . . Repression acts, therefore, in a highly individual manner. Each single derivative of the repressed may have its own special vicissitude" (p. 150).
Thus, repression sometimes appears as a generic term, and sometimes as a specific term. At times it is the concept on which all of psychoanalysis rests, and at other times it above all describes the mechanism of hysterical neurosis. Sometimes it is just one defense among others, and at other times it subsumes all the defenses. In psychoanalytic treatment, the stage of repression identified as "the return of the repressed" is the basis for a clinical approach aimed at the lifting of repression itself.
See also: Actual neurosis/defense neurosis; Amnesia; Censorship; Defense; Deferred action; Desexualization; Dynamic point of view, the; Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, The; "Heredity and the Etiology of the Neuroses"; Hysteria; Hysterical paralysis; Id; Latency period; Organic repression; Parapraxis; Primal repression; Repressed; Repressed, derivative of the/derivative of the unconscious; "Repression"; Repression, lifting of; Resistance; Return of the repressed; Scotomization; Signal anxiety; Slips of the tongue; Suppression; Unconscious, the; Unpleasure.
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Le Guen, Claude. (1992). Le Refoulement. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Le Guen, Claude, et al. (1986). Le refoulement (les défenses). Revue française de psychanalyse, 50,1.
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