What, according to Freud, is sublimation and why is it important?

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Sublimation is a way of channeling negative or socially unacceptable energies into something healthier or at least more socially acceptable.

A common example of sublimation relates to anger. Some people sublimate their anger by screaming into a pillow. The scream allows for an outlet of pent-up rage and frustration, while using the pillow to muffle the noise prevents the sound from disturbing other people.

Sublimation can relate to reducing cravings as well. Someone tempted to indulge in unhealthy foods might go for a run to take their mind off of those tempting sugar cookies in the kitchen pantry. Another person distracted by intense sexual desire might channel those energies into physical exercise or the arts. In fact, Freud felt a lot of sublimation was sexual in nature, since society expects people to repress sexual expression (particularly outside the bounds of heterosexual marriage and production of children).

For Freud, sublimation is important because it keeps the id in check. Were the id in complete control, people would constantly submit to their baser impulses and hurt others—not because the id is evil but rather because it is amoral and uninterested in social order or the welfare of others. Primal emotions are not shameful, but sublimation allows the individual to rise above them as much as possible.

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According to Freud, all of us have internalized the values of our culture and generally try to fall within the boundaries of acceptable behavior. However, sometimes we are met with negative stimuli which create a negative response in light of our culture's expectations. The id urges us to act on our primal instincts, yet the superego presses us to consider the moral implications of a negative response. Thus, sublimation acts to reduce the primal nature of the id in order to create a more favorable outcome.

Consider a common scenario: You have gotten in trouble at school. Perhaps your instructor even penalized your grade for something you truly did not do. You are suddenly filled with a sense of injustice and rage, a common primal instinct. When you get home, you grab your running shoes and take off on a 10K. When you return, your sense of rage has greatly lessened and you have also gained an additional advantage: you have made gains in physical health through cardiovascular exercise. This is sublimation.

Or consider that you have an urge to be unfaithful to your partner and know that another opportunity awaits you at a party on Friday night. Instead of going to the party, you choose to stay home and work on your English research paper, throwing yourself into the heavy academic work for hours. You have thus avoided a damaging situation and have accomplished the needed work for school ahead of the deadline.

According to Freud, sublimation is a way for us to make choices that are healthier, more productive, and more generally positive than those we might make based on our very primal and reactive emotions.

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Freud argues that it is important for us to keep our most basic subconscious drives in check. This process is what he calls sublimation. For individuals in modern society, it is both unfeasible and undesirable to give vent to their deepest drives, especially those relating to sex. Society has to operate at a basic level of functionality if it is to endure. Letting rip with our subconscious drives and desires would jeopardize the smooth functioning of society, dissolving both the artificial and natural bonds that hold it all together.

But for sublimation to work properly as a defense mechanism, it is not enough that elemental subconscious drives be suppressed. They must be transformed into socially acceptable forms of behavior. So, for example, the potentially destructive libido is sublimated into more creative endeavors such as sculpture and painting. Intellectual pursuits such as science would also fall under this category.

In all such cases, society achieves a greater degree of maturity and civilization through the act of sublimation. According to Freud, it is only relatively primitive cultures in which subconscious drives are given free reign. If modern society is to remain civilized, therefore, it is essential that the defense mechanism of sublimation is allowed to develop to its fullest extent.

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Sublimation, according to Freud, is a defense mechanism. It is the channeling of impulses that might be considered inappropriate in society into acceptable directions. For example, a person with violent urges might become a football player, or a person who was excessively concerned with order might be an architect. Freud thought that most creative work, especially in the arts, was the result of the sublimation of repressed urges, especially the sex drive. Because the sex drive was so powerful, and because the unfettered expression of it was so frowned upon by society, the tension created could be channeled into constructive outlets. "Historians," Freud claimed,

...appear to be as one in assuming that powerful components are acquired for every type of cultural achievement by this diversion of sexual instinctual from sexual aims and their direction to new ones.

It should come as no surprise that Freud's theory of sublimation, which essentially explained everything that was creative and good about Western civilization by pointing to repressed sexuality, was quite controversial among Victorian readers.

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