Critical Concepts

The concept of repression
as clarified by one of Freud's analogies

Introduction.  In 1909, Sigmund Freud came to the United States to give a series of five lectures on the origin and development of psychoanalysis at Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts.  (This would turn out to be the only visit Freud ever made to the western hemisphere.)  These lectures are a model of clear exposition of the nature of Freud's theory and the process of observation and reasoning through which it was arrived at up to that time.  At one point in second of these lectures, Freud employed a witty analogy to explain the functional interrelationships among certain of the key concepts that make up his theory of the mind:  consciousness, censorship, repression, the unconscious, the return of the repressed, and the symptoms of the latter (which can range from jokes to parapraxes ["slips" of the tongue, etc.] to the experienced content of nonsensical dreams to neurotic symptoms, and more).  It is worth studying not only for the light it throws on this complex of notions, but as an example of how an extended analogy works.  And since analogy is the basis for the genre of fiction known as parable, this is another reason for us to consider it.  The following passage comes from the Second Lecture. Because the analogy is intelligible only within its larger context, I have provided a good bit of surrounding text, and highlighted the analogy proper in bold green font.  You will notice that the presentation of the analogy is broken into two parts, interrupted by discussion of the application of the first part, followed by raising of the issues to be addressed in the second part, which in turn is followed by application to the subject at hand.  In the passage in bold italic navy font, we have a succinct general statement of Freud's picture of the way repression functions within the personality as a whole.  This deserves careful piecing out against the analogy:  see if you can "map" the one to the other in detail, element by element, relationship by relationship.  Notice that between this general statement and the opening of the analogy, Freud summarizes an actual case from his clinical practice.  The serious reader will return to map this out, too, piece by piece, against both the general statement and the analogy.

Earlier in his lecture, Freud explains the theory of the French psychologist Pierre Janet (pronounced "zjah-ney"), and credits with being the first to develop a psychological rather than physical explanation for the neuroses traditionally grouped under the term "hysteria."  (Earlier practitioners had focused on female patients, and had located the cause of their behavioral disorders [paralysis, fits of weeping, depression, bizarre phobias, etc.] in supposedly organic causes, specifically in the uterus [Greek hystera = "womb"]).  Janet made the remarkable discovery that, in these cases, paralyzed patients could be got to move their limbs -- under hypnosis.  Yet, on returning to normal consciousness, they reverted to their previous helpless condition.  He concluded that their personality had "dissociated" into a conscious and an unconscious part, and advanced the explanation that this was due to the weakness (which he thought, further, was hereditary) of some faculty of "psychic synthesis" that in normal people enables the person to "hold together" the self.  Freud's Vienna colleague Josef Breuer experimented with the possibility that this dissociation might not be due to hereditary factors, so that the patient might be enabled to overcome the disabling symptoms by in some way repairing the dissociation. Breuer, too, turned to hypnosis, but employed this technique in order to get his patients to recall experiences that they were unable to remember that were connected with the origin of their neurotic symptoms.  He discovered that helping the patient to "let out" these painful memories resulted in relief of the symptoms.  The relief afforded by this "cathartic" therapy, however, turned out to be temporary.  Freud (whom Breuer had brought in as a collaborator in a number of these cases) was frustrated with it for other reasons as well.  Aside from the fact that he mistrusted hypnosis (as a kind of "mystical" ally), Freud himself was simply unable to put most of his patients into a hypnotic state.  At the same time he wanted to pursue the possibility that the relief achieved by Breuer's "cathartic" therapy might be made more permanent if some way could be found to get the patient to bring the memory of the pathogenic experiences directly into consciousness.  What happened next led him to develop a theory of mind applicable to men and women alike, and which explained far more than neurosis in either.

Since I was not able at will to alter the mental state of the majority of my patients, I set about working with them in their normal state. At first, I must confess, this seemed a senseless and hopeless undertaking. I was set the task of learning from the patient something that I did not know and that he did not know himself. How could one hope to elicit it. But there came to my help a recollection of a most remarkable and instructive experiment which I had witnessed when I was with Bernheim at Nancy [in France, some two decades earlier]. Bernheim showed us that people whom he had put into a state of hypnotic somnambulism, and who had had al kinds of experiences while they were in that state, only appeared to have lost the memory of what they experienced during somnambulism; it was possible to revive these memories in their normal state. It is true that, when he questioned them about their somnambulistic experiences, they began by maintaining that they knew nothing about them; but if he refused to give way, and insisted, and assured them that they did know it all the same, and that they had only to say it; and I ventured to declare that the right memory would occur to them at the moment at which I laid my hand on their forehead. In that way I succeeded, without using hypnosis, in obtaining from the patients whatever was required for establishing the connection between the pathogenic scenes they had forgotten and the symptoms left over from those scenes. But it was a laborious procedure, and in the long run an exhausting one; and it was unsuited to serve as a permanent technique.

I did not abandon it, however before the observations I made during my use of it afforded me decisive evidences. I found confirmation of the fact that the forgotten memories were not lost. They were in the patient's possession and were ready to emerge in association to what was still known by him; but there was some force that prevented them from becoming conscious and compelled them to remain unconscious. The existence of this force could be assumed with certainty, since one became aware of an effort corresponding to it if, in opposition to it, one tried to introduce the unconscious memories into the patient's consciousness. The force which was maintaining the pathological condition became apparent in the form of resistance on the part of the patient.

I was on this idea of resistance, then, that I based my view of the course of psychical events in hysteria. In order to effect a recovery, it had proved necessary to remove these resistances. Starting out from the mechanism of cure, it now became possible to construct quite definite ideas of the origin of the illness. The same forces which, in the form of resistance, were now offering opposition to the forgotten material's being made conscious, must formerly have brought about the forgetting and must have pushed the pathogenic experiences in question out of consciousness. I gave the name of "repression" to this hypothetical process, and I considered that it was proved by the undeniable existence of resistance.

The further question could then be raised as to what these forces were and what the determinants were of the repression in which we now recognized the pathogenic mechanism of hysteria. A comparative study of the pathogenic situations which we had come to know through the cathartic procedure made it possible to answer this question. All these experiences had involved the emergence of a wishful impulse which was in sharp contrast to the subject's other wishes and which proved incompatible with the ethical and aesthetic standards of his personality. There had been a short conflict, and the end of this internal struggle was that the idea which had appeared before consciousness as the vehicle of this irreconcilable wish fell a victim to repression, was pushed out of consciousness with all its attached memories, and was forgotten. Thus the incompatibility of the wish in question with the patient's ego was the motive for the repression; the subject's ethical and other standards were the repressing forces. An acceptance of the incompatible wishful impulse or a prolongation of the conflict would have produced a high degree of unpleasure; this unpleasure was avoided by means of repression, which was thus revealed as one of the devices serving to protect the mental personality. <Note>

To take the place of a number of instances, I will relate a single one of my cases, in which the determinants and advantages of repression are sufficiently evident. For my present purpose I shall have once again to abridge the case history and omit some important underlying material. The patient was a girl, who had lost her beloved father after she had taken a share in nursing him -- a situation analogous to that of Breuer's patient. Soon afterwards her elder sister married, and her new brother-in-law aroused in her a peculiar feeling of sympathy which was easily masked under a disguise of family affection. Not long afterwards her sister fell ill and died, in the absence of the patient and her mother. They were summoned in all haste without being given any definite information of the tragic event. When the girl reached the bedside of her dead sister, there came to her for a brief moment an idea that might be expressed in these word:  "Now he is free and can marry me." We may assume with certainty that this idea, which betrayed to her consciousness the intense love for her brother-in-law of which she had not herself been conscious, was surrendered to repression a moment later, owing to the revolt of her feelings. The girl fell ill with severe hysterical symptoms; and while she was under my treatment it turned out that she had completely forgotten the scene by her sister's bedside and the egoistic impulse that had emerged in her. She remembered it during the treatment and reproduced the pathogenic moment with signs of the most violent emotion, and, as a result of the treatment, she became healthy once more.

Perhaps I may give you a more vivid picture of repression and of its necessary relation to resistance, by a rough analogy derived from our actual situation at the present moment. Let us suppose that in this lecture-room and among this audience, whose exemplary quiet and attentiveness I cannot sufficiently commend, there is nevertheless someone who is causing a disturbance and whose ill-mannered laughter, chattering and shuffling with his feet are distracting my attention from my task. I have to announce that I cannot proceed with my lecture; and thereupon three or four of you who are strong men stand up and, after a short struggle, put the interrupter outside the door. So now he is "repressed," and I can continue my lecture. But in order that the interruption shall not be repeated, in case the individual who has been expelled should try to enter the room once more, the gentlemen who have put my will into effect place their chairs up against the door and thus establish a "resistance" after the repression has been accomplished. If you will now translate the two localities concerned into psychical terms as the "conscious and the "unconscious," you will have before you a fairly good picture of the process of repression.

You will now see in what it is that the difference lies between our view and Janet's. We do not derive the psychical splitting from an innate incapacity for synthesis on the part of the mental apparatus; we explain it dynamically, from the conflict of opposing mental forces and recognize it as the outcome of an active struggling on the part of the two psychical groupings against each other. But our view gives rise to a large number of fresh problems. Situations of mental conflict are, of course, exceedingly common; efforts by the ego to ward off painful memories are quite regularly to be observed without their producing the result of a mental split. The reflection cannot be escaped that further determinants must be present if the conflict is to lead to dissociation. I will also readily grant you that the hypothesis of repression leaves us not at the end but at the beginning of a psychological theory. We can only go forward step by step however, and complete knowledge must await the results of further and deeper researches.

Nor is it advisable to attempt to explain the case of Breuer's patient from the point of view of repression. That case history is not suited to this purpose, because its findings were reached with the help of hypnotic influence. It is only if you exclude hypnosis that you can observe resistances and repressions and form an adequate idea of the truly pathogenic course of events. Hypnosis conceals the resistance and renders a certain area of the mind accessible; but, as against this, it builds up the resistance at the frontiers of this area into a wall that makes everything beyond it inaccessible.

Our most valuable lesson from Breuer's observation was what it proved concerning the relation between symptoms and pathogenic experiences or psychical traumas, and we must not omit now to consider these discoveries from the standpoint of the theory of repression. At first sight it really seems impossible to trace a path from repression to the formation of symptoms. Instead of giving a complicated theoretical account, I will return here to the analogy which I employed earlier for my explanation of repression. If you come to think of it, the removal of the interrupter and the posting of the guardians at the door may not mean the end of the story. It may very well be that the individual who has been expelled, and who has now become embittered and reckless, will cause us further trouble. It is true that he is no longer among us; we are free from his presence, from his insulting laughter and his sotto voce comments. But in some respects, nevertheless, the repression has been unsuccessful; for now he is making an intolerable exhibition of himself outside the room, and his shouting and banding on the door with his fists interfere with my lecture even more than his bad behavior did before. In these circumstances we could not fail to be delighted if our respected president, Dr. Stanley Hall, should be willing to assume the role of mediator and peace-maker. He would have a talk with the unruly person outside and would then come to us with a request that he should be re-admitted after all:  he himself would guarantee that the man would now behave better. On Dr. Hall's authority we decide to lift the repression, and peace and quiet are restored. This presents what is really no bad picture of the physician's task in the psycho-analytic treatment of the neuroses.

To put the matter more directly.  The investigation of hysterical patients and of other neurotics leads us to the conclusion that their repression of the idea to which the intolerable wish is attached has been a failure. It is true that they have driven it out of consciousness and out of memory and have apparently saved themselves a large amount of unpleasure. But the repressed wishful impulse continues to exist in the unconscious. Is it on the look-out for an opportunity of being activated, and when that happens it succeeds in sending into consciousness a disguised and unregoznizable substitute for what had been repressed, and to this there soon become attached the same feelings of unpleasure which it was hoped had been saved by the repression. This substitute for the repressed idea -- the symptom -- is proof against further attacks from the defensive ego; and in place of the short conflict an ailment now appears which is not brought to an end by the passage of time. Alongside the indication of distortion in the symptom, we can trace in it the remains of some kind of indirect resemblance to the idea that was originally repressed. <Note>  The paths along which the substitution was effected can be traced in the course of the patient's psycho-analytic treatment; and in order to bring about recovery, the symptom must be led back along the same paths and once more turned into the repressed idea. If what was repressed is brought back again into conscious mental activity -- a process which presupposes the overcoming of considerable resistances -- the resulting psychical conflict, which the patient had tried to avoid, can, under the physician's guidance, reach a better outcome than was offered by repression. There are a number of such opportune solutions, which may bring the conflict and the neurosis to a happy end, and which may in certain instances be combined. The patient's personality may be convinced that it has been wrong in rejecting the pathogenic wish and may be led into accepting it wholly or in part; or the wish itself may be directed to a higher and consequently unobjectionable aim (this is what we call its "sublimation"); or the rejection of the wish may be recognized as a justifiable one, but the automatic and therefore inefficient mechanism of repression may be replaced by a condemning judgment with the help of the highest human mental functions -- conscious control of the wish is attained.


the emergence of a wishful impulse....devices serving to protect the mental personality..  Although Freud himself was convinced that the instincts targeted for repression were always of a sexual nature, many of those following in his footsteps in other respects have rejected this aspect of his theory (which he was quite adamant in insisting upon).  Their debt to Freud consists most fundamentally in his hypotheses of a division of the personality into a conscious and an unconscious domain and of repression as the process which generates this split, and in his accounts of the conditions that lead to repression, of symptom formation (the processes by which repressed content [when repression fails of its end] may return in disguised form as neurotic symptoms or slips and bunglings or as the manifest content of dreams, of psycho-analysis (the procedures by which this content may be reconstructed, recovered, and brought to consciousness in undisguised form), and psycho-therapy (the ways in which it may be consciously dealt with once recovered).  The picture laid out in the passage here, then, is one that these followers would gratefully incorporate into their own conception of mind, however at variance with Freud's in other respects (and even if, like Freud's earlier disciple Carl Jung, they end up postulating mechanisms in addition to repression that result in the formation of an unconscious).    Return.

Alongside the indication of distortion in the symptom, we can trace in it the remains of some kind of indirect resemblance to the idea that was originally repressed.  The symptom is a disguised substitute for the repressed wish (repressed because unacceptable to the person's conscious conception of himself).  Elsewhere (for instance in his groundbreaking work The Interpretation of Dreams [1900], Freud introduces the concept of psychic censorship, which is another metaphor imported from the social realm to explain the workings of the mind.  Authors who want to publish their ideas under the supervision of an aggressive government censorship will disguise their meaning by writing figuratively -- allegorically and symbolically.  The psychic resistance against the readmission to consciousness of the repressed wish is vulnerable to a similar strategy:  the wish can transform itself into a form that the resistance cannot "register," and so enter overt behavior or conscious fantasy in some figurative form.  Chief among these is the metaphoric (some form of resemblance between wish and symptom), but the metonymic and even ironic can play a role as well.  For the substitution to outflank the censorship, the resemblance (or other connection) has to be oblique enough not to be easily detected.  Freud also uses the analogy of border patrol:  the prohibitive function refuses to admit to admit into the domestic territory (consciousness) certain "undesireable elements" for which it scans "applicants for admission" in light of some "profile" that enables it to recognize what must be "turned back."  Clever trespassers, however, will adopt a disguise (some "forged identity") that enables them to slip through "incognito."  They are then free to engage in various disruptive activities without being able to be "controlled by the authorities."  In effect then, by "driving the criminal underground," the authorities ironically end up surrendering a good bit of their actual power to regulate affairs.  Freud's analogy here for his Clark University audience is an adaptation to the present circumstances of this "border patrol" comparison.  Note that the vigilance of the door guards is exercized not against a true alien, but against a former "deportee."  The resistance met with in psychoanalytic practice is deployed by the patient against an element of the personality that has already been subjected to repression.    Return.

  Read about the concept of "psychological repression."

  Check out Freud's parable for explaining one of the alternatives to repression, at the conclusion of his final lecture, where he develops further the ideas with which he ends the passage above.

  Check out some examples of various misunderstandings of the concept of psychological repression.

  Even if one believes in the existence of an unconscious resulting from motivated repression, the concept of self-deception per se is more general than this.  Since it is a quite prevalent factor in human affairs, and since so many interesting -- and sometimes disastrous -- behaviors result from it, it has exercised the attention of philosophers and of psychologists outside the psychoanalytic tradition -- and, of course, of fiction writers, poets and dramatists.

  Go to the Index of the Glossary of Critical Terms.

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      This page last updated 07 March 2007