Critical Concepts

"Psychological repression"

Psychological repression is a special case of internal conflict.  Hence it is distinct from social or political repression -- the sort of thing police forces are brought out to do when the governing elite find themselves threatened by a rebellious populace, or the sort of thing that abusive spouses engage in.  These social or political forms of repression are cases of "external" -- or interpersonal -- conflict, whereas psychological conflict is intrapersonal.  But not all cases of internal conflict involve psychological repression.  You can be torn between two wishes that you are quite clearly aware of -- for example, between wanting to spend your holidays scuba diving in Belize and wanting to be with your dying mother (two wishes), or between wanting to run away from your final exams and wanting to avoid getting on academic probation (two fears), or between doing the patriotic thing and refusing to participate in an unjust war (two moral principles).  But in psychological repression, a person manages to hide from himself certain facts about himself (certain feelings, desires, wishes, aversions, fears) that, for important reasons, are too painful to acknowledge.  Although the person believes these unacceptable facts are not the case (indeed, can believe that they never were), they have not in fact been banished from the self, but only from consciousness.  That is, they have not really "gone away," but (as it were) have taken up a kind of "underground existence," where they continue to be at work, in sponsoring fantasies that the person can indulge only in disguised form -- i.e., in some fashion in which they won't be recognized, by the person whose fantasies they are, as expressions of the wishes or fears they deny are theirs. 

Hence part of what requires to be understood in such cases is how the how these fantasies (and their motivating appetites, wishes, fears, etc.) are expressed in and through the disguises they have been outfitted with in order for the person not to be aware of them for what they are.  Another part of what requires to be understood in such cases is the motive that leads the person to find these facts too painful to acknowledge as facts about himself. 

It is the antagonism between these two kinds of motives -- those one has but can't stand, and those that makes one unable to stand them -- that constitutes the special kind of internal conflict that can result in one's having it both ways by way of (psychological) repression.  The mind conspires to arrange that I continue to have the bad wishes/fears, but in such a fashion that they never appear to me in such a way that I recognize them.  By some kind of "mental slight of hand" (shall we call it "slight of mind"?) I end up assigning the two incompatible parts of myself to two distinct "domains" of myself -- one conscious (a picture of myself ruled by my canons of self-respect), and one unconscious (where my to me unrespectable elements are confined).  I "dissociate" myself.  And the only communication between these two divorced realms of the self occurs when my unconscious wishes/fears, etc., take on some sort of disguised form in which they can emerge into consciousness "incognito" without being recognized by my ever-vigilant respectable "policing" self for the unacceptable facts-about-me that they actually are -- for instance, in the "weird" and hence "nonsensical" and hence "not to be taken seriously" adventures that transpire when I am dreaming, or in "unaccountable" lapses of speech or memory or behavior (as when I "urgently want to study" but to my frustration simply can't find my textbook, which after the exam I discover I'd "absentmindedly" misplaced...on a shelf in my clothes closet!

Conflict is of course a staple of literature.  But this kind of conflict -- in which the conscious self is out of touch with certain unconscious realities -- will be of special interest to writers who are drawn to play the games available to be played with unreliable narrators or other forms of unreliable central consciousness.  This is a phenomenon that presents a challenge in designing point of view.  Of course, as an author I can resort to a narrator who is omniscient about the facts of my protagonist's unconscious, and who directly tells the reader what is going on with the protagonist that the protagonist himself is out of touch with.  But the more intriguing possibility -- both for me and for my reader -- is going to be to design some way (1) to get the reader vicariously to experience the world as the protagonist does, yet at the same time (2) to signify to the reader how to arrive at an appreciation of what the protagonist does not see about what's really going on with him -- and why.

We are now in a position to see that psychological repression -- for all its distinctness from social repression -- is nevertheless related to it in two important ways.

If you will look back over my description of what is going on in the mentality of the person who is living in psychological repression, you'll see that I was continually resorting to extended metaphors drawn from the social realm:  a "policing" part of the self is at work "censoring" what it doesn't want to see happening; an "unrespectable element" is "driven underground," but from time to time emerges "in disguise," so that it can go its way "under the nose of the police" without being stopped ("arrested").  That is, the picture of the mind as divided into two realms, and of certain elements being driven into the one by elements of the other, is drawn from social existence:  the theory is produced by "introjecting" into the mind a particular sort of thing -- repression -- that happens in social life (where we can frequently see both sides at work).  The ideas of "censorship" (by for instance the state) and "repression" (literally, "pushing back") by the authorities has been "mapped" into the mind or psyche, by a process of analogy.

Secondly, it is often social demands that lie behind the elements of the conscious self that, in psycological repression, define the repressed elements of the self as unacceptable.  That is, our principles of self-respect and personal dignity are often derived from the social arena in which we have grown up.  We sometimes say that we have "internalized" the social norms of our culture.  If some of these happen to make me ashamed or guilty at having the impulses I feel at work in me, one of the paths open to me is to convince myself that I don't have these impulses after all.  If, however, I continue to have these impulses, but manage in conscious experience to be unaware of this fact, I will have "repressed" these impulses, which may in turn express themselves, but in ways that I do not recognize as expressions of what in fact they are.  Now beyond this psychological repression, let's suppose three additional conditions:

If all these three conditions hold might be said that by remaining subject to the norms I internalized as a child I am being "socially repressed."  And if the way I deal with my conflict happens to be by psychological repression, that psychological repression would then be a result of two causes:  one is the set of impulses with which I am endowed; the other is the (repressive) social situation in which I have the misfortune to find myself.

Fiction often finds itself portraying this more complex kind of situation, in which the reader is expected

This second concern is not always present.  The story can be about someone whom we are expected to judge to have "only himself to blame."  But a situation of psychological repression is often an opportunity that an author signifies he or she is interested in because it calls into question certain prevailing social practices, institutions, assumptions.  Thus, either way, issues about the adequacy of a character's self- insight lead sooner or later into pressing ethical concerns.

Both kinds of matters are involved -- in fiction, as in "real life" -- when we set about assessing the responsibility of an agent for his or her conduct.

Further exploration of the concept of psychological repression.

  Check out the analogy Freud used to explain to his first American audience the ideas of consciousness, censorship, repression, the unconscious, the return of the repressed, and various the expressions of the latter (neurotic symptoms, parapraxes ["slips" of the tongue, etc.), and the manifest content of dreams.

  Check out the parable Freud used to explain the alternatives to repression.

  Work through some examples of confusion (category error) touching the notion 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 philosohers and of psychologists outside the psychoanalytic tradition -- and, of course, of fiction writers, poets and dramatists.

  Return to the Index of the Glossary of Critical Terms.

  Go to the Home Page of the course.

  Suggestions, comments and questions are welcome.  Please send them to .

      Contents copyright 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

      This page last updated 22 August 2004.