“Civilization and higher education have a large influence in the development of repression…as a result of which was formerly felt as agreeable now seems unacceptable and is rejected with all possible psychic force” (S. FREUD 1920).

“The process of repression, which sets in during the fourth year of life or thereabouts is, in wit, temporarily suspended” (KARL MARX 1920).

Probably psychology’s first look into the theory of repression was Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical theory. He argued that much of our behaviour is determined by unconscious thoughts, wishes, memories and so on. What we're consciously aware of at any one time represents the tip of an iceberg: most of our thoughts and ideas are totally inaccessible at that moment (pre-conscious) or are totally inaccessible (unconscious). These unconscious thoughts and ideas can become conscious through the use of special techniques, such as free association, dream interpretation and transference the cornerstones of psychoanalysis.

Indeed a major goal of therapy is to reveal the unconscious and hence get a better idea of our real motives and desires

Much of what’s unconscious has been made so through repression, whereby threatening or unpleasant experiences are "forgotten". They may become accessible, locked away from our conscious awareness. This is a major form of ego-defense. Freud singled it out as a special cornerstone 'on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests'. It is the most essential part.

Repression is the process of forcing thoughts into the unconscious and preventing painful or dangerous thoughts from entering consciousness; seemingly unexplainable naivety, memory lapse or lack of awareness of one's own situation and condition; the emotion is conscious, but the idea behind it is absent.

The inner wars that we all have, according to Freud, have the same rough outline. The conflict begins when the id-derived urges and various associated memories are pushed unconscious, are repressed.  However these urges refuse to stay down, and they find substitute outlets whose further consequence is a host of additional defences that are erected to reinforce the original repression, and hold off the id-derived flood and allow the ego to maintain its self-regard.

What is it that causes you to repress thoughts and feelings? According to Freud its intense anxiety, an emotional state akin to fear.  There are two phases that lead a person to repression, in the primary repression phase, an infant learns that some aspects of reality are pleasant, and others are unpleasant; that some are controllable, and others not. In order to define the "self", the infant must repress the natural assumption that all things are equal. Primary repression is the process of determining what is self, what is other; what is good, and what is bad. At the end of this phase, the child can now distinguish between desires, fears, self, and others.

Secondary repression begins once the child realizes that acting on some desires may bring anxiety. This anxiety leads to repression of the desire. The threat of punishment related to this form of anxiety, when internalized becomes the "superego", which intercedes against the desires of the "ego" without the need for any identifiable external threat.  As this implies Freud’s concept of repression applies to thought as well as the deed as when we are children we haven’t fully mastered the distinction of thought and action and so inhibition applies not just to our actions but our thoughts, memories and wishes.      

Repression is the primary, initial defense mechanism that protects the individual against anxiety. Defense mechanisms are psychological strategies brought into play by individuals, groups and even nations to cope with reality and to maintain self-image. Healthy persons normally use different defenses throughout life. An ego defense mechanism becomes pathological only when its persistent use leads to maladaptive behavior such that the physical and/or mental health of the individual is adversely affected.

Abnormal repression, or complex neurotic behavior involving repression and the superego, occurs when repression develops and/or continues to develop, due to the internalized feelings of anxiety, in ways leading to behavior that is illogical, self-destructive, or anti-social. A psychotherapist would try to reduce this behavior by revealing and re-introducing the repressed aspects of the patient's mental process to his conscious awareness, and then teaching the patient how to reduce any anxieties felt in relation to these feelings and impulses.

It is often claimed that traumatic events are repressed, yet it appears that the trauma more often strengthens memories due to heightened emotional or physical sensations. (These sensations may also cause distortions, though human memory in general is filtered by layers of perception and incomplete.) One problem from an objective research point of view is that a "memory" must be measured and recorded by a person's actions or conscious expressions, which may be filtered through current thoughts and motivations.

In spite of the popularity and wide use of this concept in psychoanalysis and popular literature, the proposition of "motivated forgetting", where the motivation is both unconscious and aversive, the process of repressing past events has never been demonstrated in controlled research. This is far from an easy task as the theory goes motivated forgetting is a defense against anxiety. Therefore anxiety evoking stimuli is needed for each subject for a recall test and how can an experimenter be sure they have this?

Another descriptive theory for repression is that it’s just a special case of retrieval failure.  Maybe they are  not held back by a censor but just hard to reach due to a lack of relevant retrieval cues. Anxiety may play a role in this, perhaps blocking refilling or impeding retrieval cues but it is not the cause.

This retrieval-blocking interpretation of repression is part of a more general approach taken by contemporary psychologists attempting to bring the concept of the unconscious into the framework of cognitive psychology.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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