Self-Deception Part 2: Repression
The second installment in a new 10-part series on ego defenses.
Posted Jan 31, 2019
Repression can be thought of as ‘motivated forgetting’: the active but unconscious forgetting of unacceptable drives, emotions, ideas, or memories. Unsurprisingly, repression is often confused with denial. Whereas denial relates to external stimuli, repression relates to internal, that is, mental, stimuli. Nonetheless, denial and repression often work together and may, as in the following case, be difficult to disentangle.
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, an estimated two hundred people jumped to their deaths to avoid being taken in the smoking fires. Some might have lost their footing, others might have been pushed out by an explosive force, but it is likely that many chose to jump to escape from the suffocating smoke and dust, the blistering flames, and the steel-bending heat. These so-called ‘jumpers’ chose the manner of their death (insofar as they had a choice, given their horrific circumstances), and many if not most people see that choice as a heroic act of defiance in the face of near certain death.
Some jumpers tried to make parachutes out of curtains or tablecloths, only to have them ripped out of their hands as soon as they started falling. Depending on body position, the speed of their fall from a height of 110 stories, that is, more than 1,300 feet, might have reached up to 200 miles per hour: Upon hitting the ground, they stood no chance of surviving, with their bodies being not so much broken as obliterated.
Several years on, there had been little interest in uncovering the identities of these 200 or so jumpers. The official account remained that nobody had jumped and that all 2,753 victims in the Twin Towers died from ‘blunt impact’ injuries. On the first anniversary of the tragedy, a bronze sculpture by Eric Fischl, Tumbling Woman, was unveiled in Rockefeller Center. The sculpture depicted a naked woman with her arms and legs flailing above her head and was accompanied by a short poem by the artist.
The sculpture gave rise to so much protest that, within a matter of only days, it had to be draped in cloth and surrounded by a curtain before finally being removed. Fischl released a statement defending his intent, ‘The sculpture was not meant to hurt anybody,’ he wrote. ‘It was a sincere expression of deepest sympathy of the vulnerability of the human condition. Both specifically towards the victims of September 11 and towards humanity in general.’
In a subsequent interview with the poet Ilka Scobie, Fischl said,
The thing around 9/11 is that it was this horrific event that killed three thousand people but there were no bodies. If you remember all the passion was centred on architecture to replace the Towers. To secure the footprints of the Tower. It had nothing to do with human tragedy because it was too painful. So I think that the Tumbling Woman reminded people that it was a human tragedy.
Freud thought of repression as the basic ego defense, since it is only when repression is fragile or failing that other ego defenses come into play to reinforce and rescue it. Put differently, repression is an essential component or building block of the other ego defenses. To understand this, let’s look at an example of the ego defense of distortion, which is the reshaping of reality to suit one’s inner needs. A teenager who has been dumped by her boyfriend no longer recalls this episode (repression) and instead believes that it is she who dumped him (distortion). As you can see, the distortion not only builds upon but also reinforces the repression.
Repressed material, though unconscious, is no less present, and can (and usually does) resurface in disturbing forms. As well as a lack of insight and understanding, the inability to process and come to terms with repressed material is associated with a range of psychological problems such as poor concentration, irritability, anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, and depression; maladaptive and destructive patterns of behaviour such as anger and aggression in the face of reminders—such as Tumbling Woman—of the repressed material; and any number of superimposed ego defenses.
‘Neurosis’ is an old-fashioned term that essentially describes the various forms in which repressed material can resurface (poor concentration, irritability, anxiety, and so on). In Studies on Hysteria (1895), Sigmund Freud and his colleague Josef Breuer first formulated the theory that neuroses have their origins in deeply traumatic and consequently repressed experiences. Treatment, they argued, requires the patient to recall these repressed experiences into consciousness and confront them once and for all, leading to a sudden and dramatic outpouring of emotion ('catharsis') and the attainment of insight. In the course of treatment, the patient is likely to display ‘resistance’ in the form of changing the topic, blanking out, falling asleep, arriving late, or missing appointments. In fact, such behavior merely suggests that she is close to recalling repressed material but, for the moment, still afraid of doing so.
The mental operation of suppression is similar to repression but with one crucial difference, namely, the ‘forgetting’ is conscious rather than unconscious. Thus, suppression is the conscious and often rational decision to put an uncomfortable (although not totally unacceptable) stimulus to one side, either to deal with it at a later time or to abandon it altogether on the grounds that it is not worth dealing with. As it is a conscious operation, suppression is not, strictly speaking, a form of self-deception, but rather the conscious analog of repression. Needless to say, suppression is much more mature that repression, and, as with all conscious operations, tends to favor more positive outcomes.
Let’s look at an example of suppression. A couple of friends who are holidaying with a number of other people start arguing and completely lose their tempers. The next day, they put their differences to one side and behave as though nothing had happened so as not to cast a cloud over the group and ruin the holiday. That day, they share some good times and special moments, and by the evening it has become safe enough to bring up the argument and put it behind them. By dealing with their argument like this, they have deepened rather than undermined their friendship.
If you have any examples of, or thoughts about, repression that you would like to share, please do so in the comments section.
In the third installment in this series, I will be discussing the ego defense of dissociation.
Tom Leonard, The 9/11 victims America wants to forget: The 200 jumpers who flung themselves from the Twin Towers who have been ‘airbrushed from history’. Daily Mail, 11 September 2011.
Ilka Scobie, Inside Man (Interview with Eric Fischl), artnet.com.