Repression: Anxiety Filter for the Ego

Michael Fenichel, Ph.D.

I have noticed that more than one visitor to my web site has searched for something on "repression" and gone away empty-handed. Despite links to psychoanalysis, personality theories, anxiety pages, and discourse on the ego, the term is not easy to find.

(Maybe it's been repressed? Or supressed? This of course would be a good example of "parallel process", but I digress...)

For Freud, repression was the unconscious mechanism whereby unacceptable impulses or memories were kept hidden from awareness, as a basic defense which the ego uses to ward off anxiety.

Sometimes, as I described in my (1989) paper,
Ego: Cauldron of the Personality, the contents of one's unconscious experience "leaks out" and, in the case of neurosis, causes "signal anxiety" and possibly conversion symptoms, but the repression keeps that which can not be consciously confronted, out of consciousness. Repressed.

Repression is different than supression, which is an intentional squashing of a thought. This is the phenomenon of "see no evil, say no evil" and refusing to think about something painful or anxiety producing. This is frequently the process which is invoked between the time of a stressful event or discussion (including therapy), and pouring that cocktail or popping that pill, or going online (!), when disinhibition takes over and supression can stop working so hard. With repression, however, one doesn't have choice or volition. What is repressed is repressed, and takes work to fully identify and address through psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalytic concepts aside, in 21st Century terms and perspective, repression is the equivalent to a television having a filter on it, or V-Chip, where nothing unwanted gets through, and there is no choice but to have "objectionable" material filtered out. Therapy involves a process of safely removing the filters without causing inadvertant harm by changing the status quo or causing shock to one's sense of morality or values. (One goal of psychoanalyis, in Freudian terms, is to expand the "observing ego" or create ego where once was only id-- or superego.)

In the 21st Century, we are hearing of new treatments (e.g., EMDR) which seem to modify those filters and help to safely recover (with the assistance of the repair-person, the therapist) "repressed memories" and integrate them back into a less repressed ego. Much has been written about childhood memories, and repressed memories associated with trauma.

Repression is a concept which comes from natural science but which Freud brought into the nomenclature nearly a century ago. After decades of celebrating his theories of psychoanalysis, Freud himself came under attack for his dismissal of repressed memories as fantasies or wishes, in the view of the one-time Freud Archives curator, Jeffrey Masson.

But now that chapter has been supressed and assimilated into mainstream psychoanalysis, while repressed memories are being studied as real experiences which have been kept out of consciousness, and capable of being brought back in a form which is closer to truth than to fantasy.

I am quite sure that if Freud were around today, he'd be true to form, and continue shifting his theories to accommodate both fantasy and repressed reality into his analyses of neurotic patients. Of course, thanks to the DSM, there no longer are any known neuroses, and Managed Care would not pay for their treatment most likely, anyway. The times they are a'changing.

Repression: What's Your Definition?

(from FUNK & WAGNALLS Standard Desk Dictionary)


1. The act of repressing or the condition of being repressed.

2. That which holds in check; a restraint

3. Psychoanal. The exclusion from consciousness of painful or unacceptable memories, etc.

Questions for the 21st Century: What is the Goal of Psychotherapy? And the outlook for Cyberanalysis?

Is psychotherapy equivalent, in computer terms, to "defragmenting" our hard-drives, freeing up memory? Are we re-configuring programs? Understanding our system resources, and being able to optimize for efficiency and goal completion? Is re-booting required?

How should "success" be measurable -- by how big our Facebook friend lists are? How many people follow our tweets? How much time we spend online - or off? How we integrate the two?

Or, perhaps there are broad and universal intrapsychic and interpersonal dynamics which lead us to self-awareness as well as "success"....

Finally, here are two additional perspectives on consciousness, or ego, and social efficacy, or success. First, there is
Malcolm Gladwell, of Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers fame. And secondly, here is an intriguing perspective on The Cognitive and Dynamic Unconscious, from Peter Dan.


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Last Updated:Tuesday, 07-Apr-2015 03:12:43 EDT
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