On: Freud’s repression
In this essay, I shall describe repression and repression theory as an example of a fundamental concept in Freud’s work. For Freud, little was of greater import, it is the “cornerstone of our understanding of the neuroses”. In his Autobiographical Study, he called it “a novelty” and was clear that with his discovery, “nothing like it had ever before been recognized in mental life”. Once I have described and defined it, I aim to evaluate it, although historic evaluation including Freud’s own, about it being “a cornerstone”, not just of the understanding of neuroses, but of the psychoanalytic field, sets the bar high. From the outset, this concept is problematical, insofar as it is loosely defined, not least by Freud himself. In generic form, it is a psychic defence. This raises questions about what is being defended, how the defence works and what happens to repressed material. These are addressed below. Furthermore, Freud came to see repression as being two distinct things. Unhelpfully, what he called ‘repression proper’ turns out to be a derivative, whereas repression in what might be called its pure form, is described as ‘primal repression’. This essay restricts itself to Freud and his concept, but it is helpful to think of the term signifier, when thinking of the primal repressed, which was a word attached to it by French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, later in the twentieth century. Billig (1999) described repression as a “willed forgetting” and explained that we have a need to forget our secrets, but also the fact of having forgotten them. The forgetting of the forgotten is successful repression.
I shall start with an attempt to define repression; what it is we must forget we have forgotten. It is when we cannot recall a memory from the past. We say it is repressed. But what does that mean? In the original, the German word verdrangung, described what was happening. The best translations of this seem to be ‘to push away’; ‘to thrust aside’. What is being thrust aside? Beliefs that cannot become conscious, because the content is so shocking, or painful, (such as a murderous rage towards one’s father) that something obstructs them ie thrusts aside and makes repressed. Freud’s terminology translated as an instinctual impulse, as that which is thrust aside. It is the impulse which passes into a state of repression. Freud explains that such a horror would inspire a fight or flight response, but given that “the ego cannot escape from itself”, it cannot fly.
In his short paper on Repression, first published in Zeitschrift,Freud grapples with why should something need repressing. If what is being repressed is the satisfaction of a need, a drive, that is inconsistent with the view that satisfying a need generates pleasure. Therefore, for this psychic mechanism to happen, it must be responding to the risk of unpleasure, in the case of a murderous rage, perhaps the subsequent guilt attached to parricide. Having the impulse met, the need satisfied is pleasurable, but it is the coexistence of unpleasures such as shame and the condemnation of society that causes the repression. None of this ever reaches the conscious level of the mind, but is fought out by the impulse and the defence. Freud explains that the force of the feelings of unpleasure overwhelm the pleasure of satisfying the unconscious impulse. It is at this point that he addresses the question of what happens to the repressed impulse. Freud understood that it is kept “at a distance” from conscious activity, but that it continues to exist.
This brings him to the theorising of two types, or components of repression. Primal repression is the first phase, much as described above — the impulse is denied entry to the conscious. He notes that what happens next, repression proper, is when psychic derivatives of the initial impulse attach themselves and make a renewed attempt to become conscious. These derivatives are also repressed, which is why Freud describes recession proper as an “after pressure”. Unlike primal repression the material that needs to be defended in repression proper, has once been available to the conscious but has been defended against. An early trauma is an example — too difficult and painful to tolerate, but available nonetheless. To remind his readers that repressed impulses continue to exist, he writes that repression only exists to act as a bar to one psychical system, namely the conscious. He suggests, moreover, that the repressed impulse “proliferates in the dark”. The “censorship of the conscious” is weakened by how far the derivative is from the initial primal repression, and sufficient distance can allow it access to the conscious, at which point they manifest as neurotic symptoms. Lastly, repression is not uniform. He highlights this to emphasise that a repression is not a permanent event, and for repression to succeed it needs a pressure, because it has to be able to resist the upward pressure of the unconscious, to which the impulse has returned, but not disappeared. He writes of these forces as “repressive cathexes”, which relax during periods of sleep and contribute to the formation of dreams as a renewed attempt of the unconscious impulse to break through.
Freud was not the discoverer of the unconscious; he himself notes the many artists and philosophers who had an understanding that it might exist, but the theory of repression is his unique work. In his paper, “The Ego and the Id”, Freud noted that we obtain our concept of the unconscious, “from the theory of repression”. Whilst an awareness of the probability of the unconscious had been acknowledged, he thinks the theory of repression allows it to be conceptualised. Herein lies its significance. He thinks the ego itself is the mechanism of repression and in his later years he asserted that the work of the analytical treatment was to strengthen the ego in its battle with id. This is a curio, because one might interpret it as an invitation for more repression. Was he advocating that, consciously or unconsciously?
If it can be satisfactorily defined, we might get around to asking, is it a necessary process? Does it have any sort of protective function? Also, does it always work? The strength of one’s defences is not consistent. At times of weakness it allows unconscious material to intrude, hence parapraxes. More familiarly, our defence is weak when we sleep. Dreams, the things that when interpreted are the “royal road to the unconscious”, are the best example, alongside symptoms. For Freud, this is the return of the repressed and is linked to the repetition compulsion. Freud notes that repression is a mechanism originating in the ego, and also that it is unconscious. He had come to understand that ego is not exclusively conscious. Achieving that understanding was a consequence of the work on repression, giving weight to its significance to the development of psychoanalysis. We accept that the return of the repressed is an inevitability, because we have not overcome it.
What might we think about the nature of repression at a societal level? This is important because we come to ask if repression is important. It seems to be something that protects us from feelings of guilt and shame, which might be too debilitating to carry on living. In this way, it might be thought of as a kind of uber-defence. Either way, the significance of his theory is its impact on futures, individually and collectively. In “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” he explores what the analyst can achieve working with something the analysand cannot remember: “The patient cannot remember the whole of what is repressed in him, and what he cannot remember may be the essential part of it”. It is in this essay that Freud writes about a repetition compulsion. “He is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience…” For me, it is this quality of the theory of repression, that it begot more ideas, that highlights its enormous worth. That something so radical could be taken up by future generations of analysts gives weight in any evaluation of repression.
In applying his discovery to treatments, specifically for neuroses, Freud started by believing that repressing material generated anxieties. An anxiety was the consequence of a repression because the energy associated with the unconscious drive had not been released — no pleasure. Patients were aware that something needed to be resolved, but not really what that was. Hence an anxiety. However, many years later he revised his thinking. In his revised view, anxiety begets repression, not being a consequence of it. An idea in the unconscious that is threatening to the integrity of the ego becomes the thing that the ego acts to repress. The anxiety came first; the defence, repression, was the response.
By evaluating repression, one is attempting to determine its significance, and to consider its strengths and also its limitations. How does one evaluate a “cornerstone”? Cohen and Kinston (1984) took the view that when Freud said that repression takes place only after a “sharp cleavage” between conscious and unconscious activity, and that in some papers he seemed to exclude some ages such as the pre-pubertal; that he might have wished to exclude some conditions, and they speculate those to be psychoses. It allows them to develop what they claim are long-standing theoretical inconsistencies, mostly linked with Freud’s views that primal repression was linked to trauma. They review the literature on borderline, psychotic and narcissistic patients in examining whether the theory of repression is inapplicable. Even if there is some merit to their argument, I am not convinced it truly damages the “cornerstone” or threatens to bring the structure down. In another criticism, they explore the use of cathexes and suggest that this is a convenient “economic metaphor” Freud used when he wanted or needed to avoid detailed definitions. They summarise that Freud allowed for ambiguity or for further research by using both a ‘cathexis hypothesis’ which mapped to his topographical model of the mind and concurrently working with a form hypothesis, which blends elements of both the topographical and the structural models of the mind. When one is dealing with something as dynamic as the unconscious, I take the view that it is wise to not be absolutist, and to leave room for fresh thinking. One final criticism the authors level is to take issue with the lack of “clearly stated hypotheses” regarding the formation and the “mechanism of primal repression”. This seems more justifiable, but Freud himself understood it, and it was his willingness to consider the impact of “environment” that allowed him to wrestle free from an impulse being realised as a potential source of unpleasure, not pleasure, and hence the cathexis for repression overwhelmed the cathexis to break into consciousness.
Blum (2003) has more to say on the significance of repression, especially in the dyadic analytical relationship because for him repression is indissolubly linked with transference. “Transference is a return of the repressed, with repressed memories embedded within a fundamental unconscious fantasy constellation.” It seems to me that this is critical in evaluating repression. Not only has it given psychoanalysis the theoretical foundation it required, and allowed us to explore unconscious, but it has been a productive tool in treatment. Blum’s essay is a response to an article penned by Peter Fonagy, who had disregarded the link between transference and repression. The enduring debates about Freud’s work are testament to its significance. Amongst Freud’s best-known and regarded psychoanalytic successors is Bion, who in his “Attention and Interpretation” also considered the analytical situation and the “experience of remembering a dream”. He thought memory should only be associated with a “conscious attempt to recall” and echoed Freud on the significance of repression proper making its renewed assaults on consciousness, often in dreams, when reminding us that “dream-like memory is the memory of psychic reality and is the stuff of analysis” (my emphasis).
This essay has described repression, one of Freud’s fundamental concepts, generally as a psychic defence, and more specifically, in explaining the way that primal repression forms and is repressed, and repression proper, which is sometimes repressed, and is an “after-pressure”. In the second half of this essay I have considered the significance of Freud’s great discovery, and his own view that it was first, a “cornerstone”, in the understanding of neuroses, and more boldly a “cornerstone” for psychoanalysis itself. In evaluating the discovery, I have reviewed papers that regard the definition and mechanism of primal repression as ambiguous and I have considered the significance of how the theory of repression has enhanced treatment, especially with regard to working with transference. I conclude that repression is fundamental to modern clinical technique and to the history, concepts and theoretical bases for psychoanalysis. Truly a cornerstone.
Billig, M. (2000) Freud’s Different Versions of forgetting “Signorelli”. Int. J. Psychoanal., (81)(3):483–498
Billig, M. (1999). Freudian repression: Conversation creating the unconscious. Cambridge University Press.
Bion, W. R. (Ed.). (2013). Attention and interpretation: A scientific approach to insight in psycho-analysis and groups (Vol. 4). Routledge.
Blum, H. (2003) Repression, transference and reconstruction International Journal of Psychoanalysis (84) (3) pp. 497–503
Cohen, J. & Kingston, W. (1984) Repression Theory: A New Look at the CornerstoneInternational Journal of Psychoanalysis (65) pp. 411–22
Freud, S. (1995). The Freud Reader. (Ed. P. Gay) United Kingdom: Vintage.
Frosh, S. (2012). A Brief Introduction to Psychoanalytic Theory. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.