The Latin word sublimis means lifted up, elevated, lofty, eminent, distinguished, a verbal chain containing the movement of going from lower to higher. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb sublimate as “to raise to high place, dignity or honor”; “to act upon (a substance) so as to produce a refined product”; “elevation to a higher state or plane of existence; transmutation into something higher, purer, or more sublime.” In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud uses this metaphorical structure to address how humans sublimate their instincts toward the higher plane of culture, or civilization: “Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life” (Freud 1930, p. 97). In an earlier work, Freud had specified that he was addressing sexual drives: “Sublimation … consists in the instinct’s directing itself towards an aim other than, and remote from, that of sexual satisfaction” (Freud 1914, p. 94). The sublimation of instincts—deflecting them away from sexuality—is aided by developmental processes of identification, inhibition, and displacement, which change libidinal instincts into “impulses of affection” (Freud 1924, p. 177). Although many individuals never reach this developmental level, sublimation still plays a role in their lives; hence the wide range of psychoanalytic formulations that attempt to take into account the multiple functions of sublimatory activity.
In Freud’s formulations he presumes the individual has already achieved a separate existence from family members and has established his or her status as an individual with stable boundaries. Many other psychoanalytic texts address an earlier set of developmental issues in which stable boundaries between self and other have not yet been established. For example, John Gedo (1996) discusses the role of sublimation in individuals coping with psychotic disintegration. Edward Glover suggests that sublimation is a “process which affords the maximum protection from illness with the minimum expenditure of energy” (Glover 1931, p. 280). Heinz Kohut (1976) notes the function of sublimation in maintaining self-object relations in which an art object serves to restore a sense of self-cohesion by fulfilling a function the self cannot provide. Melanie Klein views sublimation as an attempt to repair the damage done to an internalized object as a result of hate and aggression: “The attempts to save the loved object, to repair and restore it, attempts which in the state of depression are coupled with despair, since the ego doubts its capacity to achieve this restoration, are determining factors for all sublimations” (Klein  1948, p. 290).
Once stable boundaries have been established, the individual is capable of relating to others as separate, capable of “object relationships” with all their complexity of desire, frustration, approach, avoidance, and expectation. Some formulations address the function of sublimation in sustaining the capacity for object relationships or even providing substitute objects. Michael Balint writes that “all sublimations, and especially the form of sublimation called art, are a kind of deception, are underhand ways of getting back to real personal objects” (Balint 1959, p. 115). For Volney Gay sublimation is a form of “object relatedness” protecting us “from the terrors of schizoid loneliness” (Gay 1992, pp. 292–293). The work of Gedo and Arnold Goldberg (1973) suggests four levels of sublimation: (1) Sublimation serves to prevent psychotic disintegration by providing desperate measures of marking a differentiated status. (2) Sublimation assists in sustaining psychological cohesion by providing self-objects that serve the self ’s narcissistic needs. (3) Sublimation affords object relationships. (4) In Freud’s terms, sublimation enables one to bypass repression and experience gratification without guilt.
In his works D. W. Winnicott describes sublimation as beginning with the union of baby and mother and continuing throughout life “in the intense experiencing that belongs to the arts and to religion and to imaginative living, and to creative scientific work” (Winnicott  1975, p. 242). This view is “post-Freudian” in the sense that sublimation is not about bypassing repression so as to avoid guilt but rather taking stock of separateness and achieving an experience of re-joining. Hans Loewald views sublimation in these terms, observing that sublimation aims to restore, at least partially, the “original unity” of baby and mother; sublimation “is a kind of reconciliation of the subject-object dichotomy” (Loewald 1988, p. 20). For Jacques Lacan sublimation provides access to an archaic experience preceding the subject-object distinction, the point marking the loss of immediacy with the mother’s body.
SEE ALSO Culture; Freud, Sigmund; Loneliness; Narcissism; Obsession; Oedipus Complex; Psychology; Sexuality
Freud, Sigmund.  1957. On Narcissism: An Introduction. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey, Vol. 14, 73–102. London: Hogarth.
Freud, Sigmund.  1959. The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey, Vol. 19, 171–179. London: Hogarth.
Freud, Sigmund.  1961. Civilization and Its Discontents. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey, Vol. 21, 64–125. London: Hogarth.
Freud, Sigmund.  1964. New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. and trans. James Strachey, Vol. 22, 5–182. London: Hogarth.
Gay, Volney P. 1992. Freud on Sublimation: Reconsiderations . Albany: State University of New York Press.
Gedo, John, and Arnold Goldberg. 1973. Models of the Mind: A Psychoanalytic Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Glover, Edward. 1931. Sublimation, Substitution and Social Anxiety. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 12: 263–297.
Klein, Melanie.  1948. A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-depressive States. In Contributions to Psycho-Analysis, 1921–1945, 282–310. London: Hogarth.
Kohut, Heinz. 1976. Creativeness, Charisma, Group Psychology: Reflections on the Self-analysis of Freud. In Freud: The Fusion of Science and Humanism, ed. John E. Gedo and George H. Pollock, 379–425. New York: International Universities Press.
Lacan, Jacques. 1992. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959–1960. Vol. 7 of The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Dennis Porter. New York: Norton.
Muller, John. 1999. Modes and Functions of Sublimation. In The Annual of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 26–27, ed. Jerome A. Winer, 103–125. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.
Winnicott, D. W.  1975. Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena. In Through Paediatrics to PsychoAnalysis, 229–242. New York: Basic Books.
Winnicott, D. W. 1967. The Location of Cultural Experience. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 48: 368–372.
John P. Muller
sub·li·mate • v. / ˈsəbləˌmāt/ 1. [tr.] (esp. in psychoanalytic theory) divert or modify (an instinctual impulse) into a culturally higher or socially more acceptable activity: people who will sublimate sexuality into activities which help to build up and preserve civilization | he sublimates his hurt and anger into humor. 2. Chem. [intr.] another term for sublime. • n. / -ˌmit; -ˌmāt/ Chem. a solid deposit of a substance that has sublimed. DERIVATIVES: sub·li·ma·tion / ˌsəbləˈmāshən/ n.
So sublimate (-ATE1) sb. XVII. sublime adj. lofty, exalted, in earliest use (XVI) of language or style, later in physical senses. — L. sublīmis, -us, f. SUB + an el. variously identified with līmen threshold and līmus oblique. sublime vb. †sublimate XIV; raise to a higher state XVI. — (O)F. sublimer or L. sublīmāre. sublimation XIV. — (O)F. or L. subliminal (psych.) applied to states supposed to exist but not strong enough to be recognized. XIX. f. SUB- + L. līmen, līmin- threshold + -AL1.