Repression is the operation by which the subject repels and keeps at a distance from consciousness representations (thoughts, images, memories) that are disagreeable because they are incompatible with the ego. For Sigmund Freud repression is the privileged mode of defense against the instincts.
Closely linked to the discovery of the unconscious, the notion of repression accompanies all the developments of Freudian theory. It is one of its major points, "the corner-stone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests" ("On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement" [1914d], p. 16).
Initially described in conjunction with hysteria, repression plays a major role in other mental disorders as well as in normal psychic activity. It can be considered a "universal" psychic process insofar as it is constitutive of the unconscious, itself conceived of as a separate realm of the psyche.
More generally, repression is one of the defenses (in fact the primary one) mobilized by the mind to deal with conflicts and to protect the ego from the demands of the instincts.
Four main phases relating to the development of the notion of repression can be schematically described in Freud's writings. Until 1895, based on the idea of the "intentionality" of forgetting in the neuroses, Freud assumed the existence of "unconscious motivation." From 1895 to 1910, his research into the repressed and its contents led to the great discoveries of this period: infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex. Repression became the mainspring of ordinary psychic functioning. From 1911 to 1919, Freud reconsidered the process of repression in terms of the threefold metapsychological viewpoint, and he described a "primal repression." From 1920 to 1939, with the second topography (instinctual theory), repression became one "defense mechanism" among others, but at the same time remained a "separate" process. It remained at the center of analytic discourse.
Although the word had already been used in Johann F. Herbart's psychology, it stood out to Freud as a clinical fact. He deduced from his treatment of hysterics that forgetting is an active, intentional phenomenon, since the return of forgotten memories under hypnosis and their abreaction caused the symptoms to disappear. In Studies on Hysteria (1895d) Freud and Josef Breuer explained that it was "a question of things which the patient wished to forget, and therefore intentionally repressed from his conscious thought and inhibited and suppressed" (p. 10).
The term repression, borrowed from everyday language, thereafter followed a remarkable trajectory. Not only did it return to common speech with a different meaning, but it became one of the four main concepts of psychoanalysis.
Freud showed the existence of a veritable intentionality of the mind that seeks to forget, to cause certain disagreeable representations to disappear. These representations are isolated in a "second consciousness, a condition seconde " (p. 12) separated from the mainstream of thought. The psyche is thereafter "dissociated," the unpleasant idea having been relegated to another place, "repressed," thus blocking any discharge of painful emotion that might be associated with it. It can be seen that the notion of repression, here seized at its origins, from the outset appears as a correlate to that of the unconscious. For a long time in Freud's work, until his positing of the idea of unconscious ego defenses, the term repressed was essentially synonymous with the action of the unconscious.
Moreover, the term intentionality used by Freud in 1895 must be understood in a nuanced way. As Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis emphasized in The Language of Psycho-Analysis (1967; trans. 1974), the splitting of consciousness is only "introduced" by an intentional act. As a "second consciousness," repressed contents elude the subject's control and are governed by the laws proper to the primary processes. The specific processes of the unconscious thus mark the operation of repression. The repressed representation in itself constitutes what Freud described in Studies on Hysteria as an initial "nucleus and centre of crystallization" (p. 123) that can attract other unbearable representations, without any conscious intention having to intervene. From the outset, then, repression is conceived as a dynamic process involving the maintenance of a counter-cathexis; it is always capable of being stymied by unconscious desire that seeks to return to conscious awareness, which is what is meant by "return of the repressed" ("Repression," [1915d], p. 154).
Moreover, representations are what are repressed, but it is affect, or rather its conversion from pleasure to unpleasure, that is the raison d'être of repression. The vicissitude of the affect is far more important than that of the representation, for it is affect that determines the judgment bearing upon the process of repression. If the vicissitude of the representation is to disappear or be held back from consciousness, the vicissitude of the affect, the quantitative factor of the instinctual representative, is somewhat independent.
An instinct may be suppressed, or else the affect may be affirmed under a given qualitative coloring, or, in yet another case, affect itself may be transformed into anxiety. The difference, Freud explained in "Repression," stems from the fact that representations are cathexes, whereas affects correspond to processes of discharge whose final manifestations are perceived as sensations.
The term repression appeared in Freud's writings for the first time in the "Preliminary Communication" (1893a). It was identified as a cause of pathogenic amnesia, an etiological explanatory principle leading to the envisioning of a therapeutic method that would put an opposing tendency into action. At this early date, repression was still presented as "intentional" and was not well distinguished from simple suppression. A representation appears to be painful because it is incompatible with an ego that, at this time, is still synonymous with consciousness. The ego thus treats the disagreeable idea as a "non-arrival" by repressing it.
This repression is thus posited as being a mechanism common to all mental disturbances, to hysteria, obsessional neurosis, and hallucinatory confusion. It affects only the representation; the vicissitude of the affect, for its part, determines the specificity of the disorder: conversion, isolation, or rejection ("The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence" [1894a]).
With the metapsychological writings of 1915, Freud distinguished different phases in the process of repression: fixation, "repression proper" ("Repression," p. 148) and finally, the "return of the repressed" (p. 154), which occurs at the point of the fixation itself.
Freud described several stages in the organization of repression, for if "repression and the unconscious are correlated" (p. 148) there was a good basis for accepting the idea of a "primal repression" (Urverdrängung, p. 148) that represents its earliest stage. This repression does not affect the instinct, the limit concept between the psychic and the somatic, but rather its "representatives," which thus do not gain access to consciousness. An initial unconscious nucleus is created that will function as a first pole of attraction about which elements will be repressed. This is accompanied by a "fixation," and the so-called representative "persists unaltered" (p. 148), along with the instinct attached to it, in the unconscious.
The second stage of repression is that of "repression proper" (eigentliche Verdrängung ) or "after-pressure" (Nachdrängen, p. 148), which occurs through deferred action. It involves the psychic derivatives of the repressed representative, or else a given associative chain, a predetermined train of thoughts that is related to it by association. This is a double process that joins to the attraction of the primal repressed (the earliest unconscious nucleus) a force of repulsion (Abstossung ) that comes from consciousness and acts upon material that is to be repressed. These two forces act in tandem, with "something previously repressed ready to receive what is repelled by the conscious" (p. 148). In a note added in 1915 to the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), Freud compared this dual process with "the manner in which tourists are conducted to the top of the Great Pyramid of Giza by being pushed from one direction and pulled from the other" (pp. 175-176, note 2). Finally, the third stage is that of the "return of the repressed" (Wiederkehr der Verdrängten ) (p. 154), expressed in the form of symptoms, dreams, slips of the tongue, or parapraxes.
Repression does not entail the destruction or disappearance of the repressed representation. As Freud explained in "Repression," it does not prevent the instinctual representative "from continuing to exist in the unconscious, from organizing itself further, putting out derivatives and establishing connections. . . . [T]he instinctual representative develops with less interference and more profusely if it is withdrawn by repression from conscious influence. It proliferates in the dark, as it were, and takes on extreme forms of expression, which when they are translated and presented to the neurotic are not only bound to seem alien to him, but frighten him by giving him the picture of an extraordinary strength of instinct" (p. 149).
Thus Freud in 1915 envisioned the operation of repression from a threefold metapsychological perspective. From the topographical point of view, repression is initially described, in the first theory of the instincts, as being maintained outside of consciousness. Censorship is what ensures the role of the repressing agency. In the second topography, it is posited as a defensive operation of the ego that is considered to be partially unconscious.
From the economic point of view, repression presupposes an interplay of opposing forces—of cathexis, decathexis, and anticathexis—that affect the instinctual representatives. "We may suppose that the repressed exercises a continuous pressure in the direction of the conscious, so that this pressure must be balanced by an unceasing counter-pressure. Thus the maintenance of a repression involves an uninterrupted expenditure of force, while its removal results in a saving from an economic point of view" ("Repression," p. 151). Similarly, in "The Unconscious" (1915e), Freud specified that the preconscious protects itself from the drive of unconscious repression by means of an anti-cathexis: "It is this which represents the permanent expenditure (of energy) of a primal repression, and which also guarantees the permanence of that repression" (p. 181). The fate of the instinctual representative is to disappear from consciousness and to be kept apart from the conscious mind, but the fate of the affect, which, according to Freud, represents the quantitative factor of the instinctual representative, is different. The instinct can be suppressed, or else affect can be either expressed under a given qualitative coloration or transformed into anxiety.
Finally, from a dynamic point of view, the main question is that of the reason for repression. According to Freud, the process of repression is linked to the group of defensive processes whose goal is to reduce, or even eliminate, any modification that might endanger the integrity and constancy of the psychobiological individual. Repression is one of the great "vicissitudes" of the instinct (along with sublimation and double reversal). Freud considered it a mode of defense against the instincts.
This dynamic conception of the repressed and the unconscious is not without consequences. The unconscious tends to produce material that is connected with it to varying degrees, which Freud calls "derivatives of the unconscious" (Abkömmlinge des Unbewussten ) ("Repression," p. 152), and which reemerge in conscious life and behaviors. These derivatives encompass, for example, symptoms, fantasies, slips of the tongue, or meaningful associations during the analytic session. They are thus also "derivatives of the repressed" (p. 149) that become, in turn, the object of new defensive measures. In his essay on repression Freud stressed that "it is not even correct to suppose that repression withholds from the conscious all the derivatives of what was primally repressed. If these derivatives have become sufficiently far removed from the repressed representative, whether owing to the adoption of distortions or by reason of the number of intermediate links inserted, they have free access to the conscious. It is as though the resistance of the conscious against them is a function of their distance from what was originally repressed" (p. 149).
In analytic practice, the analyst constantly invites the patient to produce these so-called derivatives of the repressed, which, following their distancing or distortion, can pass through the censorship of consciousness. Based on the patient's associations, "we reconstitute a conscious translation of the repressed representative" (p. 150).
Freud explained that "Neurotic symptoms, too . . . are derivatives of the repressed, which has by their means finally won the access to consciousness which was previously denied to it. . . . Repression acts, therefore, in a highly individual manner. Each single derivative of the repressed may have its own special vicissitude" (p. 150).
Thus, repression sometimes appears as a generic term, and sometimes as a specific term. At times it is the concept on which all of psychoanalysis rests, and at other times it above all describes the mechanism of hysterical neurosis. Sometimes it is just one defense among others, and at other times it subsumes all the defenses. In psychoanalytic treatment, the stage of repression identified as "the return of the repressed" is the basis for a clinical approach aimed at the lifting of repression itself.
See also: Actual neurosis/defense neurosis; Amnesia; Censorship; Defense; Deferred action; Desexualization; Dynamic point of view, the; Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, The ; "Heredity and the Etiology of the Neuroses"; Hysteria; Hysterical paralysis; Id; Latency period; Organic repression; Parapraxis; Primal repression; Repressed; Repressed, derivative of the/derivative of the unconscious; "Repression"; Repression, lifting of; Resistance; Return of the repressed; Scotomization; Signal anxiety; Slips of the tongue; Suppression; Unconscious, the; Unpleasure.
Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.
——. (1915d). Repression. SE, 14: 141-158.
Freud, Sigmund, and Breuer, Josef. (1893a). On the psychical mechanism of hysterical phenomena: Preliminary communication. SE, 2: 1-17.
Le Guen, Claude. (1992). Le Refoulement. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Le Guen, Claude, et al. (1986). Le refoulement (les défenses). Revue française de psychanalyse, 50,1.
Eagle, Morris. (2000). Repression, part I of II. Psychoanalytic Review, 87, 1-38.
——. (2000). Repression, part II of II. Psychoanalytic Review, 87, 161-188.
Repression is the use or threat of actions taken by state “authorities, or their supporters, against opponents or potential opponents to prevent, weaken, or eliminate their capacity to oppose policies” (Stohl and Lopez 1984, p. 7). Authorities include security forces and paramilitaries that target groups or individuals because of “their perceived political beliefs” (Goldstein 1978, p. xvi). Repression is associated with the related but distinct phenomena of terror, violence, and oppression.
Terror and violence describe actions by authorities against political opponents or by insurgent groups in their own campaigns against the incumbent government. The distinguishing characteristic is the perpetrator. State terror is a strategy of repression to instill fear and quiescence in the entire population. Violence by the state is also repression.
Oppression and repression are distinct but may occur together, such as with the policies of the white apartheid government in South Africa from 1948 until 1990. The apartheid system denied civil and political rights and economic and social privileges to the black South African majority as a matter of government policy (oppression). Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner for almost thirty years and leader of South Africa’s black-majority African National Congress, was also the target of repression, including torture during his imprisonment.
Common examples of repression are media censorship, surveillance of political meetings, the suspension of habeas corpus, the banning of political parties, and the violation of due process rights (e.g., illegal searches and arbitrary arrests). Some restrictions may be ostensibly nonviolent, like censorship. Violent repression is sometimes called a personal integrity violation because it violates bodily and personal autonomy. Examples are torture, disappearances, and extrajudicial killings by security forces and paramilitaries associated with military governments
where civilian rule is suspended or abolished. This type of repression occurred under the Argentine military junta during the “Dirty War” (1976-1983) against Peronists, labor leaders, and other civilians.
Well-known examples of violent repression include the genocide of six million Jews, along with dissidents, Catholics, and countless others, by the German Nazi government (1930s to 1940s); forced collectivization under Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) in Soviet Russia in the 1940s; and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in China under Mao Zedong (1893-1976). The 1980s were marked by extensive disappearances and killings by military regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador that targeted indigenous groups, whether or not they were politically mobilized.
Constitutional or emergency provisions may provide a legal character to such actions as detaining people (without charge) suspected of political violence, conducting surveillance on radical groups, or banning political parties accused of threatening political stability. Legal prohibitions may be codified into statutes to restrict political behavior or reconstitute political quiescence. For example, in the 1980s the Polish Communist government imposed martial law and banned the politically mobilized labor organization Solidarity to avert a Soviet intervention. In Germany, Mein Kampf (My Struggle, 1925-1926), an anti-Semitic political manifesto by Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), has been banned to prevent the expression of fascist ideology. Legal repression, especially in democracies, is not necessarily legitimate behavior and is often admonished by citizens, world leaders, and human rights organizations.
Repression in the form of repressive tolerance puts pressure on unpopular political minorities to conform to majoritarian views. This may occur under democratic governments along with surveillance of political groups. For example, the U.S. House of Representative’s Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), active from 1945 to 1975, targeted the American Communist Party and its supporters during the tenure of Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957). Similarly, J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), established the covert COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program) in 1956 using the FBI to monitor communists, civil rights leaders, and political activists like Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), Malcolm X (1925-1965), and Huey P. Newton (1942–1989) of the Black Panther Party. COINTELPRO operations lasted until 1971, when Hoover officially disbanded the program in anticipation of congressional investigations.
No ideological system evinces exclusive association with repression, although healthy debate exists over this issue. Different patterns are identified within certain political historical contexts. Some scholars argue that in the United States and historically, groups representing leftist ideas, such as labor, student movements, and the more radical Black Panther Party, were targeted much more than violent groups on the extreme right, such as the Ku Klux Klan. News media and other scholars have produced equally extensive documentation on Soviet and Chinese Communist repression against their own populations. For example, the secret police in the Soviet Union imprisoned political dissidents and used surveillance and propaganda for the duration of the twentieth century. The Chinese government killed many prodemocracy demonstrators in the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Claims are advanced on each side of this ideological debate, backed by historical evidence in books, reports, and other material. A more tenable position is that no clear affinity exists between repression and the ideological orientation of government. Repression has been used against internal political opponents by communist (leftist), fascist (rightist), and even democratic governments.
SEE ALSO Civil-Military Relation; Repressive Tolerance; Violence
Davenport, Christian, ed. 2000. Paths to State Repression: Human Rights Violations and Contentious Politics. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
Goldstein, Robert J. 1978. Political Repression in Modern America from 1870 to the Present. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman.
Poe, Steve, and Neal Tate. 1994. Repression of Human Rights to Personal Integrity in the 1980s: A Global Analysis. American Political Science Review 88 (4): 853-872.
Rummel, Rudolph. 1994. Death by Government. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
Stohl, Michael, and George Lopez, eds. 1984. The State as Terrorist: The Dynamics of Governmental Violence and Repression. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Freud's paper "Repression" is part of a larger work that was to be called Preliminary Essays on Metapsychology and that was to have included twelve essays; only five of these were published. Other titles were considered, notably "Introduction to Metapsychology" and "Overview of the Transference Neuroses" (Jones, 1955, p. 185). Metapsychology was conceived as a group of conceptual models that did not come directly from clinical experience, but which aimed to explain clinical experience in terms of mechanisms or fictional perspectives. Freud's project in these essays was to introduce and synthesize its main elements. In "On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement" (1914d) he had defined the theory of repression as "the corner-stone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests . . . the most essential part of it" (p. 16).
In this paper Freud returned to the idea of repression that had previously, in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), been conflated with the idea of the defense, which he had developed beginning with the "Neuro-Psychoses of Defence" (1894a). Here repression is the only defensive modality, whereas after 1920 repression would be seen as one defense among others. Freud believed that he had found an absolutely original idea in repression, and he did not acknowledge having encountered it in the work of Schopenhauer when Rank told him of analogous perspectives in the latter's work (Gay, 1988).
In "Repression" Freud described repression as "something between flight and condemnation" (p. 146) and said that "it is a concept which could not have been formulated before the time of psycho-analytic studies" (p. 146). His argumentation in this essay is developed step by step, by reviewing all the possibilities of this vicissitude of the instinctual impulse. First of all, given that instinctual satisfaction is by definition pleasurable, it was necessary to posit a conflict that "would . . . cause pleasure in one place and unpleasure in another" and the condition that "the motive force of unpleasure shall have acquired more strength than the pleasure obtained from satisfaction" (p. 147).
However, this mechanistic explanation is followed by another that is dynamic in nature. Repression and the unconscious are "correlated" (p. 148), and "We have reason to assume that there is a primal repression, a first phase of repression, which consists in the psychical (ideational) representative of the instinct being denied entrance into the conscious. With this a fixation is established; the representative in question persists unaltered from then onwards and the instinct remains attached to it" (p. 148). This fixation will constitute a point of attraction for other, later repressions that are thus said to occur through "after-pressure" (p. 148).
The same dynamism affects the instinctual representative that is fixed in the unconscious, where derivatives are formed and connections established. In "Repression" Freud explained that "Repression acts . . . in a highly individual manner. Each single derivative of the repressed may have its own special vicissitude; a little more or a little less distortion alters the whole outcome" (p. 150). If these derivatives are sufficiently distorted, they can freely enter into consciousness. Such occurrences provide the basis for psychoanalytic treatment, in that the repressed contents can emerge through free association, enabling a conscious reconstitution of these contents through psychoanalytic interpretation. Mentioned in passing here is the issue of fetishism, which was already alluded to in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, and to which Freud would return much later (1940a ). Here he proposed, as the origin of fetishism, a division of the instinctual representative into two parts, one of which is subjected to repression while "the remainder, precisely on account of this intimate connection, undergoes idealization" (p. 150).
The distinction that Freud then proposed between representation and quota of affect enabled him to refine his ideas on the vicissitude of the instinct. One possibility is its "transformation into affects, and especially into anxiety, of the psychical energies of instincts " (p. 153). The repressed thus remains active, and returns indirectly through these substitutive formations, but also in the form of various symptoms. The "success" of repression is often mitigated: A given representation may indeed be eliminated, but something else has been substituted for it, and "it [repression] has failed altogether in sparing unpleasure" (p. 153).
In terms of the three major categories of neurosis—anxiety hysteria, conversion hysteria, and obsessional neurosis—Freud pointed to the links that can be established between the workings of repression and the formation of neurotic symptoms. However, he added in conclusion that further research in this area needed to be done.
Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor
See also: Conversion; Free energy/bound energy; Instinctual representative; Metapsychology; Neurotic defenses; Physical pain/psychic pain; Quota of affect; Repression.
Sigmund Freud. (1915d). Die Verdrängung. Internationale Zeitschrift für ärztliche Psychoanalyse, 3 : 129-138; GW, 10 : 248-261; Repression. SE, 14: 146-158.
Gay, Peter. (1988). Freud: A life for our time. London and Melbourne: Dent.
Jones, Ernest. (1953-57). Sigmund Freud: Life and work. London: Hogarth.