Repression, Lifting of

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Lifting of repression is the name for the process by which gaps in memory are eliminated, notably during psychoanalytic treatment, allowing for access to formerly unknown material.

While psychoanalysis is indeed an ensemble of theoretical conceptions that make up a metapsychology, and while it is a method of investigation of psychic processes, it is first a method of treatment (see Sigmund Freud's article "The Libido Theory," 1923a [1922]). From this perspective, Freud often reiterated his aim: "extracting the pure metal of the repressed thoughts from the ore of the unintentional ideas" (1904a [1903], p. 252). In "Lines of Advance in Psycho-Analytic Theory" (1919a [1918]), he wrote that "our task [is] to bring to the patient's knowledge the unconscious, repressed impulses existing in him" (p. 159). And in "An Outline of Psycho-Analysis" (1940a [1938]), he wrote that "the psycho-analyst is the one who is in a position to guess at repressed material."

All of these formulations refer to what Freud usually called the "lifting of repression." He used many different formulations to remind readers of this essential aspect of treatment. In Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1916-17a [1915-17]), he wrote: "We can express the aim of our efforts in a variety of formulas: making conscious what is unconscious, lifting repressions, filling gaps in the memoryall these amount to the same thing" (p. 435).

At the time of his early discoveries, Freud observed that the sudden emergence of forgotten memories during hypnosis sessions caused symptoms to disappear. He concluded from this that forgetting was active and pathogenic, and that being cured had to be the result of the recollection and abreaction of traumatic memories. It was as if the symptom appeared in place of the memory, as if the symptom itself were a way of remembering: "The hysteric suffers from reminiscences."

The observation of the revival of memories under hypnosis enabled Freud to theorize that a repressed representation could preserve a trace of that which had been repressed. He then shifted his focus toward resistance to remembering, the correlate of a repression that was still considered to be "intentional," and thus onto resistance to the lifting of repression. In this way the obstacle (resistance) became a new means of unearthing meaning. The "talking cure" and the method of free association supplanted hypnosis. Memories no longer had to be rediscovered directly, but were now to be found indirectly, through the resistance that provided access to the repression.

"Suppressing gaps in memory," that is, "eliminating resistance," is reaffirmed in the metapsychological writings of 1915 with the expression "making the unconscious conscious." But what in the unconscious becomes conscious? "This question remains flawed and is dependent upon a metapsychological conception in which the unconscious is largely equivalent to an immobilized past and is scarcely distinguishable from the repressed," commented Claude Le Guen in 1992.

The central theory and the assertion "Wo Es war, soll Ich werden " ("Where id was, there ego shall be") inNew Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1933a [1932]) meant revisiting this issue. In 1923 Freud showed that the question was less that of bringing the repressed into consciousness and the "lifting of repression" than that of the paths to follow to be able to lead the repressed into the preconscious-conscious. The work of analysis is to put in place these preconscious intermediary terms without the unconscious having to "come up" into consciousness. Thus the unconscious, as it is activated in the id, remains indestructible and constantly active, without being affected by the unconscious impulses taken into the ego, which are capable of coming into consciousness due to the lifting of repression. It is in this way that the ego becomes the locus par excellence of conflicts between the instinctual impulses and the defensive processes, beginning with the first among them, repression. Analysis of the resistances is the essential means that must henceforth be used in treatment to bring about conscious awareness of the repressed and a lifting of repression. In the words of Le Guen, "The lifting of repression, with the liberation of libidinal energy it emanates and the unification of the ego it provokes, remains the touchstone of change in treatment and its main goal."

Jean-FranÇois Rabain

See also: Femininity; German romanticism and psychoanalysis; Infantile amnesia; Lifting of amnesia; "Negation"; Repression; Subject.


Freud, Sigmund. (1904a [1903]). Freud's psycho-analytic procedure. SE, 7: 247-254.

. (1916-17a [1915-17]). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. Parts I and II. SE, 15-16.

. (1919a [1918]). Lines of advance in psycho-analytic therapy. SE, 17: 157-168.

. (1923a [1922]). Encyclopaedia article: "The libido theory." SE, 18: 255-259.

Le Guen, Claude. (1992). Le Refoulement. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.