Substitute/Substitutive Formation

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"Substitute" or "substitutive formation" refers to the psyche's replacement of a fact or mental object through unconscious chains of association. In the substitution, an idea, thought, or object perceived as incompatible with the ego is repressed and exchanged for another. A number of synonyms are found in Sigmund Freud's writings: "ersatz," "substitutive formation," "equivalent," "stand-in," and "replacement."

In "The Neuro-Psychoses of Defence" (1894a), Freud described the formation of an obsessional idea as a substitute for an incompatible sexual idea. The ego wishes to deal with the sexual idea as though it had never arisen, and so affect is detached from it. However, since that affect remains "unaltered and undiminished" (p. 54) in the core of the psyche, it attaches itself to a compatible idea, making it obsessional. Initially limited to obsessional ideas, the notion of substitution was eventually generalized and conceptually modified. For instance, in "Obsessions and Phobias: Their Psychical Mechanism and Their Aetiology" (1895c [1894]), Freud described symptoms as substitutes for ideas of coitus. In "Obsessions and Phobias," he posited premature sexual climax as the source of reproaches, for which the psyche substitutes ideas, actions, or impulses providing relief and protection. In "Further Remarks on the Neuro-Psychoses of Defence" (1896b), the object of the substitution is no longer mnemic contents, but rather the reproach associated with them, which is transformed into another unpleasurable substitutive affect that can become conscious (shame; social, religious, or hypochondriacal anxiety; etc.).

In later works, the substitute was associated with different metapsychological objects. It was associated with object relations, with maternal and paternal substitutes being associated through family romances and the totem. It was associated with anxiety contents in the case history of Little Hans (1909b), where the paired terms bitten/castrated correspond to the paired objects horse/father. It was associated with dreams in "Some General Remarks on Hysterical Attacks" (1909a [1908]), where the dream is a substitute for the hysterical attack, itself a substitute for an autoerotic satisfaction from childhood. Dreams there became more extensively recognized as substitutive formations. Finally, Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety (1926d [1925]) brought the substitute back to the level of the symptom, in that the substitute represents a return of the repressed. In this sense, symptom formation and substitutive formation have the same upshot: replacing the forbidden satisfaction of instincts and making such satisfaction unrecognizable.

Even though the terms are synonymous, the expression "substitutive formation" is preferable to "substitute" because it attests to the dynamic process that forms the substitute: the transformation of gratification in the defensive conflict.

Mathieu Zannotti

See also: Abstinence/rule of abstinence; Addiction; Adolescence; Alcoholism; Anorexia nervosa; Breastfeeding; Bulimia; Conflict; Displacement; Ego ideal; Erotogenic zone; Fetishism; Maternal; Metaphor; Metonymy; Phallic woman; Signifier/signified; Splitting; "Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence"; Substitutive formation; Symbol; Symbolization, process of; Symptom-formation; Thought; Totem/totemism; Word-presentation.


Freud, Sigmund. (1894a). The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 41-61.

. (1895c [1894]). Obsessions and phobias: their psychical mechanism and their aetiology. SE, 3: 69-82.

. (1896b). Further remarks on the neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 157-185.

. (1909a [1908]). Some general remarks on hysterical attacks. SE, 9: 227-234.

. (1909b). Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy. SE, 10: 1-149.

. (1924c). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19: 155-170.

. (1926d [1925]). Inhibitions, symptoms, and anxiety. SE, 20: 75-172.