The term working-off mechanisms describes the work of the psychic transformation that is accomplished by the subject during or at the end of psychoanalytic treatment. This process, developed by the ego's new capacities for binding, indicates the attainment of a psychic liberation or opening-up.
The notion of working-off was mainly introduced by Edward Bibring (1943) in the context of what he called the "tension-controlling methods of the ego" (p. 513). Daniel Lagache (1962) later adopted and further developed it. In Lagache's view, working-off mechanisms are different from defense mechanisms, because the former indicate that the defense has been lifted. The essential point entails the "recognition and assimilation of the fantasmatic conflict," which opens the way to the psychic capacities for "foresight" and "replacement."
Sigmund Freud did not explicitly mention the presence of working-off mechanisms. However, in the fifth of his "Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis" (1910 ) he emphasized how unconscious wishes are liberated by psychoanalysis: a) repression is replaced "by a condemning judgement carried out along the best lines" (p. 53), such that the subject's ego can thereafter "master" the "unserviceable" instincts of an incompletely developed ego that could previously only repress them; b) the instincts can then "be employed for the useful purposes which they would have found earlier if development had not been interrupted" (p. 53); c) the individual's unrealizable inclination is replaced by a higher goal situated outside of sexuality: sublimation.
Lastly, a reference to such processes can be read between the lines in some of Freud's other texts: the chapter "The Ego's Dependency Relations" in The Ego and the Id (1923), and "Analysis Terminable and Interminable" (1937).
The notion of working-off mechanisms is difficult to delimit on the metapsychological level. If it implies an effort to account for the subject's capacity for integration and elaboration, it has often been understood, especially by adherents of ego psychology, as an illustration of the attitudes and behaviors of the "conscious ego."
See also: Bibring, Edward; Ego (ego psychology).
Freud, Sigmund. (1910 ). Five lectures on psychoanalysis. SE, 11: 7 -55.
——. (1937). Analysis terminable and interminable. SE, 23: 209 -253.
Lagache, Daniel. (1962). La conception de l'homme dans l'expérience psychanalytique. In E. Rosenblum (Ed.), Oeuvres Completes, Volume 4: 1956-1962: Agressivité. Structure de la personnalité et autres travaux ; Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.