Psychoanalysis > Theory

[Definition of Repression]

There is a kind of forgetting which is distinguished by the difficulty with which the memory is awakened even by a powerful external summons, as though some internal resistance were struggling against its revival. A forgetting of this kind has been given the name of 'repression' in psychopathology; and the case which our author has put before us seems to be an example of this repression. Now we do not know in general whether the forgetting of an impression is linked with the dissolution of its memory-trace in the mind; but we can assert quite definitely of "repression" that it does not coincide with the dissolution or extinction of the memory. What is repressed cannot, it is true, as a rule make its way into memory without more ado; but it retains a capacity for effective action, and, under the influence of some external event, it may one day bring about psychical consequences which can be regarded as products of a modification of the forgotten memory and as derivatives of it and which remain unintelligible unless we take this view of them. (Delusions and Dreams In Jensen's Gradiva , 1907).

Repression, as you will recall, is the process by which an act which is admissible to consciousness, one, therefore, which belongs to the system Pcs., is made unconscious - is pushed back, therefore, into the system Ucs. And we equally speak of repression if the unconscious mental act is altogether forbidden access to the neighbouring preconscious system and is turned back at the threshold by the censorship. (Introductory Lessons on Psychoanalysis, 1916-1917).

  • The Mechanism of Repression

We can describe it schematically thus. As a result of the experience, an instinctual demand arises which calls for satisfaction. The ego refuses that satisfaction, either because it is paralysed by the magnitude of the demand or because it recognizes it as a danger. The former of these grounds is the more primary one; both of them amount to the avoidance of a situation of danger. The ego fends off the danger by the process of repression. The instinctual impulse is in some way inhibited, its precipitating cause, with its attendant perceptions and ideas, is forgotten.

This, however, is not the end of the process: the instinct has either retained its forces, or collects them again, or it is reawakened by some new precipitating cause. Thereupon it renews its demand, and, since the path to normal satisfaction remains closed to it by what we may call the scar of repression, somewhere, at a weak spot, it opens another path for itself to what is known as a substitutive satisfaction, which comes to light as a symptom, without the acquiescence of the ego, but also without its understanding. All the phenomena of the formation of symptoms may justly be described as the 'return of the repressed'. Their distinguishing characteristic, however, is the far-reaching distortion to which the returning material has been subjected as compared with the original. (Moses and Monotheism, 1939)

  • Repression and Regression

If we give it its general sense - of a return from a higher to a lower stage of development - then repression too can be subsumed under the concept of regression, for it too can be described as a return to an earlier and deeper stage in the development of a psychical act. In the case of repression, however, this retrogressive movement does not concern us, since we also speak of repression, in the dynamic sense, when a psychical act is held back at the lower, unconscious, stage. The fact is that repression is a topographico-dynamic concept, while regression is a purely descriptive one. What we have hitherto spoken of as regression, however, and have related to fixation, has meant exclusively a return of the libido to earlier stopping places in its development - something, that is, entirely different in its nature from repression and entirely independent of it. (Introductory Lessons on Psychoanalysis, 1916-1917).

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Sigmund Freud

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