Defense Mechanisms VI: Repression (and Resistance)

Although this post comes late in my series on defense mechanisms, it really should have been the first one: in a way, all but the most primitive defense mechanisms are forms of repression. When you’re in denial, you repress the awareness of unwelcome truth. When you idealize someone, you must repress those perceptions that would undermine the idealization. If you were to develop a reaction formation such as homophobia, you would repress your attraction and physical desire. It’s worth noting that, in each of these cases, it’s actually the awareness of some aspect of your psyche that is repressed.

Freud originally discussed repression as it related to trauma, leading to his famous formulation from the Studies on Hysteria (1893-95) that hysterical symptoms actually symbolize the repressed traumatic memory. In these early years, he used the words “defense” and “repression” almost interchangeably. He soon expanded his conception of repression as pertaining to instinctual drives of all kinds, not traumatic memories. (As I discussed in my piece about Freud’s id ego superego theory, I have a problem with this kind of language. “Instinct” doesn’t really capture what Freud what trying to describe in his native German). He also distinguished between a primal repression and repression proper, which I won’t get into as it’s theoretical and doesn’t feel clinically relevant.

There are places, however, where Freud speaks very simply and elegantly about repression: “the essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance, from the conscious.” That “something” could be an unacceptable emotion, either about someone else or yourself; it might be a perception of reality you’d rather not acknowledge. While Freud largely thought of the motive for repression as evading conflict — between id drives and superego prohibitions, for example — I find it more immediate and clinically useful to remember Donald Meltzer’s formulation, that all defenses (including repression) are essentially lies we tell ourselves to evade pain. When we repress something (i.e., keep it at a distance from consciousness), it’s because we’re trying to avoid pain of one kind or another. There’s an idea everyone can understand.

Freud also made clear that repression isn’t something that happens just once; it’s a process that requires a continual expenditure of energy to keep the repressed from returning to consciousness. In other words, we tend to develop strategies that are designed to keep the repressed feelings from breaking free of their dungeon. I’ve seen a number of clients with eating disorders who used binge-eating in this fashion: whenever some repressed emotion threatened to come up, or they faced a new and threatening experience, they would overeat in order to ward it off (see my earlier post about unbearable emotion in bulimia). You could think of this defense in different ways: as an anesthetic, for example, or as “shoving” the feelings back down along with the food. (In my experience, binge-eating is one of those symptoms whose meaning is usually “over-determined”, as they say — it might also be a kind of self-soothing, or even a kind of punishment. It’s not a simple issue.)

Anyone who has been in psychodynamic therapy or practices in that modality most likely regards repression as an accepted fact of life, but there are many scientists and mental health professionals in other disciplines who will dispute its existence. If you browse through books in the self-help section at Barnes & Noble, you’ll rarely find a reference to repression and the unconscious. In my view, without an understanding of repression, real growth is nearly impossible since you’re unlikely to come into contact with that pain you’re trying to ward off. Even if you do manage to overcome some kind of maladaptive behavior or thought pattern, you’re likely to develop another equally maladaptive strategy to keep the repressed at bay.

Freud came to understand repression through his clinical experience with resistance. In the very early days, when he thought it was enough for his patients to recover their lost traumatic memories, he found that they didn’t want to recover those memories and fought him in his efforts to bring them to light. He decided that there must be some psychic force keeping the traumatic memory from entering consciousness. Likewise as a practitioner, your day-to-day encounters with resistance show you repression at work. Now and then you identify something clearly in a client — some pain they’re not facing, some level of shame they can’t bear to face — and when you try to help them to look at it, as empathically and sensitively as you can, they’ll often deny they feel that way or appear to agree with you and then change the subject. Sometimes they’ll just tell you that you’re wrong (and of course, on occasion, you are!).

In more serious cases, they’ll quit treatment if you get too close to the repressed material. I had a recent experience with a new client, a woman with a horrendous past, obviously in excruciating emotional pain. As she talked in session, she communicated that pain to me on a non-verbal level while she herself didn’t seem aware of feeling it; when I tried on several occasions to draw her attention to that pain, reminding her of all the very good reasons she had for suffering, she halfheartedly agreed. She then began to have scheduling conflicts, telling me she couldn’t make our next session because she had a conference the next day and didn’t want to be “distracted”. After three sessions, she decided not to come back.

There are other possible explanations, of course. For one, it could be that, as gently as I tried to put it, I was premature in addressing the issue. When someone terminates without an explanation, you never really know. But to me, the experience spoke powerfully to the enduring power of repression, and the resistance so often aroused in your clients when you try to address it.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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12 comments

    I’m not sure about the unconscious. It seems that a sort of half conscious is what is involved. I think it should be possible to do things in small and easy steps.

    sometimes you may not want to accept or believe what you are repressing. it may be too much for you to feel and the guilt that comes with the acknowledgement is too overwhelming. i realized recently that i have been in denial about feelings that i do not want to accept as true. i’d rather not tell my therapist the truth i have discovered. defense mechanisms sometimes protect you from your guilt about what you are repressing. i am not trying to retreat from the truth but facing it may make me feel worse. what do i do then? it is too bad that your client didn’t stick with it and rather retreated from her treatment with you. i know that releasing the hidden feelings from the past are painful and the pain sometimes increases but eventually there is a relief but it takes a lot of strength to work through it all piece by piece or to even begin the journey.

    I think repression and denial have their uses. Sometimes we go back and forth in our acceptance of the truth; when it’s more than we can bear, we retreat for a time. I think that’s often useful. You return to the truth when you’re better able to deal with it.

    HI J , I’m such a simple country doctor – I’d enjoy yr fine work even more if i were more intellectual . As I am , I’m more an Occam’s Razor guy , more comfortable in everyday language & concepts . I sure like the looks of yr current home page — i don’t know anyone who’s worked as hard to such great following as you . Congratulations on what is now likely to develop in yr outreach !! You’ve earned it many times over . Cheers , & Warmly , b

    Dear Joseph,
    I really enjoyed this post. Are you going to talk about how you deal with patients’ defences?
    Many thanks.

    An excellent article. After reading it I think I need to go back to therapy. I have been in it but I don’t think I am b etter. I have a lot of trama in my life and I think it is way too painful to deal with.

    I think you’re so right about having to face the pain.
    I had a for long unbearable trauma that I repressed for years to the point that when my thoughts drifted to the event, I’d “blank out” and then wake up a few minutes later with no recollection of what had happened. Eventually, as I began to face all the other traumas and abuse, I was able to stop the “blank” in mid track and face the memories and pain. It felt like a very physical phenomenon. I had wanted to know the truth, to remember, to understand, to face my demons but remembering was unbearable, and I went through months in which my mind was in acute crisis. It felt shattered in a thousand pieces. I couldn’t think. in that quiet way we have of listening to our thoughts, alone in our minds. I could only imagine other people in my mind and talk to them, in a rather ADD way, inside my mind. And my “voice” in my mind didn’t feel my own. It was as if even after remembering, there was the mother of all wars between my denial and my voice, my memories, and my defense mechanisms were trying to silence my own “voice.” The state actually felt life threatening and I’d thought I’d go insane. I spent weeks shivering, so cold, I’d sleep with my winter coat on and still I’d freeze. Remembering stopped not just the episodes of missing time, but also a lot of odd phobias that were actually directly connected to the trauma, panic attacks, nightmares… When I remembered, my subconscious stopped needing to keep screaming out to me with phobias and nightmares to listen, to remember. It was also key to me understanding so much about a life of victimization and to make changes in my life. It was important for my journey, but remembering a surreal trauma that almost killed me once felt like it almost killed me twice.

    I think those with deep denial and repression have an instinctual awareness not just that some events are too painful and surreal but remembering them can in fact be reliving them, not just in thoughts, but also in their devastation, the terror, and their effects on one’s very life, mind. I don’t know what therapists can do to help people overcome repression and denial but I think it has be something similar to helping someone who has been run over by a car, severely injured but survived go back the street and be run over by the car again, with injuries, pain, terror all over again and somehow believe they will be safe and recover after it and be better off.

    This resonates with me very deeply. I too feel that therapy makes you relive everything, but i’m at the point, where i’m not sure it’s worth it. It seems safer to just leave it all dead and buried. I have the missing periods of time, mostly when i try to discuss traumatic events or feelings. I fail to see how it will ever help me. It seems the deeper i am getting in to therapy, the worse it is getting, not better. I often feel i should quit while i am ahead. I have gone to 14 sessions, and feel i have made no progress. Last night i walked on my land, in the dark, my mind trying to numb itself, i just kicked at the weeds aimlessly. I see nothing, but my mind keeps talking, repeating horrible things, and i never get a break. I can’t shut it off. I feel it will never end.

    I realize it’s difficult, but from a therapist’s point of view, after only 14 sessions, you’ve barely gotten started. I think you have unrealistic expectations about what will change and how quickly.

    That’s a rather large subject! If you read all of the posts under the category heading Defense Mechanisms over to the right, you’ll find many examples. In general, people resort to defense mechanisms when the pain of what they are confronting is literally more than they can bear.

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