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.