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Explanations > Behaviours > Coping > Repression

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



Repression involves placing uncomfortable thoughts in relatively inaccessible areas of the subconscious mind. Thus when things occur that we are unable to cope with now, we push them away, either planning to deal with them at another time or hoping that they will fade away on their own accord.

The level of 'forgetting' in repression can vary from a temporary abolition of uncomfortable thoughts to a high level of amnesia, where events that caused the anxiety are buried very deep.

Repressed memories do not disappear. They can have an accumulative effect and reappear as unattributable anxiety or dysfunctional behavior. A high level of repression can cause a high level of anxiety or dysfunction, although this may also be caused by the repression of one particularly traumatic incident.

Repressed memories may appear through subconscious means and in altered forms, such as dreams or slips of the tongue ('Freudian slips').


A child who is abused by a parent later has no recollection of the events, but has trouble forming relationships.

A woman who found childbirth particularly painful continues to have children (and each time the level of pain is surprising).

An optimist remembers the past with a rosy glow and constantly repeats mistakes.

A man has a phobia of spiders but cannot remember the first time he was afraid of them.

A person greets another with 'pleased to beat you' (the repressed idea of violence toward the other person creeping through).


Repression (sometimes called motivated forgetting) is a primary ego defense mechanism since the other ego mechanisms use it in tandem with other methods. Thus defense is often 'repression + ....'.

Repression is unconscious. When we deliberately and consciously try to push away thoughts, this is suppression.

In Freudian terminology, repression is the restraining of a cathexis by an anti-cathexis.

It is not all bad. If all uncomfortable memories were easily brought to mind we would be faced with a non-stop pain of reliving them.

To Freud, the goal of treatment, i.e., of psychoanalysis, was to bring repressed memories, fears and thoughts back to the conscious level of awareness.

Repression is one of Anna Freud's original defense mechanisms.

So what?

When a person is being defensive in some way, think about the repressions that may be at the root of their problem. Also listen for speech errors and other signals from the subconscious. You can even start a conversation about recent weird dreams and then listen for further symbols, though be careful with this, as dreams can be very symbolic.

Help a person recover from the discomfort and dysfunction that repression brings by digging out the original memory. Be very careful with this, of course - done wrong, it may only cause more pain.

If you have caused a person stress and they feel unable to respond, you may find that they act as if nothing had happened. This is a surprisingly common attribute of persuasive situations. It can gain compliance in the shorter term, but can build up problems for later.

See also

Defense Mechanisms

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