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French: refoulement
Psychoanalytic Theory

The concept of repression is one of the most basic concepts in psychoanalytic theory.


It denotes the process by which certain thoughts or memories are expelled from consciousness and confined to the unconscious.

Sigmund Freud

Freud was first led to hypothesize the process of repression through his investigation into the amnesia of hysterical patients.

Primary and Secondary Repression

He later distinguished between primal repression (a "mythical" forgetting of something that was never conscious to begin with, an originary "psychical act" by which the unconscious is first constituted) and secondary repression (concrete acts of repression whereby some idea or perception that was once conscious is expelled from the conscious).


Since repression does not destroy the ideas or memories that are its target, but merely confines them to the unconscious, the repressed material is always liable to return in a distorted form, in symptoms, dreams, slips of the tongue, etc. (the return of the repressed).


For Lacan, repression is the fundamental operation which distinguishes neurosis from the other clinical structures. Whereas psychotics foreclose, and perverts disavow, only neurotics repress.

Repressed Signifier

What is it that is repressed? At one point Lacan speaks of the signified as the object of repression,[1] but he soon abandons this view and argues instead that it is always a signifier that is repressed, never a signified.[2] This latter view seems to correspond more closely to Freud's view that what is repressed is not the "affect" (which can only be displaced or transformed) but the "ideational representative" of the drive.

Primary and Secondary

Lacan also takes up Freud's distinction between primal repression and secondary repression:


Primal repression (German: Urverdrängung) is the alienation of desire when need is articulated in demand.[3] It is also the unconscious signifying chain.[4] Primary repression is the repression of the first signifier.

"From the moment he speaks, from that precise moment and not before, I understand that there is repression."[5]

Lacan does not see primary repression as a specific psychical act, localizable in time, but as a structural feature of language itself - namely, its necessary incompleteness, the impossibility of ever saying "the truth about truth."[6]


Secondary repression (German" Verdrängung) is a specific psychical act by which a signifier is elided from the signifying chain. Secondary repression is structured like a metaphor, and always involves 'the return of the repressed', whereby the repressed signifier reappears under the guise of the various formations of the unconscious (i.e. symptoms, dreams, parapraxes, jokes, etc.). In secondary repression, repression and the return of the repressed "are the same thing."

See Also


  1. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977.} p.55
  2. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book XI. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1977. p. 218
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 286
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 314
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. p. 53
  6. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 868