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Freudian Dictionary

As to the regression, we may further observe that it plays a no less important part in the theory of neurotic symptom-formation than in the theory of dreams. We may therefore distinguish a threefold species of regression: (a) a topical one, in the sense of the scheme of the systems here expounded; (b) a temporal one, in so far as it is a regression to older psychic formations; and (c) a formal one, when primitive modes of expression and representation take the place of the customary modes. These three forms of regression are, however, basically one, and in the majority of cases they coincide, for that which is older in point of time is at the same time formally primitive and, in the psychic topography, nearer to the perception-end.[1]

Regression in Dreams

In regression the structure of the dream-thoughts breaks up into its raw material.[2]

Regression of Instinctual Impulses

In compulsion neurosis there is brought about, under the influence of the ego's opposition, a regression of the instinctual impulses to an earlier libidinal phase such as does not, it is true, make repression superfluous, but evidently operates to the same effect as repression.[3]

Regression, Temporal

When we investigate psychoneurotic conditions, we find in each of them occasion to comment upon a so-called temporal regression, i.e. the particular extent to which each of them retraces the stages of its evolution. We distinguish two such regressions-one in the development of the ego and the other in that of the libido. In sleep, the latter is carried to the point of restoring the primitive narcissism, while the former goes back to the state of hallucinatory wishfulfilment.[4]


regression (French: régression)

The psychic reversion to childhood desires.

When normally functioning desire meets with powerful external obstacles, which prevent satisfaction of those desires, the subject sometimes regresses to an earlier phase in normal psychosexual development.

"Regression," as a term, is closely connected to the term, fixation; the stronger one's fixations on earlier sexual objects (eg. the mouth, the anus), the more likely that, when a subject is confronted with obstacles to heterosexual satisfaction, that subject will respond by way of regression to an earlier phase.

Example: a normally functioning woman is dumped by her boyfriend and starts over-eating (thus regressing to the oral phase).

Regression can result either in neurosis (if accompanied by repression) or in perversion: "A regression of the libido without repression would never produce a neurosis but would lead to a perversion" (Introductory Lectures 16.344).

In our example, the neurotic begins over-eating; the pervert gives up men and becomes a lesbian (a sexual identity that Freud saw as perversion, though many have since critiqued him on this point).

Sigmund Freud

Freud introduced the concept of regression in longing for a protective father,[5] and described The Interpretation of Dreams in order to explain the visual nature of dreams.

Basing himself on a topographical model in which the psyche is conceived of as a series of distinct systems, Freud argued that during sleep progressive access to motor activity is blocked, thus forcing thoughts to travel regressively through these systems towards the system of perception.[6]

He later added a passage to this section distinguishing between this topographical kind of regression and what he called temporal regression (when the subject reverts to previous phases of development) and formal regression.[7]

Jacques Lacan

Lacan argues that the concept of regression has been one of the most misunderstood concepts in psychoanalytic theory.

In particular, he criticises the 'magical' view of regression, according to which regression is seen as a real phenomenon, in which adults "actually regress, return to the state of a small child, and start wailing."

In this sense of the term, "regression does exist."[8]

In place of this misconception, Lacan argues that regression must be understood first and foremost in a topographical sense, which is the way Freud understood the term when he introduced it in 1900, and not in a temporal sense.

In other words, "there is regression on the plane of [[signification and not on the plane of reality."[9]

Thus regression is to be understood "not in the instinctual sense, nor in the sense of the resurgence of something anterior," but in the sense of "the reduction of the symbolic to the imaginary."[10]

Temporal Regression

Insofar as regression can be said to have a temporal sense, it does not involve the subject "going back in time," but rather a rearticulation of certain demands:

"Regression shows nothing other than a return to the present of signifiers used in demands for which there is a prescription."[11]

Regression to the oral stage, for example, is to be understood in terms of the articulation of oral demands (the demand to be fed, evident in the demand for the analyst to supply interpretations).

When understood in this sense, Lacan reaffirms the importance of regression in psychoanalytic treatment, arguing that regression to the anal stage, for example, is so important that no analysis which has not encoutnered this can be called completed.[12]


The Latin equivalent of regression means "return" or "withdrawal"; it also signifies a retreat or a return to a less-evolved state. There is no very precise psychoanalytic definition of the concept of regression.

It is useful to introducs the idea of temporality.

It could be said to represent an articulation between the atemporality of the unconscious, the primary processes, and the temporality of the secondary processes.

Some analysts assign this notion a metaphoric value; it retains the connotations of a journey through time and the changes that will be necessary in psychoanalytic treatment.

Sigmund Freud introduced the notion of regression in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900a).

The concept was necessary for his description of the psychic apparatus in terms of a topographical model, represented by an instrument whose component parts are agencies or systems with a spatial orientation.

Excitation traverses the system in a determined temporal order, going from the sensory end to the motor end.

In hallucinatory dreams, excitation follows a retrograde pathway.

Dreams have a regressive character due to the shutdown of the motor system; the trajectory goes in the reverse direction, toward perception and hallucinatory visual representation.

This regression is a psychological particularity of the dream process, but dreams do not have a monopoly on it.

In the section of the last chapter of The Interpretation of Dreams titled "Regression," Freud wrote that "in all probability this regression, wherever it may occur, is an effect of a resistance opposing the progress of a thought into consciousness along the normal path.

It is to be further remarked that regression plays a no less important part in the theory of the formation of neurotic symptoms than it does in that of dreams" (pp. 547-548).

In this last chapter Freud already distinguished between three types of regression: topographical regression, in the sense of the psychic system; temporal regression, in the case of a return to earlier psychic formations; and formal regression, where primitive modes of expression and representation replace the usual ones.

He also noted: "All these three kinds of regression are, however, one at bottom and occur together as a rule; for what is older in time is more primitive in form and in psychical topography lies nearer to the perceptual end" (p. 548).

This basic unity is central to his metapsychological use of the concept.

In Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d) Freud implicitly invoked the idea of fixation, which is inseparable from regression.

In "A Metapsychological Supplement to the Theory of Dreams" (1916-17f [1915]), he underscored the distinction between "temporal or developmental regression" (of the ego and the libido) and topographical regression, and the fact that "[t]he two do not necessarily always coincide" (p. 227).

Then, in the twenty-second of the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1916-17a [1915-17]), he distinguished two types of regression affecting the libido: a return to the earliest objects marked by the libido, which are of an incestuous nature, and a return of the entire sexual organization to earlier stages.

Libidinal regression is only an effect of temporal regression, with a reactivation of old libidinal structures preserved by fixation.

At that point he asserted that regression was a "purely descriptive" concept, adding: "we cannot tell where we should localize it in the mental apparatus" (pp. 342-343).

In making this assertion, he retrenched from his earlier position and denied regression its metaphysical status, which it would regain only after 1920 with the second theory of the instincts.

It then becomes constitutive of the death instinct and can threaten to destroy psychic structures, but also becomes a mechanism that can be used by the ego.

According to Marilia Aisenstein's article "Des régressions impossibles?" (Impossible regressions?), "Freud's reticence around the notion of regression in 1917 was linked to its relation to the first theory of the instincts and the first topography.

He had difficulty in situating and formulating regression not only in topographical terms, but above all in terms of the libido and the instincts of the ego..

It then became necessary to separate regression from disorganization, as the latter was envisioned by Pierre Marty and the psychosomaticians of the Paris School..

If the retrograde movement is not stopped by regressive systems involving fixations, the end result can be a process of somatization."

Regression is indispensable to the work of psychoanalytic treatment; it implies the notion of change and is part of the healing process, according to Donald W.

Winnicott (1958).

Regression is a form of defense and remains in the service of the ego.

From the analyst's point of view, formal regression provides another way of listening.



Regression involves going back to an earlier phase of development when there were fewer demands. In the face of severe stress, individuals may attempt to cope with anxiety by clinging to immature behaviors.


Children who are frightened in school may indulge in infantile behavior such as weeping, excessive dependency, thumb-sucking, and clinging to the teacher. Again, this is perceived by psychoanalytic theory as an unconscious wish on the part of the child to obtain nurturing, attention, or some type of consolation to cope with stressors they feel unable to handle. So, regression to an earlier, more helpless state can either provide them with the safety they feel they need or exempt them from responsibilities they perceive are beyond their capabilities.

See Also


  1. Template:IoD Ch. 7
  2. Template:IoD Ch. 7
  3. Template:PoA Ch. 11
  4. Template:MSTD
  5. Freud, 1927c: SE XXI, 22-4
  6. Freud, 1900a: SE V, 538-55
  7. Freud, 1900a: SE V, 548
  8. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p.103
  9. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book II. The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-55. Trans. Sylvana Tomaselli. New York: Nortion; Cambridge: Cambridge Unviersity Press, 1988. p.103
  10. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p.242
  11. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.255
  12. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre VIII. Le transfert, 1960-61. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p.242
  • Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. Parts I and II. SE, 4-5.
  • ——. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.
  • ——. (1916-17a [1915-17]). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. Parts I and II. SE, 15-16.