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Repression is one of the most important Freudian processes, and it is the basis for other ego defenses and neurotic disorders. It is a means of defense through which threatening or painful thoughts or feelings are excluded from awareness. Freud explained repression as an involuntary removal of something from consciousness. Anna Freud called it "motivated forgetting."


Victims of war or other trauma sometimes face experiences that are too overwhelming for them to assimilate into their conscious mind. In order to cope, they must protect themselves from letting the painful experience incapacitate them. The result is that they unconsciously repress the emotion. This emotion may resurface unexpectedly if a similar life event such as an accident or other victimization triggers the repressed memories.

Freudian Dictionary

The infantile ego, under the domination of the external world, disposes of undesirable instinctual demands by means of what are called repressions.[1]

The essence of repression lies simply in the function of rejecting and keeping something out of consciousness.[2]

The theory of repression became the foundation-stone of our understanding of the neuroses .... It is possible to take repression as a centre and to bring all the elements of psychoanalytical theory into relation with it.[3]

Repression takes place in two distinct situations, namely, when an unwelcome instinctual impulse is aroused by an external perception, and when the impulse arises internally without such provocation.[4]

Decisive repressions all occur in early childhood.[5]

Repression ... is, at bottom, an attempt at flight.[6]

The Ego feels a demand from an instinct which it wishes to withstand, because it suspects that satisfaction is dangerous, would evoke a traumatic situation, a' collision with the outer world; but it cannot master it, because it has not yet the strength necessary. The Ego then treats the risk from the instinct as though it were an outside danger, and makes an attempt at flight; it withdraws from that part of the Id, leaving it to its fate, after having refused it all the help which it normally affords to instinctual impulses. We put it, that Ego undertakes a repression of these instinctual impulses. By the act of repression the Ego follows the pleasure principle, which otherwise it is wont to correct, and it suffers harm on this account. The harm consists in the fact that the Ego has now imposed a lasting limitation on its sphere of power. The repressed instinctual impulse is henceforth isolated; it is left to itself and inaccessible, but this means that it cannot be influenced. It goes its own way.[7]

Repression proceeds from the ego, which, possibly at the command of the superego, does not wish to be a party to an instinct cathexis originating in the id. Through repression the ego accomplishes the exclusion from consciousness of the idea which was the carrier of the unwelcome impulse. Analysis frequently demonstrates that the idea has been retained as an unconscious formation.[8]

It is an important element of the theory of repression that this process is not one which takes place on a single occasion but is one demanding a continuous expenditure of effort.[9]

Repression, Ego and

As I understand it, in repression the ego functions under the influence of external reality and therefore excludes the result of the substitutive process from this reality.
The ego controls the entrance into consciousness as well as the passage into activity directed to the environment; in repression it exerts its power at both places. The instinct representative experiences the one, the instinctual impulse itself the other side of the ego's manifestation of authority.[10]

Repression, Ego and Id and

In the case of repression the fact of crucial importance is that the ego is an organized entity, whereas the id is not; in fact, the ego is the organized part of the id. It would be quite unjustifiable to conceive of the ego and the id as if they were two opposing camps-as though through repression the ego were seeking to suppress a part of the id, and that thereupon the rest of the id came to the assistance of the part attacked and measured its strength against that of the ego.[11]

Repression, Primal

The majority of repressions with which we have to do in therapeutic work are instances ot subsequential repression. They presuppose primal repressions of an earlier date which exercise over the more recent situation their gravitative influence.[12]

Repression, Superego and

Now we have posited a special function within the ego to represent the demand for restriction and rejection, i.e. the super-ego, we can say that repression is the work of the super-ego,-either that it does its work on its own account or else that the ego does it in obedience to its orders.[13]

Repression, Tendency to

The tendency to repression ... must be traced back to the organic bases of the character, upon which alone the psychic structure rises.[14]


The concept of repression (French: refoulement) 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.

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

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.

What is it that is repressed? At one point Lacan speaks of the signified as the object of repression,[15] but he soon abandons this view and argues instead that it is always a signifier that is repressed, never a signified.[16] 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. Lacan also takes up Freud's distinction between primal repression and secondary repression:

Primal repression (Ger. Urverdr‰ngung) is the alienation of desire when need is articulated in demand.[17] It is also the unconscious signifying chain.[18] 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."[19]

Lacan does not see primary repression as a specific psychical act, localisable in time, but as a structural feature of language itself - namely, its necessary incompleteness, the impossibility of ever saying "the truth about truth."[20]

Secondary repression (Ger. Verdr‰ngung) 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."

The theory of 'repression' is one of the cornerstones of psychoanalysis.

Repression occurs when impulses, wishes or memories, usually but not always of a sexual nature, that are bound up with the drives, are denied access to the conscious mind by the ego because it regards them as a threat to its integrity or because they offend the ethical standards imposed upon it by the super-ego.

Such impulses and wishes are forced back into the unconscious but almost inevitably find other means of expression by using the mechanisms of condensation and displacement.

The resultant conflict between the respective demands of the ego and the unconscious results in the formation of symptoms, which are a form of substitute sexual satisfaction or wish-fulfilment.

Repression is not a single act which occurs only once, but a continuous application of pressure in the direction of the unconscious.

The theory of repression is the key to the psychoanalytic understanding of neurosis and especially hysteria.

Lacan argues that the triggering of a psychosis is governed by the different and specific process of foreclosure.

Primal Repression

The expression 'primal repression' is used by Freud to refer to a hypothetical process in which the unconscious is constituted through the formation and repression of unconscious ideas and representations.

The result is the lating fixation of the drive to one particular representation.

'Primal' is used here in the sense in which Freud speaks of the primal scene.


The ego's mechanism for suppressing and forgetting its instinctual impulses.


  1. Template:OoPA Ch. 8
  2. Template:Repr
  3. Template:ABS Ch.3
  4. Template:PoA Ch. 2
  5. Template:QLA Ch. 3
  6. Template:PoA Ch. 10
  7. Template:QLA Ch. 3
  8. Template:PoA Ch. 2
  9. Template:PoA Ch. 10
  10. Template:PoA Ch. 2
  11. Template:PoA Ch. 3
  12. Template:PoA Ch. 2
  13. Template:NILP Ch. 3
  14. Template:LDV Ch. 6
  15. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977.} p.55
  16. Template:Sl1 p.218
  17. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.286
  18. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.314
  19. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre XX. Encore, 1972-73. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1975. p.53
  20. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p.868