It is a kind of negative magic which by means of a motor symbolism would "blow away," as it were, not the consequences of an event (an impression, an experience), but the event itself .... The effort at "undoing" finds its reflection in the normal sphere in the resolve to treat an occurrence as non arrivé; but in this case one does not take up arms against it, one is simply not concerned about either the occurrence or its consequences; whereas in neurosis the attempt is made to abrogate the past itself, to repress it by motor means. An effort of the same sort may provide the explanation of the compulsion to repetition so frequently present in neurosis, a repetition in the carrying out of which various mutually contradictory purposes are commingled .... The striving to "undo" a traumatic experience is often revealed as a motive force of the first rank in the creating of symptoms.
The mechanism of undoing is characteristic of obsessional neurosis, along with isolation. It involves a process of "negative magic" that, according to Freud, tends to undo what has been done. When an action is undone by a second action, it is as if neither had occurred, whereas in reality both have taken place.
In a letter to Fliess written on December 22, 1897, Freud already foresees what he defines at that time as the ambiguity or imprecise meaning characteristic of obsessional neurosis. He would later describe this as an action that occurs in a second moment, and which seeks to undo an action that precedes it. "Obsessional ideas are often clothed in a remarkable verbal vagueness in order to permit of this multiple employment" (1950a, p. 273).
In the "Rat Man" (1909d), Freud describes compulsive acts as unfolding in two moments, during which the first is undone by the second. According to him in obsessional thought "the patient's consciousness naturally misunderstands them [the compulsive acts] and puts forward a set of secondary motives to account for them—rationalizes them, in short" (p. 192). In reality there is an opposition between love and hate. In Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926d), he defines more specifically the "magical" nature of this defense that "no longer [has] any resemblance to the process of 'repression"' (p. 164). Thus the obsessive ceremony strives not only to prevent the appearance of an event but to undo it, which is irrational and magical and most likely arises from an animist attitude toward the environment. Anna Freud (1936) included undoing in her repertory of ego defenses.
The concept of undoing has today acquired a certain psychological connotation. It is often confused with the concept of ambivalent behavior or attitude. It is probably also necessary to distinguish it, because of the "magical" character of the defense, from the series of mechanisms discovered by Freud—repression, foreclosure, negation (or denegation), disavowal (or denial)—a series that is commonly referred to today as the work of negativization.
- Freud, Anna. (1909d). Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis. SE, 10: 155-249.
- ——. (1936). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence. London: Hogarth Press; New York: International Universities Press, 1966.
- ——. (1950a [1887-1902]). Extracts from the Fliess papers. SE, 1: 173-280.