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The concept of repression (French: refoulement) is one of the most basic concepts in psychoanalytic theory, and 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,[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. 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.[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, localisable 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 (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 forclosure.

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. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977.} p.55
  2. Template:Sl1 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