Repression (psychoanalysis)

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In psychoanalysis, repression is an assumed psychological defense mechanism by which taboo or threatening facts or ideas would be excluded from conscious perception.

Repression is understood here as an ordinary process that occurs in all people. Other schools of psychology use the term with different definitions and explanations. In some it doesn't matter.

The concept of repression goes back to Sigmund Freud and is considered a central component of psychoanalytic theory.

Due to the high complexity and sometimes vague terminology of the concept, so far only a few possibilities have become known how it could be tested at all using the means of empirical research .

In memory research, doubts predominate as to whether repressed memories exist at all - at least in the case of important events; however, there are also proponents of the theory of displacement.


The psychodynamic aspect of repression says that here mental energy is withdrawn from the objects to which it was previously bound. In this respect, repression is a regressive process in which the existing object occupation is canceled. As a substitute, the mental energy is bound to certain psychological “ complexes ” or to experiences from earlier stages of development.

Repression and forgetting

A distinction is made between ordinary forgetting ( memory ), arbitrary “switching off” and various forms of inhibition ( learning psychology ).

The existence of a displacement phenomenon cannot necessarily be inferred from the observation of different memory performances with regard to negative or positive experiences. To explain such observations, it is sufficient to assume that pleasant memories are recalled more frequently and are therefore less subject to a process of forgetting.

The Forget was a inactive process, which would expire on presentation content, which would unconsciously by the person to be less relevant rated. The contents of consciousness faded with further encoding . They become more abstract and, together with other associated ideas, ultimately form a fused memory trail that cannot be broken down again into details. In learning psychology, the ability to forget details and to form generalized memory traces is an important prerequisite for active learning ability even in old age.

In contrast to memory, repression is seen as an active process that requires constant psychological effort, the so-called repression work . The ideas were preserved under their effect. They did not enter a stream of memory, a generalized memory trail. This inhibits and falsifies the willingness to accept new ideas and consciousness content and hampers the ability to learn in general.

Freud's concept of repression

In Freud's conception of the structure of the psyche, the concept of repression has a fundamental meaning: The repression constitutes an initial division of mental life into the areas of consciousness and the unconscious . Every later repression is made possible and conditioned by a primal repression ” which, as a hypothetical postulate, forms a “ main component of Freud's theory of repression ”: “According to Freud, an idea can only be suppressed if it is attracted by already unconscious content and at the same time by one higher instance (e.g. the ego or the superego ) from an action. "

The drive energy remains in the process of repression and remains with the content that has now become unconscious. It works there as a (complex) attractive moment in contrast to the repulsive, repressive tendency of consciousness. The repressed contents of the psyche are mostly understood by Freudian psychoanalysis as incompatible with those contents of the super-ego that stem from moral education. Often the content repressed under the power of this “censor” is instinctual impulses of the “id”, which are accompanied by negative affects due to the traumatic moral education: fears that result from the educational punishment of the child.

On the historical development of the Freudian concept

In 1895, Freud classified a defensive hysteria and a hysterical mechanism in his contributions to the studies on hysteria , which he later generalized and transformed into the concept of repression. Freud may have obtained the term repression from his teacher Meynert , who in turn could have read it for the first time from the German psychologist Johann Friedrich Herbart (1824).

The following illustrated representation corresponds to Freud's verbal description of defense hysteria, which was made immediately before the development of his concept of repression, and shows his original idea of ​​the origin of unconscious content in the patient.

Psa hy.svg

Associative isolation would create secondary structures of consciousness within the primary consciousness, which would defend against new representations that are not compatible with them.

Note the timing: the incompatible representation is not fended off at the moment in which it is brought up to the person, but later. The representative office must already be in the consciousness when a defense (black arrow) builds up against it.

The incompatible representation is therefore isolated and withdrawn from consciousness (red border). But since it cannot be integrated into the already existing secondary structure, it continues to exist independently in the unconscious and thus forms the unconscious in general. It often leaves only a barely noticeable trace in the primary consciousness.

If the incompatible representation is addressed by the outside world - which usually takes place via an activating association, since the incompatible representation is not conscious (dashed thin lines) - then defenses are immediately re-established, which start from the secondary structure of consciousness and both against each other the activating association as well as against the outside world. The two solid black arrows indicate the defense.

The defense is versatile and skilful, but always has the characteristics of secondary consciousness. That is why the defense is often not logically correct, but rather implausible or disproportionate. It reveals that it is a defense, and thus also that it is directed against something - against the awareness of the incompatible representation.

From this Freud concluded that the supposed ignorance of the hysteric is actually an automatic ignorance , but by no means genuine ignorance. Freud described this process as a " struggle between different motives ". In a person, unconscious considerations would take place, which would ultimately be decided in favor of one side. In more unfavorable, but usually given, cases, the secondary consciousness enters into a compromise that allows it to leave the incompatible representation unconscious despite certain concessions to the outside world. Then, namely, the perception itself is placed in the service of the secondary consciousness. (In another theory, namely in the cognitivist school today, a comparable process is called cognitive dissonance reduction, but theoretically supported differently.)

Finally, therapy can initially approach the incompatible (and at this moment unconscious) representation with urges and appeals via the primary consciousness , in the hope that the patient can overcome the defense under psychological pressure. The defense, according to Freud, is therefore very violently directed against the therapist, who is sometimes perceived as hostile.

The psychological pressure is shown here in blue. It is built up through pressure and various argumentative tricks and aims to ensure that it can only be diminished by the patient if the patient drops his defense and expresses the incompatible representation. In addition to the urge, there is also the possibility of giving tactile suggestions and discussing their effect with the patient so that the results are available later.

It is important that the patient is not pressured to develop hypothetical ideas that he quickly put together, rationalize or lie about. Even if the therapist had an inkling of what incompatible representation it might be, he had to make sure that it was uttered by the patient for the first time, as only then could it be ensured that he was not subject to error.

Historically, the concept of defense hysteria contained for the first time a theoretically and experience-based assumption of unconscious representations. However, it should be emphasized once again that the hysterical forgetting of memories of actual, traumatizing events was only a preliminary working hypothesis by Freud from 1896, which he had replaced with the concept of the Oedipus complex in 1905 at the latest when his Three Essays on Sexual Theory were first published . The first approaches to this can already be found in a letter from Freud to Wilhelm Fließ from 1897, in which the term “Oedipus complex” also appears for the first time.

Of course, the introduction of the Oedipus complex did not completely solve the problem. Only the terms it , I and superego that Freud in the years 1920-23 developed are, to have been fully able to explain the discrepancies that had arisen in connection with Freud's seduction theory, and this would have made incompatible with reality.

In 1915 Freud dedicated a work to the concept of displacement ( Die Verdrängung GW, X). He now distinguished three phases:

  • The primordial repression, which fixes the drive to its unconscious content and provides the basis for later repression,
  • the actual repression (also: “pushing back”), which always occurs again and again and which would be unthinkable without the aforementioned core centering the drive on itself, as well as
  • the return of the repressed , as an expression of the tendency of the repressed to reassert itself in the form of symptoms, dreams or failures.

Critique of the concept of repression

The concept of displacement involves several difficulties. First of all, there is currently no possibility of operationalization that could provide empirical evidence that the human brain actually behaves in any way according to the concept. Some terms on which the theory is based are vaguely defined and can therefore be interpreted in different ways. In addition, when it comes to the case of non-remembering, it is not possible with today's scientific methods to differentiate whether there is no information about this in memory, or whether it is available but not accessible.

In memory psychology, the concept is extremely controversial, and there are increasing doubts as to whether repression even exists. Both assumptions can also be found in relation to mental disorders . In some cases, repression is assumed to be the mechanism for some disorders (e.g. dissociative disorders ). However, other disorders would speak against suppressing negative experiences, such as post-traumatic stress disorder , in which current difficulties result precisely from the inability to forget what has been experienced. Crombag & Merckelbach (1997) take the view that, for example, (sexual) abuse should not be forgotten.

In addition, it has often been pointed out - for more than two decades now - that therapists and the media (e.g. self-help books such as The Courage to Heal by Bass & Davis) themselves could be involved in the creation of pseudo-memories , which are then called " repressed experiences ”. One consequence of these findings was the establishment of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Michael C. Anderson, Kevin N. Ochsner, Brice Kuhl, Jeffrey Cooper, Elaine Robertson, Susan W. Gabrieli, Gary H. Glover, John DE Gabrieli: Neural Systems Underlying the Suppression of Unwanted Memories . In: Science . Vol. 303, Issue 5655, January 9, 2004, pp. 232-235, doi: 10.1126 / science.1089504
  2. Jo-Birger Schmeing, Aram Kehyayan, Henrik Kessler, Anne TA Do Lam, Juergen Fell, Anna-Christine Schmidt, Nikolai Axmacher: Can the Neural Basis of Repression Be Studied in the MRI Scanner? New Insights from Two Free Association Paradigms . In: PLOS ONE April 30, 2013, doi: 10.1371 / journal.pone.0062358
  3. August Piper, Linda Lillevik, Roxanne Kritzer: What's wrong with believing in repression? A review for legal professionals . In: Psychology, Public Policy, and Law , Volume 14, No. 3, 2008, pp. 223-242, doi: 10.1037 / a0014090 .
  4. See on this and the following: Primordial repression and repression. In: Jean Laplanche , Jean-Bertrand Pontalis : The vocabulary of psychoanalysis (= Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch. Wissenschaft. Vol. 7, 1). Volume 1. 6th printing. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1984, ISBN 3-518-27607-7 , p. 578 ff. Or, p. 582 ff.
  5. ^ Matthew Hugh Erdelyi: The unified theory of repression. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Vol. 29, No. 5, 2006, pp. 499-551, doi: 10.1017 / S0140525X06009113 .
  6. Harlene Hayne, Maryanne Garry, Elizabeth F. Loftus: On the continuing lack of scientific evidence for repression. In: Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Vol. 29, No. 5, 2006, pp. 521-522, doi: 10.1017 / S0140525X06319115 .
  7. August Piper, Linda Lillevik, Roxanne Kritzer: What's wrong with believing in repression? A review for legal professionals. In: Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Vol. 14, No. 3, 2008, pp. 223-242, doi: 10.1037 / a0014090 .
  8. Hans FM Crombag, Harald LG Merckelbach: One does not forget abuse. Remembering and suppressing - misdiagnoses and wrong judgments. Verlag Gesundheit, Berlin 1997, ISBN 3-333-01003-8 .
  9. ^ Elizabeth F. Loftus: The reality of repressed memories. In: American Psychologist Vol. 48, No. 5, 1993, pp. 518-537, doi: 10.1037 / 0003-066X.48.5.518 .
  10. Joseph de Rivera: The construction of False Memory Syndrome: The Experience of Retractors. In: Psychological Inquiry. Volume 8, No. 4, 1997, pp. 271-292, doi : 10.1207 / s15327965pli0804_1 .
  11. ^ Memory and Reality .