What is Sublimation?

Published on: 27 Nov 2020

It is natural to feel strong urges and drives every so often — but it is what a person does with those feelings that can change how they are expressed. Acting on your urges may be socially unacceptable in certain situations, leading a person to unconsciously channel those urges into more acceptable modes of behavior. In psychology, the concept of sublimation posits that people unknowingly create and use defense mechanisms to transform unwanted impulses into new, harmless, and more appropriate outlets.

Definition of Sublimation

According to the American Psychological Association, sublimation is defined as a facet of classical psychoanalytic theory in which “unacceptable sexual or aggressive drives are unconsciously channeled into socially acceptable modes of expression and redirected into new, learned behaviors, which indirectly provide some satisfaction for the original drives.” 

Some examples that bring sublimation to life are a person’s exhibitionistic impulse gaining a new outlet through dance choreography, and a person’s dangerously aggressive drive that is appropriately expressed on the football field. These socially acceptable outlets protect individuals from the anxiety caused by the original, inappropriate drives.

Defense Mechanisms and Sublimation 

A core aspect of sublimation is how defense mechanisms are created. Defense mechanisms are the behaviors people use to separate themselves from unpleasant urges, actions, or thoughts. They serve as an important psychological strategy that helps a person put distance between themselves and their unwanted feelings. Defense mechanisms are a normal, natural part of an individual’s psychological development. While they are not under a person’s conscious control, they can help an individual better understand themself and use healthier coping strategies.

There are many different types of defense mechanisms and some are more common than others. Because a person does not have conscious control over them, it is not possible to decide when and how you use a defense mechanism. The most common types of defense mechanisms include:

  • Denial: Denial occurs when a person refuses to accept reality or facts to avoid painful feelings or events. It is among the most widely known defense mechanisms. 
  • Identification with an aggressor: Identification with an aggressor involves a victim adopting a behavior of a person who is more powerful and hostile towards them.
  • Repression: Repression occurs when painful thoughts upset a person; they then may unconsciously choose to avoid those thoughts in the hope of forgetting them. 
  • Projection: If certain thoughts about another person make an individual uncomfortable, they may misattribute those thoughts to the other person to protect themselves.
  • Displacement: This is the act of directing strong emotions toward an object or person that isn’t as threatening.
  • Regression: When feeling threatened or anxious, a person may unknowingly revert back to an earlier stage of their personal development. 
  • Rationalization: Some may use their own set of “facts” or excuses to explain certain undesirable behaviors. 
  • Sublimation: Sublimation is considered a positive coping strategy. Itentails redirecting strong emotions into an object or activity that is safe and more socially appropriate. 
  • Reaction formation: Some people may be able to recognize how they feel and choose to behave in a manner opposite of their instincts. 
  • Compartmentalization: Compartmentalization refers to walling off and separating conflicting ideas, emotions, values, or beliefs in order to allow them to coexist without creating a uncomfortable sense of cognitive dissonance.
  • Intellectualization: When a difficult situation comes up, a person may try to remove all emotion from their response and focus more on quantitative facts. 

How Sublimation in Psychoanalysis Works

First developed by Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalytic theory behind sublimation (and defense mechanisms) sees personality as primarily comprising three components: id, ego, and super ego. These unconscious psychological defenses help a person reduce anxiety from socially unacceptable sexual impulses or other harmful feelings. 

The three components of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory are further explored below:

  • The id: This is first to form and becomes a source of a person’s libido or the energy that drives a person’s behavior. It is basic, primitive, and is the driving force behind a person’s urges and desires — many of which would be socially unacceptable if acted upon.
  • The ego: This part of a person’s personality develops later in childhood. It reigns in the id, forcing it to conform to societal norms. Desires and urges are channeled into more acceptable outlets to help a person better come to terms with those needs.
  • The superego: This is a part of an individual’s personality that is made up of the internalized morals, rules and standards a person has learnt throughout their life. This part of personality becomes a driver in a person developing a moral code.

Sublimation is a way for the ego to reduce anxiety created by socially unacceptable feelings or desires. Sublimation channels negative feelings and them into more positive and socially acceptable actions — something Sigmund Freud considered a sign of maturity allowing us to express our impulses via behaviors that were more positive and productive. 

Sublimation Examples in The Real World

The scenarios below demonstrate how sublimation may be used as a defense mechanism in daily life without even realizing it:

  • An office worker may have a disagreement with their manager and choose to walk home from work to expel their pent-up frustration and anger from the day. While they may be tired when they get home, the negative and aggressive feelings will have subsided. 
  • An individual who goes through a terrible heartbreak may start to write and compose poetry, channeling that pain into art, rather than turning to harmful coping mechanisms like alcohol to ease the pain and depression.
  • If a person has aggressive and violent tendencies, they may take up sports to find a more socially acceptable way to channel their aggression and anger.
  • An adult who was abused as a child may become a law-enforcement professional, enabling them to enforce rules and express their aggression and pain by taking on “the bad guys.”
  • If an individual has an obsession with control, they might become a successful accountant or manager. 

While sublimation happens at an unconscious level, there are ways to consciously and mindfully channel unwanted, negative impulses into positive actions that can actually benefit a person’s physical and mental health. Sometimes simply being aware of your impulses and desires can help you redirect them in healthier ways. A licensed therapist can also help you discover these hidden urges and help you channel them more appropriately.

Impact of Sublimation

Sublimation can play a positive role in a person’s life. While not always obvious because it works on a subconscious level, sublimation is considered a healthy way to deal with unwanted urges and desires, such as aggression and strong sexual impulses. This defense mechanism can help a person move away from actions that can cause them reputational harm or hurt around them, and ultimately, it can have a positive effect on their physical and mental health, as well as relationships with others. 

Although a person may use defense mechanisms to protect themselves, they might be unaware of the underlying reasoning behind these actions. Fortunately, defense mechanisms are a natural part of an individual’s psychological development, and sublimation can in fact substitute healthier behaviors for more harmful ones. 

Therapy can also help you better recognize the true feelings and urges behind sublimation. It can help you uncover unconscious emotions and desires, as well as clarify how you might use sublimation as a strategy to deal with other negative emotions and issues. With online therapy with Talkspace, you can start therapy as soon as today. 

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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