It’s natural to feel strong unwanted impulses every so often, but what you do with those feelings sometimes needs to be addressed. For example, acting on certain impulses can be socially unacceptable in certain situations. Sometimes we — maybe even unconsciously — begin to channel those urges into something we believe is more acceptable.
In psychology, the concept of a sublimation defense mechanism is based on the idea that we unknowingly transform unwanted impulses and aggressive urges into new, harmless, and more appropriate outlets. Some would consider this a healthier coping mechanism compared to projection defense mechanism, displacement defense mechanism, or other unhealthy defense mechanisms.
While some types of defense mechanisms, like denial and repression, can wreak havoc on your life, sublimation provides a positive way to deal with unhealthy emotions and urges. Continue reading to learn more about sublimation as a healthy defense mechanism.
What is Sublimation?
Sublimation is a defense mechanism that redirects energy from an unacceptable impulse or emotion into a more socially acceptable one. It’s seen as a mature form of behavior and is used to cope with difficult situations. The American Psychological Association notes Sigmund Freud first introduced the concept of sublimation in his psychoanalytic theory.
How does sublimation work?
A sublimation defense mechanism works by redirecting negative feelings or impulses into positive ones. For example, someone with anger issues may channel their aggressive urges into sports instead of lashing out at others physically or verbally. This allows them to express their negative feelings constructively while avoiding any potential harm caused by acting out impulsively.
Freud’s theory in psychoanalysis
Freud established that the id, ego, and superego’s psychological defenses help reduce anxiety from harmful impulses or harmful feelings.
Sublimation defense mechanisms allow you to use positive forces, like art, music, sports, or other creative outlets to express your emotions. Often, it can keep you from resorting to violence or other inappropriate behaviors. Ultimately, this defense mechanism lets you manage your mental health and lead a healthier life.
The three components of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory are further explored below:
- The id: This is the first to form and becomes a source of a person’s libido or the energy that drives behavior. It is essential, primitive, and the driving force behind urges and desires — many of which would be socially unacceptable if acted upon.
- The ego: This part of the 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 us better come to terms with our needs.
- The superego: The superego is a part of our personality that’s made up of the internalized morals, rules, and standards we learn throughout life. This part of our personality becomes a driver in how we develop a moral code.
Why Is Sublimation a Successful Defense Mechanism?
Sublimation is successful because it provides an outlet for negative emotions without causing any harm either directly (through physical violence) or indirectly (by damaging relationships). It helps you develop healthier coping skills as you learn how to deal with feelings constructively when faced with challenging circumstances in life.
Furthermore, sublimating emotions can lead to increased self-esteem. It works because you won’t feel ashamed about expressing yourself authentically. Instead, you’ll be proud of finding healthy ways of coping or reacting
“While defense mechanisms happen out of our awareness, sublimation can be particularly useful as it can help to manage challenging or inappropriate feelings and/or impulses and channel them into a more productive action. For example, a feeling of rage and wanting to physically punch someone may turn into cleaning one’s kitchen or going for a long run.”– Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH
Examples of Sublimation
The scenarios below demonstrate how sublimation may be used as a defense mechanism in daily life without even realizing it:
- A person with rage issues can channel their anger into something healthy, like a physical activity such as running or another sport.
- A person with unhealthy sexual urges using creative outlets such as writing/painting/drawing.
- Someone dealing with phobias working to transform fear and emotional stress into courage by facing their fears head-on.
- An office worker may disagree 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 is obsessed with control, they might become a successful accountant or manager to be able to enact control in business.
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 your 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 hidden urges and help you channel them more appropriately.
How to Turn Impulses into Healthy Outlets
You can turn impulses into healthier outlets with careful thought and effort. For example, there’s a connection between sleep and mental health. Getting enough sleep is essential for regulating mood and maintaining a balanced outlook. Exercising regularly also helps, as physical activity releases endorphins (feel-good hormones) throughout the body, making navigating those difficult times in life much easier. Working out also provides a distraction if you need to break away from a stressful environment until a calmer state of mind is achieved.
Other proactive ways to manage impulses include:
- Eating well
- Maintaining a positive social circle with supportive people in your life
- Journaling for mental health
- Figuring out what your triggers are
- Seeking therapy to learn more coping tools
“The more you’re aware of the full range of your thoughts, feelings, reactions, and impulses, the more you can consciously channel these urges into other outlets. Instead of reacting in a way that could be harmful, you can make a choice to manage those thoughts, feelings, and reactions — through movement, reading a book, music, talking with a friend, journaling, grounding exercises like square breathing, watching a favorite tv show — anything that helps you in the moment.”– Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH
Are you struggling with trying to implement a sublimation defense mechanism? Don’t wait any longer to get the help and support you need. Online therapy provides an easy, convenient way for anyone to access professional counseling services from the comfort of their own home. With online therapy, there’s no stigma or shame attached — just compassionate care that can provide effective strategies and solutions tailored specifically to your needs.Take control of your life today and find out how online therapy can help.
Talkspace is an online therapy platform that makes getting the help you need to deal with your urges easy, affordable, and convenient.
- Apa Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. https://dictionary.apa.org/sublimation. Accessed December 21, 2022.