Repression is a psychological defense mechanism that occurs when a person consistently pushes away a particularly painful or disturbing thought, memory or desire in an attempt to keep his or her mind in a more pleasurable, less anxious state. The phenomenon was first discovered and theorized by the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.
The theory holds that although these painful thoughts are out of the conscious mind, they inevitably remain in the unconscious mind and often lead to psychological problems. In fact, Freud would later call his theory of repression the “cornerstone” on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests.
According to Freud, neurotic behavior can appear when repression develops under one’s superego (the part of the mind that acts as a self-critical conscience due to learned social standards) along with the accompanying internalized anxiety. This might lead to self-destructive or antisocial behaviors.
During therapy, a psychotherapist might try to curb these behaviors by bringing the patient’s repressed thoughts to the conscious mind, essentially lifting the repression. When people are unaware that they are hiding their memories in their subconscious, it is called suppression.
One particularly problematic issue for Freud regarding repression therapy is that he soon discovered that a majority of his patients’ “repressed memories” from childhood turned out to be completely untrue. In fact, more recently, American psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, an expert on human memory, has shown that it is quite possible to implant false memories in people.
Today, most psychiatrists believe that true memory repression is actually quite rare. In fact, there is quite a bit of debate surrounding the possibility of the repression of psychological trauma. Although there is some evidence suggesting that adults who have suffered enormous trauma can experience psychic numbing in which they block out the memory of the event, other research suggests that trauma usually strengthens one’s memory surrounding the painful experience due to the intense emotions.
Example: A child who grew up in an abusive home situation doesn’t remember being beaten but has trouble trusting anyone.