Understanding Repression Psychology
Updated October 22, 2018
Reviewer Michelle Lind
The straight definition of repression is when a person does not acknowledge or act upon a painful or troubling thought or feeling about some event that has happened to them in the past. The individual does this unknowingly and does not even recognize that the event ever took place. His or her mind wants to pretend it never happened because it was a traumatizing event. Repression has been suggested as "motivated forgetting" where the active but unconscious mind "stores away" unwanted thoughts, memories, emotions, ideas.
The concept of repression has been debated for years, and there are many arguments on both sides. Some research findings suggest that people are more motivated to forget trauma intentionally than to repress it. It has been contended that repression is a multidimensional component comprised of memory, pathogenic effects, and unconsciousness. Memories of traumatic experiences often overwhelm many people and motivate unintentional forgetting.
As a result, individuals experience a type of "amnesia" to deal with the traumatic experience. Pathogenic effects focus on the distortions of memories protect the individual's wellbeing. Inhibiting emotions are beneficial to an individual's psychological and overall wellness in the short term. An individual's unconsciousness is a powerful cognitive system that protects an individual's wellbeing controlling the pathogenic effects of repression.
Repression is used by the brain as a psychological defense mechanism to protect itself. To understand repression, it is important to understand what defense mechanisms are.
Repression: Defense Mechanism
Repression was the first defense mechanism that Freud discovered. Also, most experts consider repression the most important defense mechanism. Although Freud considered it an important theory, he also considered repression not a very successful defense mechanism for long term usage (the individual does not really have a choice whether to use it or not) because it creates undesirable feelings such as anxiety or anger due to thoughts and memories being pushed into the unconscious part of the mind.
Freud defined defense mechanisms as "psychological strategies that are unconsciously used to protect a person from anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings." He explained that we use defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from certain feelings such as guilt or anxiety. These feelings occur when we start to feel threatened because different parts of our brain become too demanding of other parts of our brain. Freud believed that these feelings are not under our control.
Without going into much more detail, let's just understand that different parts of our brain use defense mechanisms to deal with problems, but mainly to eliminate anxiety, guilt, i.e., negative feelings. There are over six kinds of defense mechanisms.
As a defense mechanism, using repression often helps the brain (temporarily) remain in a more "joyous" or positive state. This concept was first surmised to be a defense mechanism by Sigmund Freud.
Freud's Development of Repression
Although in later years, Freud eventually reached the conclusion that repression was a voluntary suppression of unwanted memories from conscious awareness, more recent research concluded that an individual's neural systems within the brain control repression.
In his earlier years, Freud's theory was that these memories are repressed out of the conscious mind but remain in the unconscious mind. Freud believed that the unconscious mind blocked the impulses because they were viewed as harmful and disruptive to the person's mental well-being. Even though they were being "blocked", while they were in the unconscious mind psychological problems would begin to occur.
Freud believed that neurotic behavior would begin to appear when repression developed under an individual's superego. The superego is the basically considered the conscience of the mind. Along with neurotic behavior, anxiety can begin to occur and eventually these occurrences can lead to self-destructive behaviors. A therapist might try to solve these problems extracting the patient's repressed memories to his or her conscious mind. If this is successful, the repression of the memories will be removed.
One problem that Freud later found about his theory of repression was that he discovered many of his patients' repressed memories that they had experienced in childhood turned out to be untrue. Elizabeth Loftus, renowned American psychologist, recently proved that it is quite possible to successfully implant false memories in people.
As a result, many psychologists and psychiatrists think that the existence of memory repression is very rare. One side of the debate suggests that people who have suffered horrendous trauma experience repression, therefore, blocking out the memory altogether. The other side of the debate believes that trauma strengthens an individual's memory of the painful experience. They believe this vividness is because of the intensity of the emotions the individual experienced during the event.
Repression is often confused with denial. However, while denial relates to external stimuli, repression relates to internal, or mental, stimuli. So, denial and repression often work together and may be difficult to differentiate from each other
Although further research has proved otherwise, skeptics believe that individuals who tend toward using repression to cope distort information or reach false conclusions. In many cases, it has also been hypothesized that repressed individuals have trouble retrieving the specific occurrences of horrendous events, such as child abuse but experience symptoms indicative of abuse. The people who repress memories have more difficulty retrieving memories than those who use other mechanisms.
At the neurobiological level, the hippocampus activates successful memory recollection of experiences or events. In order to suppress these memories, the lateral prefrontal cortex must disengage the hippocampal activation. During research of MRI scans during memory transfer, the results indicated that the control mechanisms in the prefrontal cortex reduced the hippocampal activation, which in turn inhibited memory recall. Momentary interruptions of intrusive memory recall triggered the executive control to override retrieval of unwanted memories.
Eventual conclusions determined the theory that a neurobiological representation of memory helps people to control their memories to adjust their cognitive assessments of traumatic events.
Further conclusions partially determined that cognitive neuroscience research suggested that the amygdala enhances emotional memories. The retrieval of memories increases the neural activity in the amygdala as well as the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. Interconnection of the functional activity in these neural structures during the retrieval process triggers the recollection of memories. The amygdala does not store unwanted memories but stimulates other neural networks to retrieve these memories to be experienced again. The intertwined activities of these neural networks elicit a state like the original experience.
So, emotions do play an integral part in altering memory recall during the retrieval stage. From a neurobiological perspective, the neural networks associated with emotion affect how a person remembers an unpleasant event.
Repression vs. Suppression
It is important to point out that two defense mechanisms are often confused. Repression and suppression are often interchanged or used as synonyms which is incorrect usage of the terms. As defined above, repression is when the memories are not even recognized, and the individual may believe that the event never took place. His or her mind wants to pretend it never happened because it was such a traumatizing event.
Suppression, on the other hand, is a conscious effort to hide or pretend an individual's feelings, thoughts, and desires don't exist. The individual is aware of the feeling, thought, or desire and is trying to remove focus from it. To remove focus from it, the individual decides to not think about it or act on it. The reasons why an individual suppresses a feeling thought, or desire is because it is inappropriate, the timing is wrong, or for some other reason.
The main difference between repression and suppression is that while suppression denies desires, etc. at conscious level, the repression involves denying memories at the subconscious level. In suppression, the individual is aware of those impulses, but in repression, the individual might not even be aware of what is happening. Throughout psychology, and when speaking of defense mechanisms, repression is more frequently used because it involves the subconscious mind.
While suppression can lead to feelings of conflict and anger, repression impulses lead to much worse repercussions. This happens because what the individual has suppressed can be retrieved and dealt with. However, what the other individual has repressed and is not aware of cannot be easily remedied and it can lead to many problems as mentioned above.
Common consequences of suppression could involve hurt and anger. However, repression might cause more serious forms of hurt and anger that are much more difficult to deal with in an effective manner. For example, by acknowledging the suppressed emotion of anger, one can deal with it effectively by maybe talking it out with the person who caused the anger, or by meditating; but repressed anger can take on a general and primitive form of bitterness and resentment towards a person without the knowledge of why it is happening. Thus, you start resenting a person based on a small argument (perhaps), and thereby shut all the gates to a mature dialog.
Also, suppression is considered a more overall positive defense mechanism. This is because it involves acting in a manner that is more socially acceptable. However, repression is a more negative defense mechanism because it can lead to several serious consequences and is less socially acceptable.
An individual need to make a conscious effort to allow him or herself to feel emotions as they occur without suppressing or repressing them so that they do not lead to psychological problems in the future.
Repression in Contemporary Psychology
Contemporary psychologists often use "repression" when referring to repressed memories. Repressed memories are considered life incidents that the individual cannot remember or recall without the assistance of the therapist. The therapist might employ therapeutic tools such as hypnosis. Therapy for repressed memories as mentioned above, is an extremely controversial subject.
During the late 20th century, therapists often used hypnosis to help people remember specific incidents of sexual abuse. In some of the cases, the sexual abuse turned out to have never happened. Further research determined that people are highly suggestible while under hypnosis. Findings indicated that in some cases of the hypnosis, the therapists could have possibly and inadvertently suggested memories to the hypnotized individuals that never actually occurred.
As mentioned above, psychologists now argue that repressed memories are uncommon, and many clinicians argue further that once a memory is lost it cannot be recovered.
Freudian slips," or parapraxis, can be thought of as examples of repression. Freud believed that errors in speech, memory, or physical reactions were the result of something hidden in the offender's unconscious.
One example of repression is what is called a "Freudian slip" or parapraxis. Freud believed that any errors in memory, speech, or physical reactions were the result of something hidden in an individual's unconscious.
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