What Is Sublimation Psychology?

By Julia Thomas|Updated June 28, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

The word "sublimation" has an interesting background. The basic meaning of the word is "to change form." In the past, this word meant to improve or raise to a higher status. Today, it's used in chemistry to describe what happens when a solid passes directly into a gas. The sublimation psychology definition is quite different, but it can still be seen as a way of raising to a higher level as in the original definition. Here's what it means in a social psychology context.

thinking about sublimation in regards to psychology

Sublimation - Psychology Definition

For sublimation psychology offers a definition that relates to human urges and behaviors. At some time in their lives, virtually everyone has urges and desires that are socially unacceptable or problematic in other ways. Sublimation is a psychological defense mechanism that an individual may use to channel those unacceptable feelings and urges into something harmless and possibly even productive and beneficial. Sublimation has been a useful component of understanding behavior in social psychology interpersonal psychoanalysis,

Freud's Idea Of Sublimation

In sublimation, Sigmund Freud believed that energy was derived from the desires of the id, particularly sexual urges, being transformed into thoughts and activities that were socially valued. In other words, the instinctual impulses were channeled into non-instinctual pursuits. Freud’s sublimation theory is said to come from a story he’d read about a young man who cut off puppy dog tails and later became a surgeon—the idea of sublimation being that you take an initial impulse that is negative and turn it into something that can have a positive effect.

Although Freud's psychoanalytic theory is far less popular today than it was in Freud's own time, many psychological concepts come from his work. Other aspects of his theories have fallen out of favor, but the idea of defense mechanisms used by the mind for self-protection is still a very influential concept, particularly in social psychology and by those taking a cultural psychological approach.

What Is A Defense Mechanism?

The term "defense mechanism" comes from the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that the human psyche has three components: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id is where the instincts and primitive urges reside. The superego is the part of the psyche that is critical, composed of ideas gained from cultural learning. The ego is the realistic part of the psyche. When the urges of the id conflict with the demands and morals of the superego, the ego typically finds a way to resolve the conflict.

The mind needs a way to hide its internal drives and feelings. Otherwise, they can drastically lower your self-esteem and cause anxiety or depression. Freud's daughter Anna outlined a set of what she called defense mechanisms. These are the processes that the ego uses to resolve the conflicts between the id and superego. These are mental processes that typically happen on the subconscious level. This list included:

  • Repression - the feeling is pushed into the unconscious.
  • Reaction formation - behaving in a way that's opposite of what you're feeling.
  • Projection - you see your unacceptable feelings in others.
  • Denial - you deny that the thing that's upsetting you has happened or that you have the feelings related to it.
  • Regression - you mentally go back to a time in your life when you felt safer or more accepted.
  • Rationalization - you rationalize or make excuses for your feelings and behavior.
  • Intellectualization - you focus on thinking rationally about your feelings and urges to such an extent that you block the emotional content of them.
  • Displacement - you take out your unacceptable feelings on someone or something less threatening than the person or thing that's behind them.
  • And sublimation - you transform "bad" urges into positive and productive activities.

Examples of Sublimation

Discussing sublimation in theoretical terms can provide a basis for a general understanding of what it is. However, it's hard to grasp the idea completely until you can visualize specific examples of how it works. Here are some scenarios where sublimation might come into play.

Anger and Aggression

In most situations, anger and aggression are socially unacceptable, although there are exceptions. While some people do vent their anger often, the consequences often can be extremely negative. To avoid those negative consequences, they may use sublimation to redirect those urges. Here are some examples.

  • Someone has strong urges to cut people. Instead of giving into that aggressive urge, they become a surgeon - a situation where they can cut people and help them rather than harming them.
  • You are extremely angry at someone. Instead of starting an argument with them or doing something harmful to them, you put all your energy into remodeling your house. With every strike of the hammer, you're using the energy of that anger to do something positive.
  • You can't stop thinking about how angry you are with your boss after you were reprimanded at work. Rather than quitting or getting into a shouting match with your boss, you decide to take the long walk to your home after work. By the time you arrive, you're tired, but your anger has decreased substantially.
  • You're so angry that you just feel like punching someone. Instead of punching the first person you see, you go to a gym and sign up for boxing lessons or join a football team, where your aggression can be seen as a positive trait.

Unacceptable Sexual Urges

Sexual urges, of course, aren't always unacceptable. If you're in a relationship, they're considered normal. They could lead to developing a closer bond as well as bringing new life into the world. However, many sexual urges are considered deviant or otherwise harmful. Here are some ways people might sublimate these urges.

  • Say you're going out of town to a convention for your work. You have the urge to cheat on your spouse while you're away. You might channel those energies into learning more about your industry, expanding your network of business associates, or seeing the sights in a new city.
  • You have strong sexual urges that, deep down, you feel are inappropriate. Through sublimation, you transform those sexual impulses into becoming an artist. Your mind protects you from following through with your disturbing urges to protect you from seeing yourself as a sexual deviant.
  • You feel like having sex constantly, but your promiscuousness is putting you at risk of sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy. So, you use that energy in constructive ways that are not necessarily related in content to those urges. For example, you might take up running and start training for a marathon.

Other Distressing Feelings

Sublimation can also help to transform other negative feelings into positive paths. The following examples of sublimation are illustrative of how it works.

  • The person you were in a relationship with leaves you. You're heartbroken. However, instead of being overwhelmed by your sadness and despair, you take up art, writing, gardening, or home decorating to create something beautiful.
  • You've been permanently injured in a car accident. Rather than dwelling on feelings that life is unfair, you become an orthopedic doctor who gives professional medical advice to those who are similarly injured. Thus, you turn your negative feelings into positive action.
  • You feel frustrated at work because you don't have a lot of control over what you do each day. So, you work hard to get a promotion that puts you in a position of power. Or, you go out and start your own business where you're the boss.

Is Sublimation Good or Bad?

Sublimation in psychology is a neutral concept, neither good nor bad. It's just a description of something that can happen to humans. There are two things to remember about defense mechanisms like sublimation. First, they usually happen on the subconscious level. That means you may have little control over them. Second, defense mechanisms falsify reality, either by distorting or transforming your view of what's real.

Although it might seem that having a false sense of reality is to be avoided, it can help you get through your darkest days. In some cases, though, good feelings can be sublimated if they seem too big to endure. So, although sublimation is a positive thing in many cases, there are times when it could rob you of experiencing the ecstatic emotions. Still, Anna Freud and others have classified sublimation as one of the most mature defense mechanisms.

Therapy and Sublimation?

As mentioned above, for most of us, sublimation is something that happens subconsciously – without us being aware of it. As a result, sublimation can be as much a problem as the emotions it is burying. Alternatively, therapists can help you actively use sublimation to help you deal with other issues.

First, you may want to hold onto the energy that's coming from those unacceptable urges. Feelings themselves are never inappropriate as long as you choose appropriate ways of dealing with them. So, it isn't wrong or bad to feel the power of those emotions. Once you know what feelings are behind your behaviors, you can allow yourself to experience those feelings without acting directly on them.

If you have sad feelings, you can recognize that and intentionally choose to write poems or draw pictures that express them. The question is: is this really sublimation? After all, it's happening on a conscious level. And, you're still well-grounded in reality. The truth is that it doesn't matter how you classify these activities. What matters is that you put those energies to work to do something productive rather than destructive. 

On the other hand, if you have strong urges but don’t understand why, therapy or counseling can help you recognize the true feelings or urges behind the sublimation. For instance, you may have a strong desire to paint every waking moment. Yet, you don't know why. By talking to a therapist, you can find out why you have that urge. Then, you can resolve it more completely.

How to Deal With Unacceptable Urges And Feelings

Are you troubled by disturbing urges or distressing emotions? If so, you may be able to find a way to resolve them by putting those energies to a more helpful purpose. You don't have to deny that you have those feelings, but sublimation can help you stay within the bounds of what is socially acceptable and acceptable to you.

However, unless you use sublimation naturally and unconsciously, you may have trouble understanding how to make it work. Or, you may want to choose a different way to deal with the conflict between your urges and your ideals. Fortunately, help is available.

Reaching Out with BetterHelp You can go to a mental health center in your local area to help with managing your urges. If you prefer the comfort and convenience of online therapy, you can talk to a licensed and professional counselor through BetterHelp.

Communication is facilitated by secure video and voice calls as well as private messenger rooms. Scientific research and experimental evidence have shown that online therapy is an effective form of treatment for a range of mental health condition.

While remote help with mental and emotional health is promising, it can also be a tad unsettling if you aren’t used to the idea. Fortunately, people have gone before you and left promising testimonials.

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