What Is Sublimation In Psychology?

Updated November 28, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The basic meaning of the word "sublimation" is "to change form". In psychology, sublimation is a technique used to channel socially unacceptable behaviors or impulses into positive or at least socially acceptable actions. Depending on the situation, it may be a mature and healthy way of handling troublesome urges.

The Psychological Definition Of Sublimation

From time to time, everyone feels urges or impulses that could be considered socially unacceptable or problematic to act on. Sublimation is a psychological defense mechanism we may use to channel those feelings and inclinations into something acceptable and even beneficial. Sublimation has been a useful component in understanding behavior in social psychology and interpersonal psychoanalysis.

thinking about sublimation in regards to psychology

Sublimation Can Help You Manage Your Emotions

What Are Psychological Defense Mechanisms?

The term "defense mechanism" comes from Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. He believed that the human psyche has three components: the id, the ego, and the superego. The id consists of our primitive and most basic urges. The superego is the part that’s rational and composed of ideas gained from cultural norms. The ego is the realistic part. 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.

Psychoanalyst Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud's daughter, then outlined a list of what she called “defense mechanisms”. She identified them as the processes that our egos may use to resolve the conflicts between the id and superego. They’re mental shifts that typically happen on a subconscious level. Some defense mechanisms include:

  • Repression, when a feeling is pushed into our unconscious.

  • Reaction formation, when we behave in a way that's the opposite of what we’re feeling.

  • Projection, when we see our unacceptable feelings in others.

  • Denial, when we deny that the thing that's upsetting us has happened, or that we have feelings related to it.

  • Regression, when we mentally go back to a time in our life when we felt safer or more accepted.

  • Rationalization, when we rationalize or make excuses for our feelings or behavior.

  • Intellectualization, when we focus on thinking rationally about our feelings and urges to such an extent that we block the emotional content.

  • Displacement, when we take out our unacceptable feelings on someone or something less threatening than the person or thing that caused them.

  • And sublimation, when we transform "unacceptable" urges into acceptable or even productive activities.

Examples Of Sublimation

So what does sublimation look like in practice? There are many different examples of how it may be used to transform various types of potentially problematic impulses.

Anger And Aggression

Expressing anger too frequently or in an extreme or harmful way will likely have negative consequences for our relationships or reputation. To avoid negative outcomes, we can use sublimation to redirect those urges. For instance:

  • A person is angry with their neighbor. Instead of giving in to the impulse to pick a fight or yell at them, they may channel this angry energy into a home improvement project. With every strike of the hammer or lap of the lawnmower, they’re using the power of the anger to avoid doing something they’ll regret and to do something positive instead.

  • A person can’t stop thinking about how angry they are with their boss after they were reprimanded by them at work. Rather than quitting on the spot or saying something they’d regret, they decide to take the long walk home instead of the train. By the time they arrive, their anger has decreased substantially and they have a calmer perspective on the situation—plus, they got some exercise.

  • A person is so angry that they feel the urge to express physical aggression. Instead of punching a wall, they go to a gym and sign up for boxing lessons where their aggression can be channeled into fitness.

Sexual Urges

Of course, sexual urges are a natural part of life for most humans. However, there are certain times, places, or situations where acting on a sexual impulse would be inappropriate, unacceptable, or even harmful to others. Here are some examples of how someone might sublimate such urges:

  • A person is going out of town to a work convention and has the urge to cheat on their spouse with a colleague. They might channel that energy into expanding their professional circle and focusing on networking instead, which can get them away from the colleague and potentially bring them career benefits.

  • A person’s sexual energy for their long-distance partner or unrequited love is distracting them from their responsibilities. They might take up poetry to express their desire, or some form of dance to express that energy.

Sadness Or Frustration

Sublimation can also help to transform other negative feelings into the first steps on a positive path. The following examples of sublimation illustrate how this might work:

  • A person is experiencing grief from a breakup or a friendship that ended. Instead of giving in to their impulse to stay in bed for weeks, they might join a volunteer organization to channel their pain into doing something good for others.

  • A person feels frustrated at work because they don’t have much control over what they do, or they feel their boss treats them unfairly. Instead of checking out, they might channel their frustration into searching for a new job, working toward a promotion to a more powerful position, or even starting their own business.

Is Sublimation Good Or Bad?

Defense mechanisms typically aren't inherently good or bad. The distinction comes in based on how they affect our lives. In general, redirecting the energy from impulses that could be harmful is a good thing because it can benefit both the individual and those around them. However, it’s important to note that redirecting may cause its own problems, too. Constantly rerouting frequent feelings of anger can defend you from harming yourself, others, or your relationships, but it won’t help you get to the root of why you’re so often feeling this way. Or, consider the act of funneling frustration, sadness, or stress into exercise. While building an exercise routine can be highly beneficial to your mental and physical health, overdoing it can lead to the opposite effects: injury, obsessiveness, or even neglect of other areas of life.

Getting Help Controlling Impulses

The ability to control our impulses is what allows us to function well together in relationships and as a society. For our own well-being, though, it’s best to do this in a healthy way. This is where the guidance of a mental health professional may be useful. For instance, a therapist can help you examine where potentially problematic impulses may be coming from and craft strategies for sublimation or other ways to handle them. If certain impulses are causing symptoms of anxiety or depression, they may be able to help you identify and manage those as well.

For those who feel more comfortable meeting with a therapist virtually, online therapy is an available option. Research suggests that this therapy format offers a viable alternative to in-person sessions, so it may appeal to those who prefer its accessibility and convenience. With a virtual therapy service like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can speak with via phone call, video call, and/or chat to address the challenges you may be facing. 

Sublimation Can Help You Manage Your Emotions

Takeaway

Sublimation is the act of taking an urge or whim that may be considered socially unacceptable and using that energy to do something unharmful or even productive. It can be a useful psychological technique. If you’re interested in getting help with handling your own impulses, meeting with a therapist may be useful.

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