sublimation defense mechanism

The Sublimation Defense Mechanism

It’s common to experience unwanted urges and negative impulses, even in happy relationships. The truly important thing is how we deal with these negative thoughts and impulses, and whether or not we act on them. The sublimation defense mechanism provides us with a way to deal with these impulses in a way that is healthy, socially acceptable, and will help keep our relationships intact.

What are Defense Mechanisms?

The concept of defense mechanisms was first developed by Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter. She explained them as “unconscious resources used by the ego to decrease internal stress.”

She explained that when people experience conflict between their superego and id, they may use defense mechanisms to reduce this conflict. This process typically happens unconsciously and may result in either healthy or unhealthy consequences, depending on the defense mechanism. When the sublimation defense mechanism is used, the results are usually healthy.

The “Good” Defense

The sublimation defense mechanism is often seen as the “good” defense in psychological and popular thinking. By definition, sublimation represents a creative, healthy, and socially acceptable way of expressing internal conflicts. Originally, Freud stated that sublimation was the expression of more primitive impulses into a socially acceptable form. For example, homicidal impulses can be acted out symbolically by becoming a lawyer and “slaying” his or her enemies in the courtroom. Another example would be the dentist sublimating sadistic impulses through working on others’ teeth and gums.

Psychologically Healthy and Socially Beneficial

Sublimation has been considered the “healthiest” of the defenses for resolving internal conflict, as it discharges energy instead of changing it into something different. For example, the dentist is discharging the sadistic impulses through sublimation whereas if he or she were to have to deny the feeling, a lot of wasted energy would be put into this process. The sublimation defense mechanism is also considered a creative or useful way of expressing problematic impulses or conflicts; in fact, they are considered socially useful and perhaps most importantly, artistically meaningful. For these reasons, Freud considered this defense mechanism to be more elevated and productive than introjection, denial, projection, or repression.

A darker way of looking at sublimation, however, is that we do not divest ourselves of infantile strivings, but rather learn to manage them in better or worse ways.

Couples Counseling in Orange County From Jennifer De Francisco

In the same way that dentists and lawyers may sublimate negative thoughts and feelings, we sometimes do the same in our relationships. You may feel the urge to cheat on your partner, but instead, channel those negative feelings into an intense workout. This is great because you avoid hurting your partner, but are you truly dealing with these feelings and the cause of them? Although the sublimation defense mechanism can be positive, couples counseling can also help you and your partner deal with and work through sublimated feelings and impulses, so that they can truly be resolved.

Couples counseling is typically associated with couples in danger of breaking up or divorcing, but counseling is always helpful, even in stable relationships. It helps couples learn how to communicate effectively and how to better work together to solve problems, among many other benefits.

Jennifer De Francisco, MPA, MSW, LCSW, offers couples counseling in Orange County, CA for couples at any stage in their relationship. Her approach provides a safe environment to open and honestly share thoughts and emotions. Through developing a positive, therapeutic relationship, you and your partner can interpret what is going on, both in your life and in the session, creating a better awareness within your relationship. Contact Jennifer De Francisco by calling (949) 251-8787 or make an appointment online.


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