Critical Concepts

Some examples of category error concerning the psychological concept of "repression"


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There follow several examples of sentences from student papers that exhibit conceptual confusions about the psychological concept of "repression."  (These appear in bold italic green font.)  Each is followed by some commentary pointing out how the phrasing ends up committing the writer to a category violation.  When you have finished thinking your way through this memo, you should have a pretty good grasp of the "logic" of the concept of repression:  what its relationship is with other concepts that it connects with in the overall notion of "unconscious" phenomena.  Among these concepts are:  the agent of the repression, the subject of the repression, the object (or target) of the repression, the motive(s) of the repression, conditions behind the motivation of the repression.

The story involves the protagonist's repression of his subconscious with the outside world.

Two problems here: 

(1) The outside world is not something that is exploited as a means for carrying through repression.

(2) It is not the subconscious that gets repressed.  (It is not the object of the act of repression.  The object of repression is such stuff as wishes, feelings, fantasies.)  Rather, the work of repression is to relegate wishes, feelings, fantasies to the subconscious.  Or:  the subconscious is "where" that which gets repressed ends up.

In both stories the main characters were faced with repression.

The misleading idiom here is not just a problem with word choice. It's a sign that some work remains to be done in the way of conceptual clarification. The phrase "[they] were faced with repression" implies that repression was something that was done to or imposed upon them by some external force beyond their control - as if we were dealing here with (say) police repression or political oppression, or the (social) repression of a woman by her husband.  But the topic here is psychological repression, which is something that a person carries through upon or "within" himself or herself.

Of course external circumstances beyond the person's control (or mistakenly regarded as such) can motivate such repression. But such repression is not itself to be found among external circumstances. As a psychological phenomenon, it is "internal." Hence one can't be "faced with" it.

Can the idea of "being faced with" something unpleasant have any intelligible application in connection with the concept of psychological repression? Indeed it can.

Repression is one possible response to something unpleasant. For example, if a person is confronted with a fact about himself that he finds unbearably shameful (a discreditable wish, a degrading fantasy, an embarrassing physical feature), one option is to banish it from awareness, to pretend that it doesn't exist. This may require a great deal of energy - of misinterpretation, of distraction - and even so will not succeed in actually ridding the self of the element in question. The most that will be accomplished is to disguise the continued presence (in the body, in the subconscious) of the unacceptable fact. And if what we are avoiding awareness of is our wishes, fears, anger, etc., and the fantasies based on them, then - so goes the theory - these will still be active in influencing our behavior and our conscious feelings & fantasies in ways we will be driven to devise "acceptable" but false explanations for.

Our feelings may seem puzzling, our fantasies nonsensical. But at least they will appear innocent. We will find "reasons" for what we do, but these will be rationalizations.

In all this, though, it is not that one is "confronted with" repression. Rather, repression is a strategy that one adopts to cope (or, if you prefer, to avoid coping with) something one is "faced with."

She held in her repressions but in the end flickers back to her memories.

Repression itself is a form of "holding in," not something that gets "held in."

She clarifies her repression by realizing she has a right to freedom.

To "clarify one's repression" would be something like becoming aware of the tactics or devices by which one accomplishes one's various repressions.

She expresses her repressions by hurting others around her.

Symptoms are expressions of what underlies them, and repression is one of the factors that leads to certain kinds of symptoms. Still, the sentence here doesn't come off, conceptually.

We could work around this conceptual glitch by asking, say, "What exactly is it that she is expressing by hurting others around her?" or (something somewhat different) "What exactly is it that she is expressing in ways that end up hurting others around her?"

A person might (in answer to the first) be expressing his resentment towards his mother by insulting his teacher.

Or (in answer to the first) a person might be expressing his need for admiration from his friends by showing off in ways that leave them feeling incompetent and diminished.

In either of these sorts of cases, repression might be at work (or it might not). The agent might be so ashamed of the idea that he would resent his mother, or that he would be in desperate need of her friends' attention, that he managed to disguise this fact from himself.  And the fact that these feelings were repressed might either intensify their disguised repression or at least render the agent unable to recognize the inappropriateness of his "transferred" behavior towards these innocent others and so take steps to prevent it.  If this were so, then it would make sense to say that his repression of these feelings contributed something of its own to the injuries wrought.

But this injurious behavior would be an expression of his repressed feelings, not "of his repression."

The targets of the protagonist's repression lie in her situation and the facts of the scene in which she finds herself.  [The sentence is from an essay on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper," in which the protagonist-narrator gradually begins to experience hallucinations in connection with the wallpaper of the room to which she has been confined for recovery from a mysterious psychological ailment that has befallen her after the birth of a child.]

Note that this way of putting things supposes that the things she sees are objective in the first place.  But fairly early in the story (by when?) she starts experiencing things in the wallpaper that we are bound to take as her projection upon it.

The "target" of a repression is what the repression works upon, what gets repressed (or what the person at least seeks to repress).  Hence this can't be the wallpaper itself.  Nor can it be what the protagonist consciously sees or things she sees in the wallpaper.  It will be, rather, what her visions are projections of, in her.  These will be properties of herself (wishes or fears, fantasies motivated by these wishes or fears) that, insofar as she has repressed them, are not something that she recognizes for what they are.  Her conscious fantasies (which as it happens she takes as perceptions) express these, but in a form so disguised to her that they seem, to her, something else (in this case, properties of the wall or wallpaper).  To identify the target of her repressions then, we need to "decode" her conscious experiences of the things going on with the wallpaper into an account of things really going on in her.

After this (but only after) are we in a position to push the inquiry to the next stage, and explore what motives there might be for her denying to herself that she really has these particular wishes, fears, and/or fantasies.

The character's repressions are motivated by internal, rather than external, factors.

Psychological repression -- as distinct from various forms of social repression (whether by the police or more informally, by neighbors and friends) -- is carried through internally.  It is the subject of the repression himself who is its agent:  that is, it is he who carries it through upon himself.  In general terms the motive is to alleviate what would otherwise be a painful internal conflict by denying (but actually only removing from consciousness) the reality of one of the "sides" that would constitute that conflict.  Typically the side of the conflict that gets repressed is a wish or fear (with its attendant fantasies) that (1) truly belongs to the person carrying through the repression but that (2) is inconsistent with other facts -- commitments, ideals -- that the person wants to continue to believe are unequivocally "properties of" himself.  But these latter properties -- which we could call "virtues" -- are principles of self-respect that the person has "internalized" from the social world in which he lives.

The action of repression is therefore always internal.  Its proximate motivation is always internal (avoidance of painful conflict -- i.e., shame and/or guilt.  But its ultimate condition must be sought externally:  in society.

His death was brought on by a mysterious illness, which I believe was unhappiness.

This example doesn't involve the concept of repression, but it does evince a confusion connected with a couple of important general causal notions that play a role in the larger complex of ideas within which the idea of repression functions, namely the concepts of symptom and underlying condition.

It doesn't make sense to treat unhappiness as an illness.  There are two distinct reasons for this. 

(1) Stress, anxiety, grief -- specific kinds of unhappiness -- might be the causes of certain illness.  (We call such illnesses "psychosomatic.")  And of course many illnesses (cancers, to take just one broad class of example) are the cause of unhappiness.  (Suffering of various sorts is in other words one of their symptoms).  But it is a logical confusion to identify unhappiness as an illness.

(2) Healthy people can be unhappy, as when they are the victims of disaster (for example the death of a child) or when they suffer appropriate guilt for a wrong they have done.

  Check out the analogy Freud used to explain to his first American audience the ideas of consciousness, censorship, repression, the unconscious, the return of the repressed, and various the expressions of the latter (neurotic symptoms, parapraxes ["slips" of the tongue, etc.), and the manifest content of dreams.

  Check out the parable Freud used to explain the alternatives to repression.

  Even if one believes in the existence of an unconscious resulting from motivated repression, the concept of self-deception per se is more general than this.  Since it is a quite prevalent factor in human affairs, and since so many interesting -- and sometimes disastrous -- behaviors result from it, it has exercised the attention of philosohers and of psychologists outside the psychoanalytic tradition -- and, of course, of fiction writers, poets and dramatists.

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      Contents copyright 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

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      This page last updated 28 January 1999.