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According to the classical psychoanalytic theory formulated by Sigmund Freud, the basic defence mechanism that excludes painful experiences and unacceptable impulses from consciousness. Repression operates on an unconscious level as a protection against anxiety produced by objectionable sexual wishes, feelings of hostility, and ego-threatening experiences and memories of all kinds. It also comes into play in many other forms of defense, as in denial, in which individuals avoid unpleasant realities by first trying to repress them and then negating them when repression fails. (APA, 2020)

Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist founded the psychoanalytic school of thought which was considered as a clinical method of treating psychopathology through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst. Sigmund Freud believed in the role of unconscious motives and thoughts and the existence of their dynamic relationships in the determination of both normal and abnormal behaviour. Freud spoke about the conscious, subconscious and unconscious. The conscious part of the mind is a relatively small area as compared to the unconscious part which entails all the hurtful memories, forbidden desires and experiences that have been repressed and pushed out of consciousness. The subconscious part includes information that can be brought to conscious awareness after active effort.

Freud in his work addressed the concept of “anxiety” which is considered as generalised feelings of fear and apprehension and plays a casual role in various forms of psychopathology. In most cases the ego can cope with the anxiety through rational measures but in some cases the ego is unable to cope and resorts to irrational projective measures referred to as “ego-defence mechanisms”. This helps the person actively push the painful thought out of the conscious realm instead of directly encountering the problem. This manifests into a maladaptive way of coping and can lead in a distorted view of reality. The various defence mechanisms are: Displacement, fixation, projection, rationalisation, reaction formation, repression and sublimation.

Repression in real life is often confused with suppression which is another type of defence mechanism. Repression involves unconsciously blocking unpleasant thoughts or emotions, suppression is entirely voluntary. It involves the deliberate attempt to forget or not think about the distressing thoughts and emotions.

In the case of repression, research has supported the idea that through the process of selective forgetting people block the awareness of unwanted thoughts and memories. This can be understood through retrieval induced forgetting. This type of forgetting causes some information which is traumatic in nature to be forgotten because of repeated recall of more positive ones.

Repressed thoughts which are stored in the unconscious part of the mind can surface in the form of:

1.      Dreams: Freud was of the strong belief that dreams was a pathway to understanding a person’s unconscious. In his book the “Interpretation of Dreams” he wrote that dreams were disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes. He broke down dreams into two components the manifest content and the latent content. He stated that by completely understanding the manifest content (events that literally take place in a dream), one can understand the latent content (hidden, symbolic meaning of the events).

2.      Slip of tongue: Another way in which our repressed thoughts and memories could surface is through slip of tongues. Freud believed that slip of tongues can be very revealing and can portray what a person is thinking or feeling on an unconscious level. This is known as the “Freudian slip” addressed in his book “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life”, which is a psychological theory wherein a person misspeaks, revealing repressed thoughts.

3.      Phobias: According to Freud Phobias show how repressed memories can have an influence on behaviour. Phobias are an unreasonable fear of an object, event or situation which in reality poses little danger but provokes an overwhelming amount of anxiety and avoidance. For example, a person was bitten by a dog as a child and repressed that memory, it can later surface as a fear of dogs.

Image by M.T ElGassier

 Soumita Ramesh is a junior contributor and research assistant at dR CLB Lab.

She is a graduate in psychology and her aim is to obtain a doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Soumita is extremely passionate about mental health and keen to contribute to developing this field in every way possible. She is curious, inquisitive, and motivated to learn new aspects every single day. She has a keen interest in contributing to help and provide support to people and de-stigmatise mental health. An outdoor person, she is a certified scuba diver and enjoys trekking and scuba diving. She is also a research assistant at The Global Foundation of Cyber Studies and Research Washington DC Think Tank.


APA Dictionary of Psychology. (2020). American Psychological Association.


Freud, S. (1925). The origin and development of psychoanalysis. An Outline of Psychoanalysis., 21–70.


Freudian Slips: The Psychology Behind Embarrassing Slips of the Tongue. (2019, October 23). ThoughtCo.


Freud, Sigmund. Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Trans. The Macmillan Company, 1914. New York, New York.


How Does Repression Work in Our Unconscious Mind? (2021, April 25). Verywell Mind.



Köhler, T., & Prinzleve, M. (2007). Is Forgetting of Dreams due to Repression? Experimental Investigations Using Free Associations. Swiss Journal of Psychology, 66(1), 33–40.



Mcleod, S. (2017, May 5). Defense Mechanisms. Simply Psychology.



Wang, Y., Luppi, A., Fawcett, J., & Anderson, M. C. (2019). Reconsidering unconscious persistence: Suppressing unwanted memories reduces their indirect expression in later thoughts. Cognition, 187, 78–94.

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