Sublimation: A Defense Mechanism

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We must deal with the pain in one way or another. We all need effective avenues to defend against unpleasant affect. Our minds do this automatically. Unconsciously, when negative affect overwhelms, we have mechanisms that interrupt and protect. Some defense mechanisms are adaptive, others, well, are more maladaptive. Sublimation is considered an adaptive defense mechanism.

Jerome Blackwell compares defenses to circuit breakers in his book 101 defenses. He wrote that “when the current gets too great, the increase in amperage trips the circuit breaker, which breaks the circuit, and the light goes off.” He explains,  “analogously, when the intensity of affects (emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression, and guilt) threatens to melt down the functioning of the mind, a mental circuit breaker is thrown, certain thoughts are switched out of consciousness—forgotten” (2003). 

Sublimation is one of these mechanisms. Sublimation helps flip the script, relieve tension, and keep us functioning. Accordingly, sublimation is a mature defense, adaptively channeling energy away from unacceptable urges towards productive outlets that benefit the individual, society, or both.

Cathexis of  Life Energy

​In psychoanalytical theory the cathecting of energy is investing psychic energy in objects outside of the self. The object can be a person, goal, idea, or activity. In relation to sublimation, cathexis is focusing life energy away from urges that lead to unhealthy and destructive consequences (Murphy, 2022).

Key Definition:

Sublimation is a defense mechanism that adaptively channeling energy away from unacceptable urges towards productive outlets that benefit the individual, society, or both.

​Examples of Sublimation

Healthy sublimation is expressed when we left off steam from a challenging day at work by going to the gym. A woman struggling with depression creates a wellness blog. Scott Stossel researches and writes a complex book on anxiety (My Age of Anxiety) in response to his debilitating emotions. A teen ager joins the track team in effort to abstain from urges to use drugs. Steph Curry takes over a basketball game in response to a defenders trash talk.

Origin of Sublimation

The peculiarities of human thought can be traced deep back in philosophical history. Freud’s thoughts were an organization of many theories already existing. However, Freud’s concepts of instincts and defense mechanisms is foundational to many of our modern theories. His concepts can be found in most forms of therapy, not just his psychoanalytical theories.

Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna Freud’s introduced the world to the defense mechanisms in a manner that is still relied on today.

Sigmund Freud and Sublimation

Freud mostly referred to defense mechanisms as the way we unconsciously defer instincts—libidinal energy. He specifically referred to instincts for sex and aggression. The primary conflict between instinctual desires and cultural expectations created the primary conflict, putting the individual at odds with society, often leading to psychosis.

Freud theorized that we relieved these tensions through a variety of mechanisms to deflect libidinal energy, and free our minds from displeasure. Defenses allow us to live in society, placate that narcissistic expectations of the ego ideal, and manage urges that conflict with these mental images we envisions about ourselves.

Freud specifically identified a handful of mechanisms:

Blackman wrote that “almost anything can be a defense.” He continues, “whatever the mental activity or behavior, if it shields you from experiencing unpleasant emotion, it is defensive” (2003). From cooking dinner, watching football, or denying reality can shield us from discomforting emotions.

Freud explained the internal processes through his concepts of ego, id, and superego. The id, Freud taught, was the house of instinctual energy. The ego was the manager of the energy, keeping behavior and thoughts within the acceptable limits, and the superego was the ego ideal, or visions we hold for ourselves (incorporated expectations from our caregivers). The mechanisms are the processes used to keep functioning amidst the different pulls and pushes from the ego, id and superego.

Sublimation Satisfies Instinctual Drives

Sublimation was a manner in which we could satisfy the instinctual drives of the id and the ideals of the superego. Freud wrote, “sublimation is a way out, a way by which those demands can be met without involving repression” (1914).

Freud only expounded on patterned defenses that he identified, many he theorized led to psychosis. However, some defenses were adaptive. An adaptive mechanism is sublimation.

Freud wrote that one of our basic tasks was “transferring the instinctual aims into such directions that they cannot be frustrated by the outer world.” He explained that “sublimation of the instincts lends an aid in this” (1930).

In his earlier book On-Narcissism, Freud wrote that “sublimation is a process that concerns object-libido and consists in the instinct’s directing itself towards an aim other than, and remote from, that of sexual satisfaction; in this process the accent falls upon deflection from sexuality” (1914).

Drives for Life, Love, and Creativity

Freud saw theorized we had a drive for life, love, creativity, and sexuality, self-satisfaction, and species preservation. He called this Eros. The drive for death is Thanatos—or death instincts. Sublimation was redirecting the desired libidinal object, but still satisfying our life drive (Eros).

​”If this shift energy is desexualized libido, thus it may also be called sublimated because it would still keep the main purpose of Eros…by the pursuit of which—the Ego distinguishes itself” (Freud, 1923).

For Freud, he favored a libidinal shift (sublimation) that transformed sexual drives to intellectual pursuits. Sublimations success at fulfilling instinctual drives “is greatest when a man knows how to heighten sufficiently his capacity for obtaining pleasure from mental and intellectual work.” Sublimation of instinct, Freud explains, is a driving force behind “cultural evolution” because it makes possible “for the higher mental operations, scientific artistic, ideological activities to play such an important part in civilized life” (1930).

​Freud warns that instinctual energies are never completely satisfied. “The repressed instinct never ceases to strive…all substitution- or reaction-formations and sublimations avail nothing towards relaxing the continual tension…” (1920). Sublimation of this constant striving of instinct may be obtained through inducing “to change the conditions of their gratification, to find it along other paths” ​(1930).

Anna Freud and Sublimation

After describing nine mechanisms of defense (regression, repression, reaction formation, isolation, undoing, projection, introjection, turning against the self and reversal) that Anna Freud taught led to neurosis, she wrote, “we must add a tenth, which pertains rather to the study of the normal than to that of neurosis: sublimation, or displacement of instinctual aims” (1936). Anna Freud described sublimation the same as her father. She wrote that “the ego achieves its purpose of diverting the instinctual impulses from their purely sexual goal to aims which society holds to be higher.” 

Anna Freud believed that sublimation was a later stage of ego development that can only be achieved as a child learns social rules. “The defense mechanisms of repression and sublimation could not be employed until relatively late in the process of development.” Young children (and those that fail to develop mature responses) “attach more importance to the avoidance of anxiety and unpleasure than to direct or indirect gratification of instinct.” She continues, “they lack external guidance, their choice of occupation is determined not by their particular gifts and capacities for sublimation but by the hope of securing themselves as quickly as may be from anxiety and unpleasure” (1936).

​Is Sublimation Adaptive? 

Sublimation has the potential for adaptiveness. Redirecting instinctual energy or emotional turmoil to other objects for fulfillment is adaptive as long as the new direction of energy develops the individual or contributes to society. Psychologists consider sublimations an adaptive defense on Defense Mechanism Rating Scale because of its potential for beneficial behavior (Di Giuseppe & Perry 2021).

​The Defense Mechanism Rating Scale places thirty defenses into three categories:

The Defense Mechanism Scale further divides the defense into seven levels with level seven being the most adaptive. Valliant and many others consider sublimation a level 7, mature defense (2021).

“On a spectrum from immature to mature, sublimation is considered a mature defense mechanism, because it helps people to substitute the harmful for the helpful, and function well within society”

Psychology Today

Turning Dross Into Gold

Valliant explains that “for troubled individuals, both sublimation and altruism can achieve the alchemist’s dream of turning dross into gold” (2012).  Valliant, like Anna Freud, understood that many mechanisms of defense are maladaptive, leading to psychosis, while others could be adaptive. He wrote, “denial, distortion, and projection were the defenses of psychosis, and at the opposite end of the continuum, sublimation, altruism, humor, and suppression were the defenses of maturity” (2012, Kindle location 1,082).

Valliant wrote that “a sign of a successful defense is neither careful cost accounting, nor shrewd compromise, but rather psychic alchemy.” He explains that “sublimation allows an indirect resolution of conflict with neither adverse consequences nor marked loss of pleasure” (2000).

The difference between adaptive and maladaptive is the mechanisms ability to improve futures, not just mitigate emotions in the present. Simple denial or projection can provide escape from guilt, or the pain of acknowledging imperfections and vulnerabilities. However, these escapisms do nothing to improve our lives. We keep wallowing in the same stinking mire.

Sublimation in Valliant’s words turns the “dross” of imperfection and guilt into the “gold” of an improved life. We can soothe a bruised image by redirecting the hurt to energy for doing something of worth.

Sublimation is more than redirecting energy to positive activities. It is directing energy to new passions. We “change the conditions of their gratification, to find it along other paths.” These new conditions of gratification draw us into flow states, exciting our passions, while developing our souls.

​Valliant explains, “sublimation does more than make instinct acceptable; it also makes ideas fun” (2012, Kindle location 1,283).

​Empirical Evidence  for Sublimation

Roy Baumeister wrote, “we have found nothing at all to suggest that people can defend themselves against unacceptable feelings or desires by transforming them into socially desirable activities, thereby producing superior achievement in those activities” ​(1998).

Many of Freud’s theories are difficult to disprove because of their structure. They are not based on replicatable research but from observations from working with clients. The concept of redirecting attention is certainly common. Redirecting attention in engaging activities can pull us away from ruminating on urges to act in destructive ways. In this way, sublimation has some standing, whether or not is actually cathecting energy from sexual drives towards a creative purpose remains an unproven hypothesis.

Freud’s highly promoted intellectual pursuits as a healthy sublimation of sexual tensions would suggest the intellectual demand at universities would foster reduced sexual activity, studies suggest this is not the case.

​Sublimation: Coping Skill or Defense Mechanism

One consideration is whether sublimation fits better with coping mechanisms than with other defense mechanisms. The difference between the two is that “coping strategies tend to be viewed as being conscious, intentional, and mostly adaptive, whereas defense mechanisms are seen as being unconscious, unintentional, and potentially maladaptive” (Diehl et al., 2014).

Successful diverting attention away from unhealthy urges may lead to many successful endeavors. Or, perhaps, the reverse is true. We might not have overpowering unhealthy urges because our minds are engaged in other cognitive demanding tasks.

Whether this is a sublimation of life energy, or just the mathematics of our human limitations on attention, I do not know.

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Baumeister, R., Dale, K., & Sommer, K. (1998). Freudian Defense Mechanisms and Empirical Findings in Modern Social Psychology: Reaction Formation, Projection, Displacement, Undoing, Isolation, Sublimation, and Denial. Journal of Personality, 66(6), 1081-1124.

Blackman, Jerome S. (2003). 101 Defenses: How the Mind Shields Itself. Routledge; 1st edition.

Diehl, M., Chui, H., Hay, E., Lumley, M., Grühn, D., & Labouvie-Vief, G. (2014). Change in Coping and Defense Mechanisms Across Adulthood: Longitudinal Findings in a European American Sample. Developmental Psychology, 50(2), 634-648.

Di Giuseppe, M., & Perry, J. (2021). The Hierarchy of Defense Mechanisms: Assessing Defensive Functioning With the Defense Mechanisms Rating Scales Q-Sort. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.

Freud, Anna (1936/1992) The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense. Routledge.

Freud, Sigmund (1914) On Narcissism: An Introduction.

Freud, Sigmund (1920/1990). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. W. W. Norton & Company; The Standard edition.

Freud, Sigmund (1923/1990). The Ego and the Id. W. W. Norton & Company; The Standard edition.

Freud, Sigmund (1930). Civilization and Its Discontents.  ‎ GENERAL PRESS; 1st edition.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2021) Defense Mechanisms. Psychology Fanatic. Published 2-7-2021. Accessed 9-16-2022.

Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Object Cathexis. Psychology Fanatic.. Published 7-21-2022. Accessed 9-17-2022.

Recommended Reading:

Vaillant, George E. (2012). Adaptation to Life. Harvard University Press

Vaillant, G. (2000). Adaptive Mental Mechanisms. American Psychologist, 55(1), 89-98.

Walker, G., & McCabe, T. (2020). Psychological defence mechanisms during the COVID-19 pandemic: A case series. The European Journal of Psychiatry, 35(1), 41-45.

Wright, S., Crewe, B., & Hulley, S. (2017). Suppression, denial, sublimation: Defending against the initial pains of very long life sentences. Theoretical Criminology: An International Journal, 21(2), 225-246.

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