What is Sublimation In Psychology | Want To Know?

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Sublimation Theory In Psychology
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 What is Sublimation In Psychology?

The American Psychological Association (APA) describes sublimation as a defense mechanism where unacceptable sexual or aggressive impulses are unconsciously redirected into socially acceptable activities and newly learned behaviors. This process provides indirect satisfaction for the original impulses.

We all experience unwanted impulses or urges from time to time. For example, we want to scream and yell at someone who cuts us off at the store. Or we see an attractive person and feel the need to flirt with them, even though we are in a committed relationship.

How we deal with these feelings can influence our behavior, whether acceptable or unacceptable to society. Acting on these desires incorrectly can be inappropriate, so finding more appropriate ways to manage these desires is essential.

One way people deal with these urges acceptably is through a procedure known as sublimation in psychology. Through sublimation, people can transform unwanted impulses into something less harmful and often even useful.

How Does Sublimation Work?

Sublimation Theory In Psychology

Sublimation works by redirecting unacceptable or harmful impulses into socially acceptable and constructive activities. This psychological process involves the following steps:

Recognition of Impulse: Unconsciously, an individual recognizes an impulse that is unacceptable or inappropriate, such as aggression or sexual desire.

Repression: Instead of acting on this impulse directly, the individual unconsciously represses it to avoid social disapproval or personal guilt.

Redirection: The repressed impulse is then redirected into a new activity or behavior that is socially acceptable. This redirection happens unconsciously and can lead to engaging in more constructive and beneficial activities.

Satisfaction: The new activity indirectly satisfies the original impulse, providing a sense of fulfillment or release without the negative consequences of acting on the impulse directly.

For example, a person with aggressive tendencies might channel this energy into sports or physical exercise, thus turning a potentially harmful impulse into a healthy and productive outlet. Imagine what might happen if you were overcome with anger.

An emotional outburst is one way to deal with this feeling, but this type of emotional reaction can be harmful. For example, you risk seeing your relationships deteriorate or having the reputation of being a hothead.

Sublimation in Psychoanalysis

Sublimation Theory

Sublimation is a defense mechanism, that is, an unconscious psychological defense that reduces anxiety that can result from unacceptable impulses or harmful stimuli. The concept of sublimation plays a central role in the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud.

According to Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, the personality is composed of three elements:

1- The id

2- The ego

3- The superego

The id is the first to shape and serve as the source of libido or the energy that motivates behavior. It is primitive and basic, made up of all the drives and desires that are often socially unacceptable if we do them whenever we please.

The ego emerges later in childhood and is the part of the personality that controls the id, making it comply with reality’s demands. Rather than simply acting on impulses, the ego forces us to manage our desires more realistically.

The superego is the component of the personality that makes all the morals, rules, norms and values ​​that we internalize from our parents and our culture. This part of the personality strives to make us behave morally

The ego must mediate between the id’s primary drives, the superego’s moral standards, and reality’s demands.

Sublimation is one way the ego reduces the anxiety that unacceptable impulses or feelings can cause. It channels negative and unacceptable impulses into positive and socially acceptable behaviors.

Freud and Sublimation

The idea of ​​sublimation was born in Freud when he read the story of a man who, as a child, tortured animals before becoming a surgeon. Freud believed that the same energy that drove the child’s sadism was ultimately sublimated into positive, socially acceptable actions that benefited others.

Freud viewed sublimation as a sign of maturity that allows people to behave in a civilized and acceptable manner. This process can lead people to continue activities that are better for their health or to engage in positive, productive, and creative behaviors.

Sublimation Examples

Engagement in sports and athletic competitions can sometimes be an example of sublimation in action. Rather than acting out of an unacceptable need to be physically aggressive with others, people may participate in competitive sports to satisfy their need to dominate and win.

In another example, imagine that you are arguing with your neighbor. Your anger might cause you to hit him physically. This action is inappropriate, so you could better manage your feelings by going for a jog.

You can transform your unwanted or unacceptable impulses into action that dissipates your anger and benefits your physical health through sublimation.

Other Real-World Examples Include:

You want to be unfaithful to your partner, but you channel your energy into gardening projects rather than acting on this unacceptable urge.

You are distraught when a relationship ends. To deal with these negative emotions, you start writing poems. You can transfer your heartache and emotional turmoil into creative activity.

Your superior at work reprimands you. You fear losing your job and decide to walk home to think and vent your frustrations. This activity allows you to calm down and reflect and benefits your physical health.

You have an almost obsessive need to control the smallest details of your life. So, you sublimate this energy to become a successful business owner and leader.


Much of the research on sublimation is analytical and deals with how sublimation can exist in certain situations. For example, in one article, the authors explain that people who are in prison for murder are probably using sublimation to “defend themselves against” their new reality. Another article argues that religious experiences serve as sublimation in their role as self-objects.

A self-object (or self-object) is a person, activity, or object that one feels is part of oneself.

A study carried out in 2013 focused on real subjects. Researchers investigated whether Protestants were likelier to sublimate taboo feelings into creative activities. They found that people who experienced sexual problems related to anxieties about taboo desires were more likely to have greater creative accomplishments than people who had no sexual problems or those who had unrelated sexual problems to taboo feelings.

The researchers suggested that this study represented “perhaps the first experimental evidence of sublimation.” They also proposed that their results indicate a cultural, psychological approach to our defense mechanisms.

Effectiveness of Sublimation

Sublimation Theory In Psychology

How effective is sublimation in channeling our inappropriate impulses toward more acceptable, or even productive, actions? Some have compared it to other defense mechanisms to answer this question.

A 2020 study looked at students experiencing high stress during COVID-19 in the preparation for school entrance exams, looking for a job, and more. In this case, sublimation was compared to regression. It was found that while regression was effective for one in five students, sublimation allowed around half of the subjects to channel their stress constructively, with positive results.

It should be noted that this study also indicated that, when used as a coping mechanism, sublimation does not meet the standards required as an effective coping strategy because it does not fundamentally address the factor of stress.

Others emphasize that sublimation is an essential element of art therapy. In a chapter on Art Therapies in Psychiatric Rehabilitation, the author expresses the voice that sublimation serves two purposes in this context. On the one hand, it helps the patient transform through the therapeutic process. On the other hand, it makes it possible to create works of art that symbolize the existing sublimation.

How Sublimation Can Influence Your Life

What role can the sublimation process play in your life? As Freud suggested, sublimation is a healthy and mature way of coping with urges that may be unwanted or unacceptable.

Sublimation allows us to channel energy into beneficial ways rather than acting in a way that might harm ourselves or others. Thus, this defense mechanism can have a positive effect on our health and well-being.

Although we can sometimes see how our negative feelings cause us to act a certain way, we are often unaware because sublimation operates subconsciously. There may also be no direct connection between the source of negative emotion and the conduct behavior that results from sublimation.

If the previous examples show that a physical action sublimates anger, these feelings can give rise to a whole series of behaviors. For example, instead of cleaning the house in anger, this emotion may also lead a person to take a relaxing hobby like fishing or painting.

Sublimation can significantly influence behavior, even if we are not always aware of it. Although this defense mechanism operates subconsciously, you can benefit from it by intentionally finding ways to substitute healthier, more productive behaviors for potentially harmful behaviors.


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