In this blog, we will answer the question ‘what is sublimation in psychology? And provide an insight into the examples of how sublimation works in everyday life.
What is sublimation?
Sublimation is a defence mechanism that is used by the mind to evade anxiety. It is related to human behavior and the urges of the human mind. We all have negative and positive urges throughout our lives. Sublimation transforms the negative urges into positive ones.
What are Defense Mechanisms?
Defence Mechanisms are the minds defense system against anxiety and stress. These work on a subconscious level. The defense mechanisms originate from Freudian theory. Sigmund Freud divided the human mind into three parts, i.e. the id, the ego and the superego.
The id deals with the unconscious impulses and deals with our basic and primitive urges and instincts. It is the source of libido. It is made up of all the desires that are mostly socially unacceptable.
The ego is the part that deals with reality and keeps a check on the id as well. The ego evolves in later childhood and controls the id. It does not act impulsively, like the id, but rather keeps a reality check so that instant gratification is not met.
The superego is the moralistic component of the mind and is quite critical. It has learnt from the norms and the cultural upbringing. The superego consists of the values and principles that have been internalized by our parents. It is the job of the ego to keep a balance between the moralistic superego and the idealistic id. Therefore, ego acts as a part that resolves the conflicts and keeps stresses at bay.
Now the mind has to avoid anxieties that arise from conflicts. It does this by engaging in defense mechanisms. Each mechanism defends the mind from anxiety and keeps sanity intact.
There are a number of defense mechanisms and Sublimation is one of them. In Sublimation the mind streamlines the negative urges into positive channels. We always want to engage in activities that are acceptable by society and are according to the norms laid down for us.
What is an Example of Sublimation
- Anger and Aggression
Anger is a very negative emotion and leads to verbal or physical aggression. When the mind sublimates, it will convert anger into a constructive activity. This activity might be vigorous and responsible for releasing that pent up frustration that otherwise cannot be discharged through display of anger.
For example, if a person is angry at someone and sublimes, then instead of showing aggression towards him, he might go on like redecorating the house and putting up things with the hammer around the house.
Instead of venting out as an aggressive outburst a person might go for a run or a jog or take up a sport, like tennis or swimming. There are people who excel in sports and their respective vocations, because they use sublimation successfully. This enables them to divert their negativity towards the positive.
If one is extremely angry and wants to beat someone up, they would start typing to make use of their hands and let out on the keyboard, this way many have ended up being writers and this is again one of the best examples of sublimation.
- Unacceptable Sexual Urges
Sexual urges are always unacceptable in all religions and most of the societies around the world. Mostly they are hidden or camouflaged with others emotions. Especially if these urges are outside of marriage they are considered immoral. Sexual urges, though, are responsible for relationships and propagation of new life.
Examples of sublimation are; if someone is fond of sex and has urges to indulge in it very frequently, but is unmarried and instead of indulging in sex would take up an exercise regimen or running. They use their pent up physical urge into a healthy routine.
Someone who has an urge to cheat on his/her spouse would join a group of people who indulge in lieral or educated discussions, to sublimate their unwanted whims. This way engaging in such groups that share common interests diverts the mind away from unacceptable behaviors.
Sublimation – Need of the hour
Sublimation is the need of the hour! Yes it is. No man is an island. We all live together and have to keep in mind that our actions and reaction to certain actions, may hurt others. Thus, the unconscious mind develops styles that tend to keep out the negativity and enhances productivity. It is significantly important to control the urges so that the person does not act in an unfitting manner that can later cause guilt, trauma or distress.
Converting emotions for better adjustment and overall well being is also called sublimation. If we give in to our anger, aggression and unwanted or unacceptable urges, then the relationships we are in might be wrecked. People might not want to be a part of a group where we are, or would not want to have relations with us or do any business. Plus sublimation also gives us an edge as to the quality of work that can be done. More intense the emotion, more rigorous will the person indulge in the sublimed activity.
History has shown that the great artists and musicians have had unhappy lives and used sublimation as a defense mechanism. We can see how their work displays their strong emotions, thus making their pieces into masterpieces. This shows that sublimation propels creativity into action.
Even when the negativity dies down, the person is not left with guilt but with a positive frame of mind. Sublimation makes the individual transform frustrations into productivity. Freud considered sublimation a sign of maturity that allows people to behave in civilized and acceptable ways.
‘Freud’s idea of sublimation initiated while he was reading the story of a man who tortured animals as a child and later went on to become a surgeon. Freud believed that the same energy that once drove the child’s sadism was eventually sublimated into positive and socially acceptable actions that benefited others.’
Sublimation is one way that the ego reduces the anxiety that can be created by unacceptable urges or feelings. Sublimation works by channeling negative and unacceptable impulses into behaviors that are positive and socially acceptable.
From anger to achiever via sublimation
Participation in sports and athletic competition can sometimes be examples of sublimation in action. Rather than acting on unacceptable urges to fight with others, people may play competitive sports in order to dominate and win. This can also extend to exercise activity as well.
Getting into an argument may be easy but the guilt later is immense. Therefore, instead of arguing, one indulges in mowing the lawn or trimming the trees or any other physical exercise that utilizes the body’s energy as well as keeps the mind away from harmful thoughts.
A person’s desire to cut up people in anger and aggression, would end up being a surgeon, where he is cutting up people but for an altogether very different reason. Instead of taking lives, he is actually bringing life back.
When angry, a person would start to box a sandbag, thus ending up learning boxing and even winning some medals and recognition.
If someone wants to manipulate others, he may end up running a business.
Research on Sublimation
In a 2013 published research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers probed how taboo feelings are sublimate into more creative projects.
Results were that people who experienced sexual problems and suffered from stress and anxiety over taboo desires tend to accomplish more creativity. Those who did not report sexual problems were way less creative than this group.
This was thought to be the ‘first experimental evidence for sublimation’ and whispered a cultural psychological approach to defense mechanisms.
Influence of Sublimation
According to Freud, Sublimation is an intelligent and a mature way to deal with unacceptable and undesirable urges in life.
Sublimation helps people to channelize their energies into useful and fruitful things. It gives the person an edge over the others, as he tends to be more successful due to the consistency with which he keeps on converting negatives into positives.
This defense mechanism, no doubt, has a primarily positive effect on our health and well being. Defence mechanisms are at work and most of the time we do not even realize that they are actively involved.Sublimation provides us with an insight, where we get to know ourselves better.
It helps us to grow and see our potential, recognize it and utilize it for the betterment of ourselves and even others.
In this blog we have answered the question ‘what is sublimation in psychology? And have provided an insight into the examples of how sublimation works in everyday life.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is sublimation in psychology?
Freud’s psychoanalytic theory states that sublimation is a process through which negative urges and desires are channelized into positive activities with acceptable outcomes.
What is an example of sublimation defense mechanism?
Sports activities and athletics, arts and painting or knitting and running a business are all a few examples of sublimation.
What is a defense mechanism?
Defense mechanisms are mechanisms that work on a subconscious level to evade stress and anxiety.
What is an example of projection?
Attributing own negative traits onto someone else is called projection.
Titles to Read
- Psychological Adaptive Mechanisms: Ego Defense Recognition in Practice and Research by Thomas P. Beresford MD
- The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence by Anna Freud and The Institute of Psychoanalysis
- Self as Coach, Self as Leader: Developing the Best in You to Develop the Best in Others by Pamela McLean
- Talkabout for Children 1: Developing Self-Awareness and Self-Esteem (US edition) by Alex Kelly
- Freud, A. (1937). The Ego and the mechanisms of defense, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis.