It’s not exactly a compliment to say about someone, ‘They’re repressed’.  It usually implies they’re suffering from straight-laced, Victorian sexual inhibitions that need to be shed.  But there’s a bit more to it than that and repression – in its real sense – affects more of us than we may think.

When the mind causes symptoms

It’s true that when Freud was trail-blazing his early theories of psychoanalysis in prudish late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Vienna he came to believe that mysterious symptoms that were plaguing some of his patients – convulsions, paralysis, blindness, epilepsy, amnesia or pain – could sometimes be explained by unacceptable sexual desires that had been squashed out of sight and out of mind.  But he also thought that at other times the symptoms had at root an early experience of trauma that had likewise been pushed out of awareness because it was too dangerous or painful to remember.  A young woman’s breathing difficulties, for instance, could be traced back to her witnessing her father sexually abusing her cousin.  Bringing such experiences into the light of day had the effect, Freud discovered, of reducing or eliminating the symptoms.

Parental pressure

Often, though, the symptoms of repression are less dramatic and less about sex but equally distressing.  A man in his early twenties feels pent up, on edge, stressed, constantly under pressure and at breaking point.  In the mix too he believes he’s simply not good enough.  Time spent talking in psychotherapy reveals someone who was and is controlled by his parents and who was brought up always to be good in order to please them.  There were grave consequences if he didn’t.  As he gradually makes a connexion between all that and his sense of pressure, he begins to break free from his parents, to become aware of feelings of resentment, to want to do things for himself and generally to have some fun.  And the stress slowly evaporates.

Motivated forgetting

In her book, Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, Nancy McWilliams calls repression ‘motivated forgetting or ignoring’.  If something is ‘sufficiently upsetting or confusing’, she says, ‘it may be […] consigned to unconsciousness’.  She makes a link with conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder where, for example, people may not be able to remember at will horrifying experiences of rape or torture and yet be troubled by unwanted and intrusive flashbacks of them seeping through.

Sometimes the things that seep through reveal contradictions in us.  A woman has disturbing dreams of strangling her sister for whom she professes great love.  In fact, her descriptions of her feelings for her sister are downright strange because they are so massively positive.  There seems to be no downside to the relationship at all.  With time, however, therapy unearths considerable anger towards the sibling because of her domineering behaviour.  The patient starts to own the anger and imperceptibly the dreams subside.

Repression can be useful

In day-to-day life repression actually has a lot going for it.  As McWilliams says, ‘if one were constantly aware of the whole panoply of one’s impulses, feelings, memories, images and conflicts, one would be chronically overwhelmed’.  Similarly, repression prevents societal chaos.  Author, Matt Haig, puts it in colourful terms:  ‘Everyone represses everything.  Do you think any of these ‘normal’ human beings do exactly what they want to do all the time?  Course not. […]  We’re British.  Repression is in our veins’.  Whatever you make of that, repression really only becomes problematic when it gets in the way of living or breaks down and lets disturbing ideas or emotions through or else takes over at the expense of ‘more successful ways of coping’.

Let it all hang out?

As you know, some of Freud’s ideas quickly entered our vocabulary.  Many people have at one time or other used terms like ‘denial’, ‘Oedipus complex’, ‘ego’, ‘phallic’, ‘anally retentive’, ‘death wish’ and, of course, ‘Freudian slip’.  The same goes for ‘repressed’.  It sometimes goes with an implicit view that getting rid of all inhibitions and letting it all hang out is a laudable aim.   Not quite what Freud meant.  And also where we came in.