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Repression vs Suppression

January 26, 2007

This is a letter I sent to a friend of mine on some psychoanalytical topics.

Emi,

I remembered just the other night, as we talked on repression vs suppression, I wondered if the things that are purposely suppressed eventually become repressions, or whether they can stay in mind yet still be ‘forgotten about’.   Memory is confusing.  I don’t see how recalling via a mnemonic (or any other memory aid) is much different than recollection via a psycho-analytical thread.  There’s a few extra steps, but it’s still  “there.”  The only real distinction I see is that in a suppression, you can recall without serious mental agitation, and a with repression, you can eventually recall if you can endure the painful agitations.  If this is the case, how does a suppression differ from a normal memory outside of a superficial willing to forget? (which is obviously not successful)

I remembered how Freud kept saying over and over that the entire process always begins with a purposeful ‘wanting to forget’ a painful experience.  Some are successful, others (the hysterics, those with phobias, etc), well, I suppose their hardware was not sufficient to eliminate the memories completely, and you end up with these ‘memory symbols’ and ‘themes’ which trigger the hysterias.

Freud doesn’t seem to care about the distinction between suppression and repression either. Today I’m reading Freud, and in his paper “Chapter 5: The Defence-Neuro-Psychoses: A Tentative Psychological Theory of Acquired Hysteria, Many Phobias and Obsessions, And Certain Hallucinatory Psychoses” he seems to not make a huge distinction.  I’ll simply quote the text.  I bolded the main point:

Section I:
“In those patients whom I have analyzed, there existed psychic health until the moment in which a case of incompatibility occurred in their ideation, that is, until there appeared an experience, idea, or feeling which evoked a painful affect that the person decided to forget it because he did not trust his own ability to remove the resistance between the unbearable ideas and his ego.
Such incompatible ideas originate in the feminine sex on the basis of sexual experiences and feelings.  With all desired precision, the patients recall their efforts of defense, their intention to “to push it away,” not to think of it, to repress it.  As appropriate examples I can easily cite the following cases from my own experience: A young lady reproached herself because while nursing her sick father, she thought of a young man who made a slight erotic impression on her; a governess fell in love with her employer and decided to crowed it out of her mind because it was incompatible with her pride, etc.
I am unable to maintain that the exertion of the will, in crowding such thoughts out of one’s mind, is a pathological act, nor am I able to state whether and how the intentional forgetting succeeds in these persons who remain well under the same psychic influences.  I only know that the patients whom I analyzed such a forgetting was unsuccessful and led to either hysteria, obsession, or a hallucinatory psychosis.  The ability to produce, by the exertion of the will, one of these states which are connected with the splitting of consciousness, is to be considered as the expression of a pathological predisposition, but it need not necessarily be identified with personal or hereditary degeneration.”

So I guess it’s Freud’s experience that some people are able to purposely forget it and are fine, and others experience all the problematic symptoms you find so prevalent in psycho-analysis.  Seems the distinction, at least to Freud, is not one he cares about and is unknowable.  Freud was all about therapy, not armchair speculation, so I’m not surprised he feels this way.

– Jason

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