In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week, we’re looking at repression vs. suppression.
Suppression and repression are examples of Freudian defense mechanisms. They serve the purpose of removing unwanted information from conscious awareness. Suppression involves consciously pushing distressing thoughts, emotions, or memories or unacceptable urges or desires out of awareness. Repression also pushes those inner experiences out of awareness, but it happens automatically and unconsciously.
Suppression is also an issue that comes up in the context of acceptance and commitment therapy, so we’ll look at that as well.
Freudian psychoanalytic theory
Defense mechanisms were first proposed by Sigmund Freud and later elaborated on by his daughter Anna Freud. They serve as ways to protect the ego and reduce conflict between the id (primal drives) and superego (conscience). Primitive defense mechanisms, like repression, are unconscious and unintentional, and we begin using them early in life. Higher-level, or mature, defense mechanisms, like suppression, are developed at later developmental stages and are applied consciously.
Sigmund Freud first proposed repression as a mechanism to describe why his patients had such difficulty recalling past memories. He later described repression as “the corner-stone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests” (as quoted in Wikipedia). He believed that even though the memories couldn’t be accessed consciously, they would still have influence subconsciously in other ways, and they may show up in the form of something like a slip of the tongue.
Wikipedia has a page devoted to the concept of motivated forgetting. During World War I, memory repression was a regularly prescribed treatment for soldiers who’d been through highly traumatic experiences.
Research on repression & suppression
A Scientific American article described a study in which some of the subjects were asked to actively suppress memories of word pairings they had rehearsed. MRI scans showed activation in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for executive functioning. Later, the subjects who were asked to suppress had lower word recall than subjects who were asked to recall the word pairs while in the MRI scanner.
Suppression of visual stimuli occurs regularly and allows us to selectively focus on certain things. There’s a fascinating case report in the same Scientific American article of someone with dissociative identity disorder. It’s unclear how many alters there were, but at least one was sighted and one was blind. The person was shown visual stimuli while connected to an EEG to monitor electrical activity in the brain. The sighted alter had a normal electrical response, while the blind alter had a greatly reduced response. That’s not something that’s under conscious control, so it’s truly remarkable.
Repression, in the sense proposed by Freud, is not universally recognized as legitimate by psychologists. There may be other mechanisms that come into play, such as the “normal” forgetting that all of us experience at times. The question of repression is particularly contentious when it comes to the recall of memories that were repressed earlier in life and completely forgotten.
Therapy and repressed memories
False memories may arise during therapy, and there’s no clear way to distinguish these from actual repressed memories. It’s considered rare that childhood incidents that were entirely forgotten would be remembered later in life, and the majority of people who have experienced childhood abuse remember either part or all of the abuse.
Sometimes therapy is done to try to recover repressed memories. This is controversial because of the risk of eliciting false pseudo-memories, and recovered-memory therapy is not accepted as a mainstream practice in the fields of psychology or psychiatry. Techniques used may include hypnosis, age regression, guided visualization, or the use of “truth serum” drugs like barbiturates. It’s important to differentiate this from legitimate trauma therapy that works on processing memories.
Suppression in acceptance and commitment therapy
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is an approach that aims to increase psychological flexibility. From an ACT perspective, resistance to our inner experiences increases suffering, and the opposite of resistance is acceptance. Attempts at suppression are a form of resistance, and if we stop resisting and make space for what is present in the moment, difficult thoughts and emotions will naturally pass on their own.
The White Bear Suppression Inventory
The White Bear Suppression Inventory is a psychometric test that measures how much you try to suppress your thoughts. What does a white bear have to do with anything? It’s because if I tell you not to think about a white bear for the next minute, you’re pretty much guaranteed to think about a white bear, even though it’s probably been a good long while since you last had white bears dancing in your head. Here are a few of the questions in the inventory:
- I wish I could stop thinking of certain things.
- Sometimes my mind races so fast I wish I could stop it.
- I always try to put problems out of mind.
- Sometimes I stay busy just to keep thoughts from intruding on my mind.
- There are things that I try not to think about.
- I often do things to distract myself from my thoughts.
While it’s debatable if or how much repression occurs, suppression certainly does occur, although we’re probably not as successful with it as we might like to be. Personally, the ACT perspective on suppression resonates more with me than the Freudian psychoanalytic take on it. What are your thoughts?
- American Psychological Association (1995): Memories of Childhood Abuse
- Bailey, R., & Pico, J. (2022). Defense mechanisms. StatPearls.
- Berlin, H.A., & Koch, C. (2009): Defense mechanisms: Neuroscience meets psychoanalysis. Scientific American.
- Wikipedia: Motivated forgetting | Recovered memory therapy | Repressed memory | Repression (psychology)
- White Bear Suppression Inventory – in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders worksheet pack
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.