We all have thoughts and feelings which we know are ‘not okay’ by society’s standards. It’s a natural element of the human condition. What sets humans apart from animals is not a lack of animal impulses, but rather how we manage our animal impulses. One of the techniques we subconsciously use is sublimation. Following is a brief discussion of the theory and a set of examples of sublimation in progress, to help crystallise the concept in your minds.
The Theory of Sublimation
The concept of psychological sublimation finds its roots in the work of Sigmund Freud. Although his theories are contentious these days, there are some fascinating facets to his beliefs about the human mind.
Freud divided the human psyche into three distinct aspects. The Id, our ‘animal brain,’ is home to impulses and urges. The superego, which is the expression of society’s morality, engineers our behaviour to comply with morals, laws and expectations. Last but not least, the ego, which continually works to find the balance between the two.
One of the ways in which the ego balances out the Id’s impulses and the superego’s lofty ideals is through a set of defence mechanisms. These include repression, reaction formation, projection, denial, regression, intellectualisation, rationalisation, displacement and, you guessed it, sublimation.
What Is Sublimation?
But what is sublimation? In essence, it’s the phasing of one thing into another. In chemistry, it’s the transformation of a solid into a gas, in psychology it’s the channelling of inappropriate impulses into positive and productive behaviours.
Instead of reacting in extreme anger, you might clean the house, or go for a run. Instead of sexually propositioning a person, you might write poetry or dance. This can be done consciously but happens most of the time subconsciously.
The process of sublimation protects us from the anxiety around having unacceptable thoughts and urges, preventing us from being negatively impacted by them. Channelling animalistic and primitive impulses into positive outlets preserves our social relationships, our social standing, and essential elements of our lives like jobs and our ability to support ourselves.
It can also act on positive feelings if we subconsciously believe they are too good to last, to protect us from disappointment. In this form, sublimation can become part of the self-sabotaging tendencies people often subconsciously enact when things are going well.
Examples of Sublimation
Sublimation happens mostly subconsciously. We may, therefore, be unaware that this is one of our coping mechanisms. Still, most of the following examples of sublimation apply to the majority of people at some point or another in their lives.
Competitive sports is one productive way in which aggressive or dominant personality types channel their impulses. Rather than fight or dominate other people, they metaphorically crush them on the sports field. It can be seen as a human version of the ritualised challenges for territory or females that occur in the animal world. A few examples of how sublimation works in full swing might be combat or contact sports and racing.
Often if people feel frustrated, angry, and scattered, or if they are sexually aroused, they go for a run, for a walk, to the gym, use their punching bag etc. These are also sublimation examples. In this way, our mind converts the unacceptable urge to lash out or to have sex with strangers into a beneficial activity.
Chores and menial tasks
Another typical example of sublimation is the conversion of inappropriate urges into useful, menial tasks that, let’s be honest, may otherwise never get done. Instead of being unfaithful to your partner, you pull the weeds out of your flower-beds. Rather than obsessively micro-manage your children, you purge and re-organise all of your belongings.
When you feel like yelling at or confronting your boss, you tidy your desk-space. If your anxiety is causing you deeply distressing and troubling thoughts, you scrub the kitchen and bathrooms clean.
Creativity is a prevalent alternative to inappropriate urges and impulses, most frequently when it comes to sexual sublimation. Instead of sexually accosting a particular person, an example of sublimating your sexual desire might be turning to paint, drawing, sculpting, writing, or any form of craft.
Another example of using creativity to sublimate socially frowned-upon emotions is the transferring of depression, sadness, anxiety or addiction into works of art. Through poetry, story-telling, or other artistic pursuits, negative emotions are channelled into socially valued expressions.
People’s chosen life-paths can often be expressions of their sublimated urges and desires. Successful managers or administrators have a strong passion for control, micro-managing and organisation. Another example of sublimation might be leadership roles. People in positions of authority often have a need to be obeyed, listened to, feared, loved or respected, that is satisfied through the successful fulfilment of their jobs.
On the darker end of the scale, someone with an urge to cut or harm people might train to be a surgeon, or someone with aggressive tendencies might join the military or the police.
Can we consciously choose sublimation?
Sublimation is, for the most part, a mature subconscious way of dealing with inappropriate urges and impulses. Using the above examples of sublimation and with the help of mental health professionals, train yourself to recognise it. You can then try to identify the urge or impulse your ego is working to conceal.
The crucial element in sublimating consciously is to accept, recognise and validate your feelings, before determining which activity to channel them into. There is no such thing as an inappropriate feeling, only inappropriate or harmful actions. Once you are aware of the urges your ego is hiding from you, you can consciously sublimate them into the activity of your choice.
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