Sublimation in psychology is a defense mechanism where negative urges and impulses are channelled into socially accepted behaviour.

Sigmund Freud first coined the term sublimation after reading ‘The Harz Journey’ by Heinrich Heine. The book told the story of a boy who cut off the tails from dogs and in later life became a respected surgeon. Freud recognised this as sublimation and described it as one of the defence mechanisms. His daughter Anna Freud expanded on defence mechanisms in her book – ‘The Ego and the Mechanisms of the Defence’.

What is Sublimation in Psychology?

Every day we are bombarded with stimuli that present us with challenges, force us to make decisions, and create emotional responses. These emotional responses can be positive or negative, and in order to live in a civilised society, we have to control these responses to some extent. We can’t go around screaming and causing havoc whenever we have to deal with an unpleasant emotion. Instead, our minds learn how to deal with it in an acceptable manner.

This is where defence mechanisms come in. There are many different defence mechanisms, including denial, repression, projection, displacement and, of course, sublimation.

Sublimation in psychology is considered to be one of the most beneficial defense mechanisms as it transforms negative emotions into positive actions. Many defense mechanisms suppress our natural emotions. This can lead to problems later on in life. Sublimation allows us to focus this negative energy from something harmful into a useful act.

Examples of sublimation in psychology

  • A youth has anger issues so he is signed up to a local boxing club.
  • A person with an obsessive need for control becomes a successful administrator.
  • Someone with excessive sexual desires that put them in danger takes up running.
  • A person who is highly aggressive trains to be a soldier.
  • Someone who was turned down for a sought-after position starts their own company.

Sublimation in psychology is considered to be the most mature way we can deal with our emotional responses. Using this as a defense mechanism can produce someone who is extremely industrious. But as we sublimate on a subconscious level, we are not aware of when or where it happens.

This means we are oblivious of many of the decisions we take. So how does that affect us?

Harry Stack Sullivan, founder of interpersonal psychoanalysis, has described sublimation when talking about the nuances of people interacting with each other. For him, sublimation is an unwitting and only partial satisfaction that allows us social approval where we can then pursue direct satisfaction. This is despite it being contrary to our own ideals or societal norms.

Sullivan understood that sublimation in psychology was far more complicated than Freud believed. The substitution for negative emotions into positive behaviour might not be exactly what we want. Nor might is completely satisfy us, but, in a civilised society, of which we must take part, it is our only recourse.

When we use sublimation as a defense mechanism, we do not consciously make a decision, nor do we ponder the outcome. Even though internally we might be facing a conflict. This is of our need to be satisfied and the need to fit in.

So if we are not aware of the internal decisions being made, presumably on a daily basis, how are we affected?

How does sublimation in psychology secretly direct your life?

When we are sublimating, we are not conscious of exactly what and why we are acting in a certain manner. This can make it difficult to spot the signs of sublimation. There are ways, however, that indicate if you have been sublimating:

Personal relationships:

Consider the person you are in a relationship with. Are they exact opposite of you or you are very similar? Those who sublimate within their own relationships tend to gravitate towards people that have some sought after characteristic in their own personality. In this way, they are living vicariously through their partner.


The career you have chosen can be a strong indicator of sublimation in psychology. Delve into your deepest thoughts and think about what it is that you truly desire. Now think about your chosen career and see if there is any connection.

So, for instance, someone that loves sweets or chocolate but is overweight might own a chocolate shop. A psychopath might be the CEO of a very successful banking corporation. Someone who hates spending time with children may become a nursery school teacher.

Whichever way you are sublimating your deepest and darkest thoughts, you can rest assured that all that negative energy is at least being channelled into something productive.



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