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Repression: A Critical Assessment and Update of Freud’s 1915 Paper

Abstract

The concept of repression has been relegated to the periphery in current psychoanalytic theorizing. This is in part due to a reflexive and ill-informed avoidance of Freudian metapsychology, and in part due to preoccupation with ‘primitive’ and ‘deeper’ states of mind, a perspective that presumes that repression operates exclusively in ‘higher level’ or ‘neurotic’ forms of psychopathology. A careful scrutiny of psychoanalytic theory and clinical practice does not uphold such compartmentalization. Repression is ubiquitous in mental life. It contributes to normality (e.g., onset of latency), undergirds the ‘psychopathology of everyday life’ (e.g., parapraxes), exists alongside splitting in severe character disorders (e.g., borderline patients “forgetting” their appointments) and, by permitting a modified return of exiled mental contents, gives birth to neurotic symptoms as well as creative imagination. Taking Freud’s seminal discourse on repression (in: Repression. Standard Edition, vol 14. Hogarth, London, pp 141–158 1915a) as its starting point, this paper elucidates the complex, nuanced, and pervasive nature of this defense. It deconstructs Freud’s unitary concept of repression into four implicit binaries and updates his proposals in the light of contemporary psychoanalytic theory. The paper offers clear guidelines for clinical applications of these ideas.

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Correspondence to Salman Akhtar.

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Salman Akhtar, M. D., Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Jefferson Medical College; Training and Supervising Analyst, Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia.

Address correspondence to: Salman Akhtar, M. D., Jefferson Medical College, 833 Chestnut East, Suite 210-C, Philadelphia, PA, 19107, USA. Email: salman.akhtar@jefferson.edu

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Akhtar, S. Repression: A Critical Assessment and Update of Freud’s 1915 Paper. Am J Psychoanal 80, 241–258 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s11231-020-09261-z

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/s11231-020-09261-z

Keywords

  • Repression
  • unconscious
  • binary
  • psychopathology
  • clinical practice