What is Repression in Psychology? 

Author Tracy Smith
Updated on July 30, 2023

Repression in psychology refers to the unconscious act of pushing distressing memories, thoughts, and emotions out of the conscious mind when one cannot cope with them. This defense mechanism, also known as “motivated forgetting,” is a key concept in psychoanalysis, a clinical approach pioneered by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century.

woman comforting her sad friend

Oftentimes, whether in television, movies, or real life, you hear tales about individuals experiencing some type of trauma and later, having no memory that it happened. This often occurs to people who have been abused, neglected, in an accident, or part of another ordeal. One could have suffered years of abuse or may have been neglected for the greater part of their childhood. The person may have been in a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or earthquake, or may have just been at the wrong place at the wrong time during an act of terrorism.

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist denoted as the “Father of Psychoanalysis.” Freud pioneered psychoanalytic theory in the late 19th century. Psychoanalysis is a clinical approach to treating the human psyche and encompasses a theory of human behavior and personality. The psychoanalytic theory introduced the concept of defense mechanisms, or mental strategies that shield an individual from painful thoughts when they lack mechanisms of coping. The concept of repression used as a defense mechanism is one of the cornerstones of the psychodynamic approach to psychology

Freud postulated that a human unknowingly would banish painful and traumatic items into the unconscious mind to protect the conscious mind from their existence. He explained that the individual would tuck these thoughts into inaccessible areas of the unconscious with the intent of either dealing with them at another time or forgetting about them completely. Freud believed that repression could exist on a continuum, with individuals either locking away items temporarily or burying them deeply towards amnesia.

Furthermore, Freud held that distressing emotions were comprised of sexual impulses, forceful drives, and agonizing and traumatic childhood memories. He stated that psychopathology was a direct result of this unconscious repression and concluded that the psyche could be cured if repressed, unconscious elements were coaxed into consciousness. Freud utilized interventions such as dream analysis and free association to cajole unconscious remnants back into the conscious mind.

Psychoanalytic theory asserts that anxiety, neuroticism, and fear arise when prohibited impulses loom near the conscious mind, inevitably prompting undesirable, and damaging behaviors to occur. The theory also contends that repression can cause poor physical health and weaker immune systems.

In the present day, there continues to be considerable debate on the legitimacy of repression. Some trauma research concludes that individuals can indeed block out memories, while other research reveals that trauma and elevated emotions can intensify and bolster memories of an event. Most of the conducted research seems to point to the fact that actual memory repression is unusual and infrequent.

Concluding Thoughts

Despite the ongoing debate, stories of individuals who do not remember traumatic episodes persist. Instances like 9-11 survivors who cannot recall the details of that day, war veterans who have no recollection of their time on the battlefield, and women who seemingly forget the pain of childbirth are commonly shared. While it is challenging to prove or disprove Freud’s theories definitively, the concept of repression continues to intrigue and captivate the field of psychology.


Author Tracy Smith

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for a Community YMCA. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents.

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