Often times, 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. You often wonder about the truth behind these claims. Are they tales, or is there something more legitimate behind them?
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 for treating the human psyche and encompasses a theory of human behavior and personality. Psychoanalytic theory introduced the concept of defense mechanisms, or mental strategies that shield an individual from painful thoughts when they lack mechanisms of coping. A specific defense mechanism and cornerstone of psychoanalysis is the concept of repression. Repression psychology, sometimes termed as “motivated forgetting”, is the unconscious act of pushing distressing memories, thoughts, and emotions out of the conscious mind when one does not have the capacity to cope with them.
Freud postulated that a human unknowingly, would banish painful and traumatic items into the unconscious mind to protect the conscious mind from their existence. Freud 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.
Freud believed that distressing items were comprised of sexual impulses, forceful drives, and agonizing and traumatic childhood memories. Freud 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 present day, there continues to be considerable debate on the legitimacy of repression. Some trauma research portrays 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.
Despite the ongoing debate about the accuracy of repression psychology, we continue to hear stories about those who do not remember traumatic episodes. Individuals from 9-11 who can no longer remember the details from that day, or war veterans who cannot recall any of the time spent on the battlefield. Despite the pain of childbirth, women continue to have babies, explaining that they seemingly forgot how painful it was. Freudian slips occur, where sentences are uttered without realizing that they were thoughts in the first place. Freud is certainly one of the most controversial figures of all time. It is likely that we will never be able to prove his theories, but with all the stories that you hear, it is unlikely that we will be able to disprove them either.
Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. 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. Tracy facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.