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Explanations > Behaviours > Coping > Sublimation

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



Sublimation is the transformation of unwanted impulses into something less harmful. This can simply be a distracting release or may be a constructive and valuable piece of work.

When we are faced with the dissonance of uncomfortable thoughts, we create psychic energy. This has to go somewhere. Sublimation channels this energy away from destructive acts and into something that is socially acceptable and/or creatively effective.

Many sports and games are sublimations of aggressive urges, as we sublimate the desire to fight into the ritualistic activities of formal competition.


I am angry. I go out and chop wood. I end up with a useful pile of firewood. I am also fitter and nobody is harmed.

A person who has an obsessive need for control and order becomes a successful business entrepreneur.

A person with strong sexual urges becomes an artist.

A man who has extra-marital desires takes up household repairs when his wife is out of town.

A surgeon turns aggressive energies and deep desires to cut people into life-saving acts.


Sublimation is probably the most useful and constructive of the defense mechanisms as it takes the energy of something that is potentially harmful and turns it to doing something good and useful.

Freud believed that the greatest achievements in civilization were due to the effective sublimation of our sexual and aggressive urges that are sourced in the Id and then channeled by the Ego as directed by the Super ego. In his more basic musings, he considered such as painting as a potentially sublimated desire to smear one's own faeces.

Sublimation is one of Anna Freud's original defense mechanisms.

So what?

Help others who are causing themselves and others problems, for example by their sexual advances or aggressive outbursts, to re-channel their energies into more constructive activities.

Beware of 'on the boundary' activities (including your own) where sublimated energy may switch back into unwanted or anti-social activities or other, less constructive, coping mechanisms.

See also

Repression, Fantasy

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