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Repression – Freud’s master defense mechanism

defend-444565_640We’ve probably all heard the psychological term “repressed” without stopping to think where it comes from.

The idea of repression usually turns up in sentences like, That bible thumper is so repressed, he can’t get it on with anyone. And in other insinuations like Billy Joel’s lyric, You Catholic girls start much too late.¹

I’ll talk about these examples a bit later but first, let’s understand what Freud meant by the idea of repression.

Freud believed that repression is widespread, leading many Freudian psychoanalysts to call it the “master” defense mechanism. Repression apparently occurs when anxiety provoking impulses or ideas are banished to the unconscious by the ego or superego.

  • Primary repression takes place when instinctual impulses are blocked before they reach consciousness.
  • Secondary repression occurs when camouflaged versions of an initial impulse are relegated to the unconscious.

An example of secondary repression would be a respected religious figure’s inability to remember a dream image of himself as an axe-murderer. The image generally would represent thanatos or the death instinct and, specifically, a desire to depose a threatening object (Freud’s use of ‘object’ includes other people). This violent desire is inconsistent with the dreamer’s conscious self-image, so the dream image is repressed.

Repression can be healthy when preventing the ego from being overwhelmed by anxiety. But it becomes unhealthy when fears and neuroses are never dealt with. Unresolved neuroses contribute to psychological rigidity and, in some instances, may impair overall functioning and quality of life.²

Image via Tumblr

Image via Tumblr

That’s the theory in a nutshell. With regard to sexuality, from a theological standpoint it’s hard to know when someone is merely repressed or if they’ve been called to celibacy, a perspective Freud could not understand. Also, some geneticists and physiologists theorize that people with low to non-existent sex drives are simply put together differently.

So the next time you hear a sexual joke about that “frigid” so-and-so, maybe think again. For all we know, the so-called “repressed” person might simply be different from most and possibly operating on a level that many are too conventional to appreciate.³

¹ Billy Joel, “Only The Good Die Young” on the album The Stranger.

² Freud began as a neurologist before founding psychoanalysis. For some decades supposedly “scientific” psychologists generally discredited his views but more recently neurology is turning its gaze back to the idea of repression and other Freudian concepts. This time, instead of flatly debunking Freud’s ideas, some researchers find them at least partly compatible with modern research. See:

³ Andy Warhol and saints from different world religions come to mind.

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Freud’s Reality Principle (German: Realitätsprinzip) – Is that all there is?

Hanging man artwork, in Prague, Czech Republic, a work by David Cerny intended to depict Sigmund Freud.

In Sigmund Freud‘s personality theory, the reality principle is a learned psychological function that seeks to gratify instinctual desires (id) through adaptation to the external world.

The reality principle exists in a state of tension with the innate pleasure principle. The instinctual id always wants instant gratification. The rest of the psyche (ego, superego) limits and directs the id so that its incessant demands are appropriately expressed, both personally and socially.¹

That is Freud’s theory of normality. Sadly, however, we often we hear in the news instances – and lawsuits – where the id reigns supreme by eclipsing or habitually overshadowing the rest of the psyche. And if an imbalanced person happens to have power over others, say in the workplace, sometimes they can get away with abusive behavior and, perhaps, other crimes for quite some time before victims come forward.

I have great respect for Freud as a true pioneer in trying to systematize the psyche. However, my main critique of Freud’s view has to do with his understanding of external “reality.” For Freud, external reality is limited to the material and the social. Freud was openly hostile to religion and religious ideas. This hostility put him at odds with his star pupil, Carl Jung, whose analytical psychology also became a leading force, especially among writers, artists and depth psychologists interested in more than just sex, aggression, secular life (Freud’s eros) and death (thanatos).

¹ I took a memorable first-year humanities course at York University directed by a Freudian analyst, Dr. Don Carveth. Although soaking up the professor’s wise words as far back as the early 80s, I remember the general theory very well. Reading Kendra Cherry’s excellent summary also helped to flesh out this short entry » https://www.verywell.com/what-is-the-reality-principle-2795801, as did Charles Rycroft’s clear and concise » https://www.amazon.com/Critical-Dictionary-Psychoanalysis-Penguin-Reference/dp/0140513108


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Sri Ramakrishna – Hindu spiritual figure claiming to have practiced different religions

English: Ramakrishna Paramhansacommons:Image:R...

Ramakrishna (Photo: Wikipedia)

Sri Ramakrishna (1836-86) began life as an obscure, unschooled village boy, Gadhadhar Chatterji. His first major religoius experience came at age six.

Ramakrishna describes his first spiritual ecstasy…while walking along the paddy fields, a flock of white cranes flying against a backdrop of dark thunder clouds caught his vision. He reportedly became so absorbed by this scene that he lost outward consciousness and experienced indescribable joy in that state.¹

In the years to come, he became a prominent Hindu holy man, emphasizing unity among all religions.

Ramakrishna says he practiced all faiths and discovered that they all lead to the same spiritual place. Just how thoroughly, however, one can effectively rid oneself of one’s cultural and religious biases remains open to debate. My sense is that he viewed other religions through the lense of his own biases, even though he claims all thoughts of Hinduism vanished while, for instance, someone read the Bible to him or while he recited the name of Allah.²

To me his exploration of non-Hindu religions seems superficial and, perhaps, even delusional. He bases his analysis on visions had while practicing some of the outward measures of different religious faiths, including Chritianity. But for most mystically inclined Christians, religious visions only strenghthen and reassure. They are not the measure of faith. Faith is about putting your religion into practice, day in and day out. It’s about finding God through selfless serving, while sweeping the floor or maybe cleaning a toilet. It’s not about a brief and, I would suggest, questionable vision that comes after a few days of external practice. Anyone on drugs or with a hepped up brain can have that. Moreover, it is not about wanting to be exalted as a holy man that everyone should liken to God.³

This issue aside, biographers say Ramakrishna often fell into extended ecstatic raptures. These trances were extreme to the point that even Ramakrishna himself sometimes wondered if he’d gone mad. At such moments the Hindu Blessed Mother, Kali, apparently would appear in a mystical vision and console him with her graces.

English: This is a pencil sketch of the holy m...

Sketch of the holy mother Sri Sarada Devi (Photo: Wikipedia)

Before marrying Sri Devi, Ramakrishna prayed that Kali would “root out” all of her sexual tendencies. Not surprisingly, their marriage was never consummated. While this may seem strange to many who can’t see beyond our materialistic, techno-sexual culture, the two reportedly were united in a purely spiritual sense, making sexual union redundant, perhaps even distasteful. Considering she was much younger than him, this is surprising. But most Hindu accounts don’t talk too much about female sexuality, focussing on the male gurus’ ‘great victories’ over their male sexual urges.4

To help overcome his male sexual urges, Ramakrishna often dressed and behaved as a woman. Again, to me this seems quite crude, not in the sense that I am against cross-dressing (I’m not) but in the sense that it is such a materialistic, clunky approach. I would think that a deeply spiritual person, someone revered as holy, would be able to inwardly experience a “subtle body,” as the Hindus put it, of the opposite sex without having to go through all the laborious externals of cross-dressing.

The Gospel of Ramakrishna, based on the writings of his direct disciples, is widely available in the West. Essentially a wisdom book, it is full of pithy sayings and examples. In one analogy Ramakrishna notes, for instance, that bad tomatoes rot faster when bashed up and thrown into a garbage heap. This alludes to the idea that the soul may be purified of ungodly attitudes (bad tomatoes) through holy suffering (for more on this dynamic, see » Bhagavad Gita, Alchemy).

With regard to the idea of karma transfer, which for most people sounds alien and difficult to grasp, an Indian biographer writes that Ramakrishna:

had a vision of his subtle body…[with] a number of sores on the back. He was puzzled by the sight, but it was made clear…profane people had caused the sores on his body. They themselves had been purified, but they had left the suffering arising from their own sins with him.5

English: Photograph of Ramakrishna, taken on 1...

Photograph of Ramakrishna, taken on 10 December 1881 at the studio of The Bengal Photographers in Radhabazar, Calcutta, India. (Photo Wikipedia)

This illlustrates some core beliefs about the dynamics of Hindu mysticism. Similar but not identical beliefs can be found in Christian mysticism, In Catholicism souls closer to God suffer for the salvation of less pure souls (see » Faustina Kowalska). Further to this point, the worldly critique that “prayer does nothing” might, from the perspective of a bona fide saint, be seen as an unfortunate misunderstanding perpetuated by ignorance or sin.

Having said that, the idea that we can pick up bad vibes from other people is nothing new. And I think some religious people sensitive to this dynamic make a kind of grandiose career out of being “special” and “holy” when really, they are just sensitive—probably at least partly due to some physiological predisposition. The grandiosity, I think, comes from an underlying inferiority complex or from some other complication.

On the social level, Ramakrishna’s disciples founded the international charity organization known as the Ramakrishna Mission. And his most beloved disciple, Swami Vivekananda, became another pivotal Hindu religious figure.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramakrishna

² Ibid.

³ Non-Christians, of course, accuse Jesus of this. But it’s pretty clear that Jesus didn’t personally want to go on the cross, a symbol which has lasted through the centuries.

4 We also see this with Gandhi, who apparently in the platonic sense slept naked with his grand-neice and married women to overcome his sexual urges, which seems a little weird from a Western perspective. See >> http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/ghandi-slept-grandniece-historian-tells-uk-government-1460499

5 Swami Tejasananda, A Short Life of Sri Ramakrishna, Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama [Publication Department], 1990, p. 92. PDF (downloadable) version: https://advaitaashrama.org/downloads/A%20Short%20Life%20of%20Sri%20Ramakrishna.pdf, p. 105.

Related » Brahman, Contemplation, Hinduism, Mental Prayer, Spirit, Vocal Prayer