The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology advises about sublimation:

"In classical psychoanalysis, the process whereby primitive libidinous impulses are redirected into new, learned, 'noninstinctive' behaviours. Typically, the term is used with the understanding that the learned behaviours are socially acceptable whereas the instinctive impulses would not be. Classical theory regarded creative and artistic tendencies as manifestations of sublimation.

Generally, and more loosely, any redirection of energy from the socially unacceptable to the acceptable. Quite apart from the fact that there is actually a bit more to it than that, that clinical description tells us nothing of what is actually happening inside the mind and emotions of the client.

Sublimation is not something that the individual decides to do - in fact they are not usually aware that the situation exists, or even that it is possible. It is a subconscious process caused by profound repression, and tends to involve our most insistent instinctual drives - usually sexuality. It is as though, because it is one of our basic drives, the subconscious strives to turn us away from that activity to ensure the integrity of the repression.

What happens then is that emotion and energy that would normally be expended into sexual activity - when it is that which has been sublimated - is diverted by the subconscious into something that could be perceived as being as far removed as possible from it; religion perhaps. The more complete the sublimation, the more total the diversion of energy; complete sublimation might lead to total abstinence and maybe even a life of worship such as that (supposedly) adopted by priests, monks and nuns, for example. On a slightly lesser scale where the sublimation is not so complete, a career in the church may still be sought, though perhaps in a capacity where some sexual activity is considered to be acceptable, as in the case of a vicar.

Then, he is obviously 'respectable' so can indulge his basic instinctual drives, which would probably be low-ish anyway, with a clear conscience. I'm not saying that all church ministers are subject to sublimation... oh, I don't know though, maybe I am.

I said 'supposedly' in reference to priests, monks and nuns, because it is extremely rare for sublimation to be so total that there is absolutely no interest at all in the original activity. It is often denied, sometimes even vehemently so; there may even be protestations of a disgust or dislike of it; but rarely is there a total indifference. Interest is interest is interest, be it negative or positive.

Given that forces of the libido are involved, it should not be surprising that the adopted behaviour pattern can often seem obsessive. For example, it is generally accepted that the high level of interest generated by sexual matters, especially amongst young people, is 'normal'. But the same level of interest being generated by religion amongst the same young people would definitely not seem normal to the average person. Quite the reverse, in fact - it would seem decidedly odd. Most therapists would, indeed, label it as obsessional behaviour.

It need not be religion that gets 'adopted' of course. It can be any pursuit into which vast amounts of energy and dedication (obsession) can be poured; anything from art or acting, to sports or mountaineering. Some of the world explorers of the post-Victorian era were probably subject to this process. When you think of it, that sort of activity even has a kind of Freudian similarity - foraging through dense forest and rivers to discover hitherto unknown secrets!

I said earlier that that Penguin Dictionary of Psychology description was not complete so I'd better justify that statement. I believe that it is not only drives which are viewed as socially unacceptable that cause sublimation, but also drives which are totally unacceptable to the individual, for whatever reason.

One of the more common ones of this type you will find is the sublimation of parental urges and instincts onto animals (though there is actually some doubt as to whether or not this is a true instinct). Of course, this is very clever of the subconscious, because loving animals is socially and morally acceptable, they are living creatures who need nurturing and who return affection (or, depending on your own viewpoint, appear to return affection) and also remain in a state of some dependence on their owner - the owner therefore remains in charge of that situation for as long as s/he wants to. The important thing to recognise here is that it goes way beyond the normal love of animals that many people have.

An individual with this sublimation will talk to their animals as though they were children; believe that they understand every single word that is spoken to them by their owner; will protect them and worry about them as fiercely as a 'normal' person would a child; and, when they die, will grieve for them no less than a parent would grieve for a child. They would probably choose to go without food so that their pet could eat, and may even risk life and limb to protect them from harm.

One case that came my way was a woman who vehemently detested children and cared not one bit who knew it. The fact that she was not indifferent to children indicated that the sublimation was not total - which was probably just as well, for she kept a huge menagerie of animals and had that sublimation been complete, she might well have become suicidal every time one died. Oh, yes, it's that powerful. Her parents, though, had had a totally different attitude towards children and had fostered hundreds and adopted several. All very laudable, except that my client had had a permanent baby sister or brother taking her parents attention away from her from the age of ten until she got married and left home. She had had enough experience of babies and children 'stealing' her attention to last her a lifetime and in addition to this her lack of any self-worth to speak of soon became evident.

Neither she nor her husband wanted children and she was quite happy about this situation, having presented to me with anxiety generally and greatly protracted panic attacks. She only mentioned her antipathy towards children when I asked her about relationships and family. Needless to say, I pointed out to her that analysis might make a difference to the way she felt about having children of her own (I said nothing about sublimation - see (1) below) and that she should consider the implications for her marriage. She insisted, though, that she was certain that nothing could ever change her attitude and therefore decided to go through analysis.

The fine details of her case are unimportant here. There was a lot of emotional release, but the only noticeable change that took place as far as her attitude to children was concerned was that she stopped hating them, instead becoming indifferent. I have to accept the possibility that the sublimation became more complete as a result of analysis, probably because she did not want any other sort of change. Of course, I have seen nothing of her since, so it's entirely possible, even likely, that her attitude altered as transference dissolved.

The point of all this, the whole point of this article, really, is so that you can recognise two very important facts.

NEVER underestimate a client's attitude and feelings just because they differ from what you believe to be normal. To do so is to make the creation of transference more difficult, even unlikely. For the same reason, it is NOT a good idea to start explaining sublimation to them. If there is a sublimation at work, their feelings towards their alternative subconscious choice will very likely be as strong as - or even stronger than - yours are towards your normal instinct. Their drive towards religion, for example, will be as strong as yours is towards sexual activity. How would you feel if you were told that analysis might stop your sexual drive? Resistant, perhaps? You certainly would not believe the truth of the matter - that once the repression is released and if there is a change in your attitude, then you will be delighted by that change and happier than you have ever been. In general, emphasise the positive. "You might find yourself starting to like children" is fine; "You might find yourself loving animals less" is definitely not.

NEVER confuse obsession and sublimation, because the sublimated individual is far more treatable, via analysis, than the obsessive. The major difference is that the individual who is subject to sublimation is likely to be strongly obsessive in only one particular area, whilst the truly obsessive individual will exhibit typically obsessive behaviour generally.

When I have client who seems to be obsessive in just one particular area, I want to find out if one of his/her human instinctual drives - sexuality, parenting, survival, pleasure-seeking, etc. - is exceptionally low. If so, the indication is towards sublimation rather than obsession, which bodes well for the analysis, and I will proceed.

That's about it on sublimation, but a few words on the treatment of obsessive behaviour generally may not come amiss. When I feel that the individual is obsessive, I will never take them for analysis without making it perfectly plain that this is not an open-ended situation in which we will continue until they no longer have the problem. Obsession is hard enough to deal with, without them thinking they have all the time in the world... our main hope of success is to channel their obsessive processes into their analysis. I usually tell them we will review their progress after six weeks and decide then whether or not to continue. At six weeks, if no pathogenic material has been released, it is a safe bet that it is not going to be and I can discharge them from therapy without ill feeling on their part.

Copyright Terence Watts, 1997

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