Teddy bear left behind in abandoned buildingSigmund Freud originally developed the concept of repression as part of his psychoanalytic theory. Repression occurs when a thought, memory, or feeling is too painful for an individual, so the person unconsciously pushes the information out of consciousness and becomes unaware of its existence. The repressed thought may still affect behavior, but the person who repressed the thought is completely unaware of its existence or effect.

Repression can sometimes be mistaken for suppression. Unlike repression, suppression is when a person consciously forces unwanted thoughts, memories, or feelings out of conscious awareness.

 Examples of Repression

  • A child suffers abuse by a parent, represses the memories, and becomes completely unaware of them as a young adult. The repressed memories of abuse may still affect this person’s behavior by causing difficulty in forming relationships.
  • An adult suffers a nasty spider bite as a child and develops an intense phobia of spiders later in life without any recollection of the experience as a child. Because the memory of the spider bite is repressed, he or she may not understand where the phobia originates.
  • Freudian slips,” or parapraxis, by definition can be thought of as examples of repression. Freud believed that errors in speech, memory, or physical reactions were the result of something hidden in the offender’s unconscious.

Freudian Repression

Repression is a central concept in psychoanalytic theory, and many of Freud’s ideas center around the concept of repression. Freud did not classify repression as a defense mechanism; he argued that it occurs before the ego develops.

Freud found that the people he worked with in therapy were more likely to recall things under hypnosis than consciously recall things without hypnosis. This led to his development of the concept of repression. Much of the development of the psyche, according to Freud, is repressed. The Oedipal Complex, for example, is not consciously remembered by the child; children also do not remember the development of the ego or superego and adults may repress their awareness of the id.

Repression in Contemporary Psychology

Contemporary psychologists most commonly use repression to refer to repressed memories—life incidents that the individual cannot recall without the assistance of therapeutic tools such as hypnosis. Repressed memory therapy is extremely controversial. In the late 20th century, many therapists utilized hypnosis to help the people they worked with in therapy remember incidents of sexual abuse. In some cases, the abuse turned out to have never happened. People are highly suggestible under hypnosis, and in some cases therapists may have inadvertently suggested memories that never actually occurred.

Mainstream psychologists now argue that repressed memories are very uncommon, and some clinicians argue that once a memory is lost it cannot be recovered.


  1. American Psychological Association.APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
  2. Garssen, B. (2007). Repression: Finding our way in the maze of concepts. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 30(6), 471-81. doi:
  3. Colman, A. M. (2006).Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University

Last Updated: 08-21-2015

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