Understanding Sublimation

We all have impulses to do socially inappropriate things, we have sexual fantasies, that if we manifest in public, would be less than ideal. A solution to this plight of ours comes through sublimation, the redirecting of libidinal energy towards socially beneficial pursuits.

This idea from psychology was popularized by Freud, but he was not the only person who had something to say about it.


Imagine a sadist who would have been destined to inflict pain on his fellow human beings instead becoming a surgeon or a dentist — that is, to get paid for being inhumane. Or imagine the case of the professional NFL athlete who knocks people unconscious for a living.

The idea of sublimation has some scientific credibility. A study in 2013 showed that Protestants were more likely to sublimate their taboo feelings into creative activities, and that people who had sexual problems related to anxieties over taboo desires were more likely to have creative accomplishments than those who did not. These studies may be the first experimental evidence for sublimation.

Schreber vs da Vinci

Schreber was a judge who was diagnosed with dementia. Freud thought that Schreber’s illness stemmed from his repression of homosexual desires which was first overtly expressed in his quickly suppressed thought that “it would be nice to be a woman submitting to the act of copulation.” This repression made him believe that God was trying to unman him and led to different obsessive thoughts and behavior. This case would not normally be sublimation.

Leonardo’s case is different. He suppressed his homosexual desires, but this repression led to scientific inquisitiveness and artistic activities — including his obsession with drawing perfect representations of the male body. This was a classic case of sublimation.

Leonardo’s homosexual urges were constantly repressed, he lived an asexual adult life, and this repression gave rise to his scientific and artistic drives. But the limitation of Freud’s theory is that repression and defense was used interchangeably, thus blurring the definition of sublimation.

The conclusion here is that as a result of successful psychoanalysis, the unconscious repression of the ideational and energetic components are lifted, but the sublimation that results in scientific and artistic expression involves lifting the repression of the energetic component, but not the ideational component, hence why Leonardo continued to obsess over the male body.


The theory of sublimation is informed by Freud’s conception of id, ego, and superego. The id is primitive part of our personality, and the ego emerges later during childhood — the ego reigns in the id and makes it conform to the demands of the real world. The superego, or the moral arbitrator, constantly strives to make us behave according to higher ethical standards. The ego’s job is to mediate between the id and the superego.

One way the ego can reduce the anxiety created by our primitive feelings is through sublimation — a mature and constructive way for people to manifest these feelings.

Freud stumbled upon the idea of sublimation by accident. He got the it when reading a well-known travel book, The Harz Journey, by the poet Heinrich Heine. The poet recalls meeting a great German surgeon called Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach, who used to be a sadistic little boy — he loved to cut off the tails off stray dogs for pleasure, but as an adult, he transformed into a brilliant surgeon who made pioneering discoveries in his field.

Freud believed that many great achievements in politics, the arts, and the sciences stemmed from a desire for compensation — a politician who campaigns for the poor may be sublimating the greed he felt when he was younger.

Freud notes that far from becoming nihilistic as a result of our unmet needs, we manage to transform into functional adults — most of the time. He reminds us that we started out as babies — a time when we believed that not getting exactly what we wanted whenever we pleased would cause the world to end. We were self-centered and found it difficult to be generous to others, but we managed to substitute our narcissistic aims for more ethical ones.

But he did not think that we are ever finished with sublimation. Often, we find our sexual needs being unmet. We meet people we want to have sex with but don’t. This energy, instead of disappearing, can get redirected into creative endeavors, scientific discoveries and humanitarian work.

“The task in sublimation is that of shifting the instinctual aims in such a way that they cannot come up against frustration from the external world. In this, sublimation of the instincts lends its assistance. One gains the most if one can sufficiently heighten the yield of pleasure from the sources of intellectual work” (…) “A satisfaction of this kind, such as an artist’s joy in creating, in giving his fantasies body, or a scientist’s in solving problems or discovering truths, has a special quality. But their intensity is mild as compared with that derived from the sating of crude and primary instinctual impulses.”

Freud has noted the difficulty of separating symptoms from sublimations and similarly, sickness from health — there isn’t a sharp distinction between normal and neurotic people. Neuroticism substitutes for repression and is necessary for the normal transition from childhood to adulthood. In other words, everyone is somewhat neurotic, but what makes someone pathologically so, is having a high number of neurotic symptoms — and only that would justify labeling this person as “ill” or having a “constitutional inferiority.”

There are destructive ways of manifesting libidinal energy according to Freud, these include repression, displacement, denial, reaction formation, intellectualisation, and projection.


Unlike Freud, who thought everything was about sex, Jung didn’t agree that sublimation was sexual, he thought that it was more mystical. Jung thought that Freud was trying to make sublimation fit a rationalistic, scientific worldview when it didn’t, that Freud invented the idea to save us from our terrifying unconscious.

“Sublimation is not a voluntary and the forcible channeling of instinct into a spurious field of application” (…) “Sublimatio is a great mystery. Freud has appropriated this concept and usurped it for the sphere of the will, and the bourgeois, rationalistic theos.”

For Jung, transformation is a social duty, it is the most important concept in Jungian psychology and can explain many processes. Freud’s idea of sublimation was purely materialistic, while Jung recognized the transcendental potential of the psyche, he saw it as something to be respected — as something mysterious.


The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan thought that as human beings, we all experience a vacuum, and we try to fill it with relationships with other people, objects, or experiences — but never quite getting there. Das Ding (“The Thing” in German) was a lost object that man was forever chasing after. Sometimes, the individual might be tricked by his psyche into believing that his needs could be satisfied in an enduring way by a person, thing, or experience. But one never finds Das Ding, only its pleasurable associations.

Jacques Lacan has noted the difficulty in properly defining sublimation but Lacanian sublimation is built on the idea of Das Ding. Lacan thinks that these objects, which are philosophical, aesthetic, or credal are representative of Das Ding, and that the pleasure principle leads the subject from one signifier to another, thus relieving psychic tension.

Think of an intellectual moving from one idea to the next, or an artist who paints one canvas after another, or a person who moves from relationship to relationship, constantly trying to satisfy this urge that will never go away. Man creates his own support system; he finds the signifiers that delude him into believing that he has overcome the emptiness of Das Ding


Nietzsche also had views on sublimation. and they may offer insight into the cases of da Vinci and Schreber. Nietzsche thought of individuals as being collections of drives. But most modern humans — members of the denigrated herd, are simply disorganized collections of competing drives, with these drives exchanging superiority at different times.

But Nietzsche’s ideal weaker drives are not suppressed or shackled.

“Overcoming of the affects? No, if that means their weakening and annihilation. But instead employing them; which may mean a long tyrannizing of them… At last they are confidently given freedom again: they love us as good servants and happily go wherever our best interests lie”

Nietzsche thought that sublimation applied to both sexual and aggressive instincts — that sublimation came from inhibition or an intellectual process, he believed it was a widespread manifestation.

The concept of sublimation, which was not new, was applied by Nietzsche
both to the sexual and the aggressive instincts. He considered sublimation a result of inhibition or of an intellectual process, and a very widespread manifestation. “Good actions are sublimated evil ones.” Even in their most sublimated forms, instincts retain their importance: “The degree and quality of a person’s sexuality finds its way into the topmost reaches of his spirit.

The Discovery of the Unconscious, Ellenberger

The Difference between Sublimation and Repression

Sublimation occurs when a drive’s primary aim is substituted for a secondary aim that allows the expression of the drive in a way that is congruent with the master drive. Repression is what happens when a drive is denied its aim, and is split off from other drives in that its aims are not integrated with the aim of other drives.

In the cases of Leonardo and Schreber, Leonardo’s homosexual drive is redirected towards the secondary aims of scientific (and not sexual) research, and art. This includes the possession of idealized representations of the male body, but not the sexual possession of one. Schreber did not integrate his sexual drive with his life. but tried to isolate it.

Both Nietzsche and Freud saw sublimation as a mark of health. Nietzsche saw it as a pathway towards a unified self, and while Freud defined health in utilitarian terms or relative happiness, Nietzsche measured it in terms of freedom from bitterness and the conflicting urges between drives, he measured it in terms of abundant expressive energy and self-overcoming.

Nietzsche describes what is called today repression, and applies it to perception and memory. “Oblivion is not a mere force of inertia… On the contrary, it is an active, and in the strictest sense, a positive capacity for inhibition.” “I have done it, says my memory. I cannot have done it, says my pride and remains inexorable. Finally, the memory gives way.”

The Discovery of the Unconscious, Ellenberger

And Nietzsche, unlike Freud, did not see the need for an ego. He thought we have conflicting drives, but none were regulated by something like an ego.

Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Sud Alogu

Sud Alogu

I write about ideas that matter to me. In other words, revolutionary.