What is Sublimation in Psychology?

This blog answers: What is sublimation in psychology? How Does Sublimation Work? What are some examples of sublimation from real life? What are defense mechanisms in psychology? What is the contribution of Sigmund Freud to Sublimation in psychology?

What is Sublimation in Psychology?

Sublimation, in psychology, is a type of defense mechanism used by humans on an unconscious level. Using defense mechanisms can either be healthy or unhealthy, depending on how they are used.

In sublimation, socially unacceptable impulses are turned into socially acceptable or helpful behaviors. The unacceptable impulses trigger distress and anxiety in people. Most of the time, these negative urges and impulses are of aggressive or sexual nature.

Through sublimation, one tends to lessen the distress and anxiety by channeling the negative impulses into something positive. That’s why sublimation is one of the mature types of defense mechanisms because it converts something totally negative into something incredibly positive.

How Does sublimation work?

Sublimation works with a more straightforward example that applies to everyone. We all get hotheaded and angry in our relationships at one point or another. Sometimes the anger is so extreme that it may damage the relationship, especially if it occurs frequently.

What can a person do when he or she is overwhelmed with rage? They can act their rage out, reducing the rage but possibly damaging their relationship. Instead of doing that, the person can channel the negative energy into something potentially beneficial.

The person may, for instance, channel the negative energy into physical tasks such as cleaning the house. This would not only calm the person down and reduce the negative energy, but it would also actually convert it into something that’s socially acceptable and useful. This is how sublimation works.

What are some examples of sublimation from real life?

We all use sublimation quite frequently throughout our lives. Following are some real-life examples of sublimation.

  • A person with aggressive tendencies and temper may participate in sports. By doing so, the person channels his negative impulses of fighting with people into healthy sports competitions.
  • A person who is angry at someone, perhaps a neighbor or his/her partner, may decide to go for a jog instead of fighting.
  • A person who has just suffered heartbreak from a breakup starts writing poetry to deal with the negative emotions and let them out.

What are defense mechanisms in psychology?

Understanding sublimation requires understanding defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are simply unconscious psychological mechanisms that help us avoid anxiety and distress-provoking thoughts and memories.

We are under the control of many impulses and urges during most of our waking hours throughout our lives. Some of these urges and impulses are what we want, while others are what we don’t want.

This difference between unwanted and wanted impulses and urges is crucial because it determines the extent to which we regard them acceptable or unacceptable and the extent to which they are anxiety-provoking or otherwise.

Naturally, we all get anxious all the time. But our brains have a way of coping with anxiety. In psychology, specifically psychoanalysis, we refer to the mechanisms we tend to protect ourselves from anxieties as defense mechanisms.

A defense mechanism is a psychological operation operating at an unconscious level to save us from anxiety-provoking thoughts and feelings.

What is the Contribution of Sigmund Freud to Sublimation in Psychology?

Sigmund Freud is the originator of the concept of sublimation in psychology. Sigmund Freud came up with the idea of sublimation when he came across the story of a person who would torture animals as a child.

The person, later on, became a surgeon. Freud hypothesized that the person sublimated his impulses of sadism into a socially acceptable profession. During sublimation, one turns unacceptable desires/impulses/urges into acceptable ones. This transformation is being performed by the ego part of our personality. Freud regarded this ability to channel negative impulses into positive behaviors as a sign of maturity.  

Freud viewed human personality as comprised of three essential parts: the id, the ego, and the superego (Freud, 1999). The Id follows the pleasure principle. It is what wants instant gratifications.

The superego follows the moral principle. It is in charge of weighing things on moral grounds. That’s why the id and the superego are always in conflict with each other. That’s where the ego comes along to solve their conflicts.

The ego is based on the reality principle. It listens to both the ego and the superego and solves their conflicts realistically. We can say that what the ego does is that it reduces the anxiety created by the conflicts of id and ego. That’s why the ego is always playing a mediating role during all psychological defense mechanisms, including sublimation.


Uncontrollable anxiety can be extremely harmful, both physically and psychologically. Our minds are designed in a way to save us from the harmful impacts of uncontrollable anxieties. Through sublimation, we can turn the apparently bad and harmful impulses into something that’s actually useful.

Although sublimation primarily works on an unconscious or subconscious level, one can use the idea and train oneself in a way that is helpful. Someone with anger issues can channel their anger into useful activities that require physical input, such as sports, running, etc. Someone with uncontrollable sexual urges can become an artist or train for a marathon.

Frequently Asked Questions: What is Sublimation in Psychology?

Is sublimation good or bad?

Sublimation can be regarded as a neutral phenomenon, meaning that it can be both good and bad. It can be misused because defense mechanisms are out of our control and can falsify reality.

However, it can be beneficial while dealing with uncontrollable impulses, especially ones related to anger. Sublimation turns the bad into good and can result in long-term changes in behavior as well.

Does Sublimation Work Consciously or Unconsciously?

It primarily operates at an unconscious level. It is our brain’s attempt to save us from the harmful impacts of socially unacceptable anxiety-provoking thoughts and urges.

What are some examples of sublimation in popular fiction?

Sublimation could be seen in famous works such as Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill, and The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson.

Is there empirical support for sublimation?

Kim et al. (2013) provide empirical and experimental support for the presence of sublimation. The researchers found that people with taboo sexual desires tend to channel their anxieties into creative works, thereby successfully dealing with their sexual problems.