Sublimation is a defense mechanism that involves channeling unwanted or unacceptable urges into an admissible or productive outlet.
For example, a woman who recently went through a breakup may channel her emotions into a home improvement project. Or a teen who has angry and violent urges may join his school’s wrestling team.
The concept of defense mechanisms originated from Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna Freud; defenses function to unconsciously protect the ego from discomfort or distress. Although many Freudian theories have been disproven over time, defense mechanisms like sublimation have endured.
On a spectrum from immature to mature, sublimation is considered a mature defense mechanism, because it helps people to substitute the harmful for the helpful, and function well within society.
Although Freud may have overemphasized the role of sexual and aggressive urges on the psyche, sexuality is a common example in the case of sublimation. For example, if a man is sexually attracted to his married neighbor, he may channel that sexual frustration into running, working, gardening, writing, or another productive outlet.
Sublimation is a healthy coping mechanism. Transforming pain or anger into productive, achievable projects can benefit well-being, relationships, and even physical health. In fact, some therapists may encourage it.
Other times, however, a therapist may observe that particular habits and patterns signal that sublimation is at play. The therapist may use that observation to discuss the patient’s emotions and experiences, and explore if it would be beneficial to address sublimated emotions more directly.
Humans are social creatures, and we must function within society to survive. Sublimation can unconsciously occur when people encounter urges or impulses that society has deemed unacceptable or inappropriate.
For example, homosexuality was not accepted (it was illegal, in fact) in Europe in the 15th century. Some hypothesize that Leonardo da Vinci sublimated his homosexuality into art, creating paintings that featured nude men.
Sublimation is considered a successful defense mechanism because it often leads to positive outcomes—and outcomes that are often better than the alternative. For example, let’s say a man going through a divorce emotes by destroying his ex-wife’s property or lashing out at his son. In the case of sublimation, on the other hand, the man may channel his energy into an important project at work.
Even though sublimation is a more productive defense than others, it’s still healthy to fully confront and process the underlying emotions involved.
Some may want to harness the surging power of emotion to create, build, or produce through sublimation. A key step in that process is to become aware of those feelings, exploring what you are feeling and why. Another is to not act on those feelings right away. Think about the most productive and impactful mechanism to turn your emotion into momentum, whether that be art, athletics, adventure, or activism.
Sublimation can occur in domains from relationships to artistic expression. It can operate on a small scale, such as by taking a walk after work to cool down from a heated conversation with your boss. Or it can operate on a large scale, such as by overcoming adversity and channeling energy into preventing others from suffering a similar fate.
Sometimes a beautiful picture of a sunset is just that. But often, viewers can perceive more from a piece of artwork. For example, famed painter Paul Cézanne painted a series of portraits in which some critics and viewers perceive a theme of anger and hostility, particularly toward Cézanne’s father who had never approved of his career.
Perhaps Cézanne’s painting represents sublimation in art—the channeling of rage toward his father into beautiful and valuable paintings.
Sublimation can be a helpful defense mechanism in relationships. If you and your partner get into an argument, channeling that anger into a jog or a journal entry can help both partners cool down and resolve the disagreement—whereas a screaming match would not have the same outcome.
However, sublimation has the potential to harm the relationship if the underlying problems that fuel sublimation are never discussed or solved.
Sublimated feelings that represent core, enduring emotions may unconsciously propel a person’s professional path. One example could be a hostile person who channels that aggression into a career in the military.
Adversity or tragedy can also lead to profound instances of sublimation. A parent whose child had struggled with an eating disorder, for instance, may form a support group, share resources with other parents, and advocate for research and treatment for eating disorders.