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In psychology, sublimation is a coping mechanism. It has its roots in the psychoanalytical approach, and is often also referred to as a type of defense mechanism. According to Wade and Tavris, sublimation is when displacement "serves a higher cultural or socially useful purpose, as in the creation of art or inventions."[1]

Sublimation is the refocusing of psychic energy (which Sigmund Freud believed was limited) away from negative outlets to more positive outlets. These drives which cannot find an outlet are rechanneled. For example, a student who has a major upcoming test, rather than spending time and energy worrying about it, would rechannel that time and energy into studying. In Freud's classic theory, erotic energy is only allowed limited expression due to repression, and much of the remainder of a given group's erotic energy is used to develop its culture and civilization. In Psychological Science: Mind, Brain and Behavior by Michael Gasaniga and Todd F. Heatherton a sinister example is given in which a sadist becomes a surgeon or a dentist.

Psychoanalytic Theory

In Freud's classic theory, erotic energy is only allowed limited expression due to constraints of human society.

Freud considered this defense mechanism the most productive compared to the others that he identified (ie., repression, displacement, denial, reaction formation, intellectualization and projection). Sublimation is the process of transforming libido into "social useful" achievements, mainly art. Psychoanalysts often refer to sublimation as the only truly successful defense mechanism.

Interpersonal Psychoanalysis

Harry Stack Sullivan, the pioneer of interpersonal psychoanalysis, defines sublimation as the unwitting substitution of a partial satisfaction with social approval for the pursuit of a direct satisfaction which would be contrary to one's ideals or to the judgement of social censors and other important people who surround one. The substitution might not be quite what we want, but it is the only way that we can get part of our satisfaction and feel secure, too. Harry Stack Sullivan documents that all sublimatory things are more complicated than the direct satisfaction of the needs to which they apply. They entail no disturbance of consciousness, no stopping to think why they must be done or what the expense connected with direct satisfaction would be. In successful sublimation, Sullivan observes extraordinarily efficient handling of a conflict between the need for a satisfaction and the need for security without perturbation of awareness.


  1. Wade, Carol and Carol Tavris, Psychology, Sixth Edition (Prentice Hall, 2000) 478. ISBN 0-321-04931-4
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