You can change your life for the better by understanding sublimation and making it work for you.
As a psychological term, the word sublimation refers to the act of transmuting self-defeating impulses into behaviors that are personally and emotionally rewarding and likely to be socially beneficial.
Simple basic examples of sublimation include: a person with violent impulses becomes a competitive athlete; a person with a compulsive need for control and order becomes successful in business; a woman with extra-marital desires produces an oil painting when her husband is out of town; and a person with a wish to overeat becomes a gourmet cook.
With the right knowledge, we can help ourselves to achieve sublimation, which is basically the benefit of connecting with one’s full potential by escaping inner conflict. Everyone has some degree of inner conflict. It produces unhappiness and causes us to underperform. Inner conflict not only impedes normal everyday people from attaining self-fulfillment, it also produces pain and self-defeat.
Sublimation takes place in our psyche through a process in which our urges, sex drive, passive and aggressive instincts, and defenses are (permanently or temporarily) moderated and resolved. Often this process is unconscious. It happens naturally with some people, while for others it doesn’t occur to any appreciable degree. With deeper self-knowledge, we can help to ensure that sublimation does take place, and we can also speed up the process.
Some sublimations are momentary experiences, such as doing chores instead of stewing in angry emotions. However, the term usually refers to a more stable transition, such as the process of establishing a rewarding career. Not all sublimations are stable, however. Some endure only a few weeks or months before a person collapses back into paralyzing inner conflict. Other sublimations might last for years before some degree of regression occurs.
Again, insight into the inner process, with its hidden psychological dynamics, is likely to improve one’s chances of establishing a stable sublimation.
Successful sublimations involve the pursuit of pleasure and the capacity to mobilize healthy aggression. Sublimation is maintained in part by the considerable pleasure that arises from experiencing and exhibiting one’s capability, worthiness, and power in the world. Sublimation usually requires an inner process in which our harsh, demeaning inner critic is neutralized or outwitted. One of sublimation’s greatest satisfactions arises from our success in outmaneuvering our inner critic in this manner.
People striving for self-fulfillment can be subjected to a kind of double whammy of resistance. They have to liberate themselves at least somewhat from the clutches of both their inner critic and their inner passivity.
Inner passivity produces impressions of how a fulfilling future is likely to be unattainable. These impressions can consist of feelings of indifference, laziness, hopelessness, ineptitude, and being overwhelmed. Through inner passivity, we also come under the influence of indecision and procrastination, and we can become mired in our complaints, excuses, and cynicism.
In many cases, inner passivity prevents people from even getting to first base. It blocks them from setting goals or from imagining successful outcomes that are within their reach. In this emotional predicament, they feel or believe they simply don’t have what it takes to perform at a higher level.
Sometimes people manage to get to first base by coming up with sound ideas that represent viable aspirations and goals. Now, though, another agency of our psyche, our inner critic, becomes a hindrance. Our inner critic pounces mockingly or sarcastically on our ideas, proclaiming them to be flawed, impractical, or even stupid. If we’re not strong enough on an inner level, meaning that through inner passivity we fail to deflect our inner critic’s mockery and scorn, we’re in danger of stalling out at this stage.
Should we manage to get to second base by producing a worthy effort that shows potential, our inner critic can intrude again, denouncing the effort as insufficient, inept, or stupidly inadequate. We will stall out at this level if we again fail to muster enough healthy inner aggression to override the inner critic. We create this aggression through the process of recognizing our inner passivity and establishing a growing connection to our authentic self.
Both inner passivity and the inner critic produce impressions or outlooks in us that reflect their primitive, unevolved nature. These impressions are sometimes experienced as inner background voices or as discouraging thoughts or mocking words that we say silently to ourselves. They play into our lingering fears, as well as shame, guilt, and self-doubt.
When we recognize these inner dynamics with an objective or clinical understanding, we’re able to rescue ourselves from the emotional impression being created by inner conflict, namely that there is something intrinsically wrong, flawed, inadequate, or unworthy about us. As we separate or disentangle from the conflict, we begin to connect with all that is good and worthy about who we are. Again, the power comes to us as our intelligence learns what had previously been unconscious. Our intelligence, now aware of the nature of the conflict between our passive and aggressive sides, guides us out of psychological darkness into the light of our goodness and our greatness.
The inner conflict between inner passivity and the inner critic’s self-aggression is the main saboteur of sublimation. As we recognize this, particularly as it pertains to our own psyche, we become aware that the real starting point to overcome the problem involves tackling inner passivity and lessening its influence. With unresolved inner passivity, it’s very difficult to generate the healthy aggression we need to achieve our birthright, which is to flourish and be at our best. With inner passivity, it’s difficult to feel the power that surges at the heart of our being.
In other words, we need to develop a stronger connection with our authentic self in order to push back on the inner critic and carve out an inner space that gives us the freedom to maneuver and to allow our intelligence to flourish. If people fail to recognize and understand inner passivity, they’ll likely fail to overcome its influence. The danger, then, is that they’ll fail to muster the healthy inner aggression that governs motivation and the pursuit of pleasure.
The failure to achieve a good or decent life is often the consequence of erecting within the psyche only weak neurotic substitutes for sublimation. In such cases, the individual’s unconscious ego, the seat of inner passivity, fails to represent this person adequately in the face of the inner critic’s self-aggression. Inner passivity and the inner critic combine to limit the individual’s “range of motion” in the world. As one example, the psyche of the criminal is highly infused with inner passivity; consequently, sublimation does not occur and a human life falls far short of its potential.
As mentioned, some people who do sublimate their inner conflict create sublimations that are unstable. They find themselves collapsing or regressing back into mental and emotional conflict and its accompanying self-defeat. Within their psyche, they have been pulled back to the passive identification, and they become entangled emotionally and mentally in self-doubt and other negative emotions associated with helplessness, refusal, abandonment, rejection, and criticism. At one point, they mustered sufficient aggression to effectively represent their best interests, but now, back under the influence of inner passivity, whatever aggression they feel is likely infused with anger, cynicism, and even self-hatred.
A civilized society, especially a democracy upheld by free-spirited people, is itself a sublimation that has arisen from barbarism, tribalism, nationalism, and authoritarianism. Democracy is a triumph over the id, the primitive drive that grasps for self-satisfaction at any cost, that would have us resort exclusively to self-centered, self-aggrandizing, and ruthless behaviors.
It’s likely that civilization rests on only a thin layer of sublimation. Like lava beneath the surface, the inner conflict and emotional turmoil in our psyche constitute the dark underbelly of human nature. Under sizable strain, we could revert to a highly emotional, irrational regression. Such strains are likely to be experienced in coming years from the effects of climate change, resource depletion, and human migrations. To weather this, the achievement of stable sublimations will help people maintain strong connections to their civility, kindness, courage and integrity.
The understanding of sublimation presented here derives from classical psychoanalysis. Readers can study this depth psychology through my books and posts, and begin to apply the knowledge to their personal issues to see for themselves whether it is helpful.
Sublimation is linked to improving mental health. People seeking psychotherapy need to know that the field of psychology is highly fractured. Hundreds of different treatment systems are offered in the mental-health marketplace. Psychologist and author Frank Tallis recently wrote that “Psychotherapy is a notoriously divided discipline.” The history of psychotherapy, he writes, “is one of internecine strife, schisms, secession and intellectual hostility.” So how do you know what to believe?
You need to become your own authority on what is right for you. If you reflect on what I’ve written, many of you will be able to determine for yourself whether this knowledge has value for you. To make this work, you need to have some patience. This method of self-development is a learning process, and as our intellectual understanding grows it takes time for our negative emotions and self-defeating behaviors to fall by the wayside. Read the content on this website every day for at least ten minutes or so, and give it time to work. More than 200 articles are available here for free.
If you don’t follow what I have to offer, find another system of self-development. Many of them are very helpful. Do persist because failure to achieve your birthright, your fulfillment as a paragon of humanity and consciousness, will be your biggest regret. This achievement will also be the gift that keeps on giving to future generations.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.