Sublimation In Psychology: The Upside of Negative Emotions

All of us are a mixture of good and bad thoughts – you, us, your best friend, the person sitting next to you on the bus, and just about everyone around us. 

Some of the thoughts and desires within our primitive subconsciousness are pretty dark. It is a natural element of being human. Out of anger and frustration, we might want to steal, hurt others, or do stuff that’s ‘not okay’ with societal standards. Yet most of us do very little of what we think of doing. In fact, we often direct our energies or uncomfortable emotions to different useful and creative things (think of artists translating their pain into paintings, music, etc.) or go out of our way to be helpful to those around us. 

Therefore a key aspect that differentiates us from other species is not the lack of animal impulses but the ways through which we deal with them. This ability of ours fascinated the father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, who named it sublimation. Sublimation in psychology is our ability to direct our egoistic, primitive, and destructive thoughts and emotions toward something useful. 

Let us dive deeper into the concept of sublimation in psychology and understand the impact it has on our lives. 

Sublimation In Psychology

The Concept Of Sublimation In Psychology

Sigmund Freud first named the concept of sublimation in psychology. Freud had this idea while reading a book named The Harz Journey by Heinrich Heine. In the book, Heine recalls meeting a surgeon who was extremely sadistic as a child and would hurt little dogs by cutting off their tails. However, he later transformed himself into a brilliant surgeon who saved countless lives and made multiple important discoveries.

Freud felt that transformation was not a one-off incident and was a part of the widespread tendency of humans to derive a positive trait from a highly negative or disruptive tendency. Freud believed that the concept of sublimation was at the heart of all critical achievements and inventions in the world. 

The concept of sublimation in psychology is an extremely hopeful one. Freud believed that when we start as children, we make ourselves the center of the universe. Our needs become a matter of life and death, and it feels like we don’t get all we want; that would be the end of the world. We think that the world revolves around us and our needs, and we cannot even think of being generous. Yet, as we grow up, we manage to be good enough humans who transform their narcissistic tendencies for more ethical alternatives. 

Read more: Radical Acceptance – The Path To Self-Compassion And Healing

So, How Does Sublimation Work In Human Life?

Sublimation, in its literal sense, means phasing into another form. In psychology, it means challenging your inappropriate or disruptive tendencies into positive actions. Therefore, unlike other defense mechanisms, sublimation does not involve denying or repressing your emotions. Most defense mechanisms make us push our thoughts out of our conscious awareness. Sublimation, on the other hand, begins with accepting the existence of such thoughts and transforming them into something positive.

You have unconsciously used sublimation countless times in your life. Think of the last time you were extremely angry at someone, and even though you really wanted to hurt the person, you chose not to. Instead, you cleaned the house or went for a run, etc. This is sublimation. 

Sublimation as a defense mechanism protects us from the stress and anxiety of negative emotions. It helps us direct our disruptive and hurtful impulses toward positive actions, safeguarding our professional and personal lives. 

What Are The Benefits And Drawbacks Of Sublimation?

Sublimation can have several benefits and drawbacks. 

In the positive sense, it helps you deal with negative and uncomfortable emotions, alleviating their discomfort. Therefore, instead of bottling up your emotions or using them to hurt other people or yourself, you are able to channel them into something useful. Additionally, letting go of your anger or hurt and doing something meaningful and valuable is good for your self-esteem. It can fill you with a sense of accomplishment. 

While sublimation sounds great for personal growth and development, it has its own drawbacks. The most important one is that it can often lead to overextending and burnout. While being motivated to channel our energies into helping others or doing something productive is great, we often fail to understand our limits. This can lead to an unhealthy balance of work and life – thereby harming your mental health and well-being in the long run. 

Read more: Breaking The Attachment Cycle – Healing From Trauma Bonding


The concept of sublimation in psychology defines the human tendency to channel negative emotions into positive outcomes. It can be extremely useful and important for personal growth if used rightfully. 

Apart from sublimation in psychology, there are other forms of defense mechanisms. To learn more about them, click here

To continue learning about mental health, subscribe to Your Mental Health Pal

Speak Your Mind

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *