I have frequently referred to the concepts of DISSOCIATION and REPRESSION on this site as, of course, both are highly relevant to the subject of childhood trauma. But what is the difference between the two?
In terms of psychoanalytic theory (of which Sigmund Freud is considered to be the ‘father’) REPRESSION can be divided into two types :
- PRIMAL REPRESSION
- REPRESSION PROPER
I briefly explain these two types of repression below :
REPRESSION PROPER :
This refers to an unconscious process whereby the part of the mind that Freud referred to as the ego prevents distressing and threatening thoughts from ever permeating consciousness. Freud believed that often such thoughts were kept banished from conscious awareness as otherwise, they would produce intolerable guilt (generated by the part of the mind that he referred to as the superego).
Examples of types of thoughts that Freud believed are kept repressed by this process are those concerning certain types of sexual and aggressive impulses and instincts (generated by the part of the mind Freud referred to as the id) that we have learned from our environment (influence of culture, parents etc) are unacceptable.
PRIMAL REPRESSION :
The term primal repression refers to an unconscious process whereby the ego buries distressing and threatening thoughts, feelings and memories down below the level of consciousness into the id.
So, to summarize: in the case of repression proper, distressing and threatening thoughts are prevented from ever gaining access to conscious awareness whereas, in the case of primal repression, distressing and threatening thoughts, feelings and memories which have gained ephemeral access to consciousness are banished from it (buried in the id).
However, Freud also pointed out that there is a high price to pay for the unconscious process of repression in so far as this hidden, buried information that has been forced down into the id will create symptoms of anxiety.
In the case of dissociation (one of the core features of complex PTSD), thoughts/feelings/memories do NOT get pushed down into / buried in the id; instead, they become separated/compartmentalized in a different part of the ego.
So, we can finally summarize in this way :
- In the case of repression, mental information/content is split off into the id.
- In the case of dissociation, mental information/content is split off into a separate part of the ego.
NB: This distinction relates to how the terms are used in psychoanalytic theory; in other areas of psychology, the term ‘dissociation’ can take on other meanings.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).