Sublimation in psychology: what it is in simple words, examples

Posted on Jul 10, 2022      100

Every day a person is influenced by external stimuli, because of which he has a variety of desires and feelings that force him to make some decisions and provoke an emotional response.

Outgoing decisions or emotions can be positive or negative. Giving in to all emotions and feelings is not allowed, but suppressing them is also undesirable. Sublimation allows them to be redirected in another direction.

Sublimation is one process in psychology that helps us deal with inner tension. We often use this process without even knowing it exists. Through sublimation, we turn negative impulses into something useful for ourselves or society.

What is sublimation in psychology in simple terms?

The first person to talk about sublimation was a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and neurologist all in one. We’re talking about Sigmund Freud; he was the first to introduce the term sublimation.

It came to him after reading a book by Heinrich Heine. The book described the story of a boy who mocked dogs and later became a respected and sought-after surgeon.

Freud called this transformation sublimation. He was sure that the energy that caused pain to animals was eventually sublimated (redirected) into positive and socially useful actions.

Sublimation in psychology is a defense mechanism that helps release inner tension by redirecting unspent energy into a socially acceptable direction, such as any creative activity. Sublimation is probably the most effective way of coping with negative experiences and even depression.

In simple terms, sublimation is the replacement of one thing for another. Examples of sublimation will be given in the following paragraphs.

How Sublimation Works

The mechanism of the process is based on redirecting energy in a productive direction. This is done both consciously and unconsciously.

Such a technique helps to eliminate the state of internal conflict, to cope with negative feelings, whether dissatisfaction with anything, anger or other destructive emotions. As a result, they find an outlet as physical or creative activity.

Anyone can choose the best option of sublimation for themselves. For some, this output will be physical labor or cleaning, for some, creative activities, and for some, engaging in fitness.

If you feel like something makes you angry, try to spend a couple of hours cleaning up your surroundings:

  • Tidy up the various small things
  • lay out your clothes.
  • Iron your laundry, etc.

Time will pass faster during the activity, and you’ll feel better.

This mechanism helps to cope and survive all kinds of stress, negative emotions, complexes and forbidden thoughts. For example, a person with sadistic tendencies can be a brilliant surgeon and will save many lives. A creative person takes out his sexual complexes in various artistic works.

It follows from this that sublimation is a natural process that helps to suppress most unwanted and negative emotions. Sometimes, a person can do this independently, but sometimes he or she needs the help of a specialist, i.e. a psychotherapist.

Where does the term sublimation come from?

For the picture to be complete, it is first necessary to consider the physical meaning of sublimation. In physics, this word refers to the process of the transition of a substance from a solid to a gaseous state, bypassing the liquid state. This phenomenon is also called sublimation.

In ordinary life, such a metamorphosis can be seen in the example of dry ice cubes. It comprises carbon dioxide converted into a solid state, and is most commonly used in the food industry to cool foods and prolong their freshness.

If you hold such a cube in the open air, its composition will evaporate quickly, while it remains the same dry.

Sublimation of dry ice

The water ice we are all familiar with can also sublimate if placed in a vacuum. This technique is also used in the food industry in the production process of instant coffee. A highly concentrated solution is frozen, then crumbled into small pieces, after which they are sent to a vacuum. The ice evaporates, leaving only the porous granules of the product.

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, saw similarities between this physical process and a person’s particular mental behavior. He drew a parallel between natural sublimation and the individual’s ability to contain intense feelings within himself, channeling them in a positive direction.

The parallel with the human psychological defense process arose because sublimation in physics and chemistry is often used to purify the composition of matter.

The Austrian psychologist designated it as a redirection of energy of unacceptable (forbidden) desires to achievement of his useful purposes. In his opinion, such a phenomenon is natural to any person’s psychological defense mechanism, so he looked for ways to put it into practice with his patients.

Sigmund Freud’s Theory of Sublimation

As already stated, the first author of the idea of the existence of such a defense mechanism was Sigmund Freud. According to him, sublimation occupies an important place in human life. Freud argued that civilization emerged through this defense mechanism. Many works of art were born out of sublimation.

The works of Leonardo da Vinci may serve as a good example of the theory of sublimation. Because of his lack of interest in his personal life, the scientist, painter and engineer created many masterpieces. He considered sex and similar relationships between people to be something immoral and unworthy. According to Leonardo da Vinci, science, architecture, art are more important than earthly love.

Sigmund Freud also attributed his activities to a conscious sublimation of sexual energy in a scientific direction. According to the psychoanalyst, sex is “proper” only for procreation. Genuine pleasure can bring only the result of your own work.

After analyzing the lives of many outstanding artists, writers and poets, Freud concluded that the brightest works were created in the absence of a love relationship.

The process of sublimation not only redirects energy into physical work, but also makes it possible to realize your dreams and fantasies in the process of some activity.

How Sublimation is Used in Human Life

How many beautiful and sad love songs have been written that top the world music charts? How many iconic books have been written after experiencing serious stress? Many cultural geniuses created their masterpieces while deeply depressed or struggling.

Depression is a very serious psychological condition. If we are talking about real depression and not what is now fashionable to call this term any trifle.

A depressive state is characterized by apathy, weakness, insomnia, pathological despondency, and an inability to see good things around you. It seems as if your life is over. There is no point in continuing to exist. The future as one big black spot.

Many people have suicidal thoughts or even try to do something about themselves. Every negative emotion is perceived inadequately. Any trifle may seem like a tragedy. There is a constant feeling that there is no “light at the end of the tunnel” and there never will be.

With a deep depression is very difficult to cope with alone, it’s better to seek help from psychologists, they will sort out the problem faster. But now it is fashionable to visit psychotherapists, while in the past people dealt with all of their intrapersonal problems by themselves.

One way out of a difficult emotional state is sublimation. Any creative activity helps to redirect negative emotions and give them some form. This can be a painting, music, a poem, a book, embroidery, sports, and more.

Everyone chooses something different, to which a person has a predisposition. It’s a great psychological release. All the negative experiences that don’t allow you to live a normal life splash out in something beautiful, new. A person devotes more time to this activity, immerses himself in it. Gradually it becomes easier.

The process of sublimation helps the individual not to ignore personal problems and inner conflicts, but to redirect his or her energy toward resolving them.

Thus, sublimation, in simple terms, is the body’s defense mechanism that helps us release negative energy or get rid of instinctive drives through certain activities (for example, people interested in dead bodies are subconsciously attracted to the profession of a pathologist, and those who often show aggression often go into sports).

Examples of Sublimation

Now let’s break down what activities can be sublimated through.


Any kind of physical activity helps to release negative energy. There are many examples in everyday life, many famous athletes who started their careers while in some difficult life situation.

Working on the body helps to shift negative thoughts, find purpose, and cope with stress. The “fight or flight” response is an instinctive urge when under serious stress. Depression does not allow this energy to escape; there is a stagnation of global negativity inside a person.

It is important to take the first step, to do something, even if you don’t see the point, even if you have no strength. But it is important to take this step, and then the way will reveal itself.


A great way to give shape to one’s own negative experiences. Even if a person has never drawn before, one can try to express his or her emotions on a sheet of paper. Let it be something gloomy that sits in the soul and does not allow you to fully enjoy life. Or, on the contrary, it can be something colorful.

Art therapy can be absolutely any. It is possible to draw with a pencil; it is possible to collect paints in balloons and to throw darts at them. It is possible to draw on water and sand. The human imagination is unlimited.

The main thing is to do something. When a person who is deeply depressed gives a experience, it definitely becomes easier.


You can listen to motivating music, even if you don’t feel like it. You can learn to play any instrument, write your own song, if you already know how to play.

Mantras and meditations help to relax and switch over, the sounds of nature relax.


Dance therapy is the quintessential sport and music. Physical exercise, as in sports, helps relieve stress, while music relaxes and distracts.

Body movements as a way of expressing emotions have been meaningful since ancient times. For example, we can remember the ritual dances of shamans who used to connect their energy to the elements.

Nowadays, when dancing, a man can express any pain, pour it into his art, share with others.

Poetry or prose

You can try to write a poem, a story, a novel or an article. To tell about your feelings. You can start a blog, find like-minded people who can support you.

In life, there are many examples when a minor accident led to something great.

Instead of a conclusion

Any sublimation can grow into a way to earn, because every problem is given for something. Maybe just to discover new talents in yourself. One must be sure to force oneself to take a step toward life, to share one’s experiences, not to carry them inside.

You can give the example of a cake. For example, you have a cake. A huge one, with a lot of fat cream, three tiers. But you don’t want to share it, you carry it everywhere behind you. You don’t think others will like this cake. And you have to eat it on your own, eat only it, and it never ends.

And now you are sick of it. You can’t eat it by yourself. Your arms and back hurt from carrying it around, and you want to give it to someone else. It is very important to share this cake with friends, relatives, or simply people passing by, so that it becomes easier.

The same happens with your negative experiences and thoughts. Share them with the world to feel better.

Teg:   sublimation