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Repress, Repress, Repress

Psychologists tell us one of the great human problems is "repression." One psychologist, for example, says one of the hazards of Ayn Rand's philosophy is it teaches people to "repress" their feelings and desires. He explains:

"If, in page after page of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, you show someone being heroic by ruthlessly setting feelings aside, and if you show someone being rotten and depraved by, in effect, diving headlong into his feelings and emotions, and if that is one of your dominant methods of characterization, repeated again and again, then it doesn't matter what you profess, in abstract philosophy, about the relationship of reason and emotion. You have taught people: repress, repress, repress."

While this psychologist attempts to let Ayn Rand off the hook by explaining it was not her intention to give that impression, he is mistaken. It is exactly the impression she intended and exactly what she meant.

Where is All the Repression?

One gets the impression from psychologists that repression is a major cause of all that is wrong with people today. Many people do have something wrong with them, but I cannot imagine where these psychologists have been living if they think repression is a common problem.

How does anyone in any modern society get the impression repression is rampant. There is hardly a single thing anyone desires to have, they do not have, or wants to do, they do not do, if they can possibly find a way to do it. When they have fulfilled every desire they can think of, they invent new ones.

What's the Problem?

On the face of it, this supposed problem of repression is ludicrous. What exactly is the problem supposed to be, either to society or individuals? If there really were all this tragic repression going on, we should expect to see some evidence of it.

What we see evidence of is just the opposite, and it really is tragic. There are more people in jail today than ever before in history. How many of them are there because they repressed their desires to steal, or rape, or murder, or commit fraud. How many of them are there because they didn't repress those desires.

How many marriages and lives are ruined because someone repressed their desire to have an affair, gamble away their income, or get drunk and beat up their wife? How many marriages and lives are ruined because those desires weren't repressed?

How many people end up in rehabilitation centers, emergency rooms, or morgues because they repressed their desire for alcohol, or drugs, or some other "thrills?" How many end up in such places because they didn't repress their desires.

Fifty years ago people "suffered" much more repression. In the intervening years, psychologists have been very successful in freeing people from those terrible repressions. Fifty years ago, a child or woman was safe on almost any street in any American City, night or day. Today children and women are not safe from assault, abduction, or rape on any city street, College campus, or even in a public school.

If there really is a problem with repression, it looks for all the world as though the problem is not too much repression, but too little. Of course, that is only on the face of it. It actually goes much deeper than that.

The Psychology Behind Repression

To understand how deep this problem is supposed to be we have to look at the "psychology" behind the concept of repression. The concept psychologists refer to as "repression" is the invention of Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna. I have always been struck by the similarity between Freud's name and the word fraud, because that is exactly what the whole subconscious/repression "theory" is, and every psychologist since has fallen for it.

One does not have to study psychology to see what's wrong with it, though apparently those who do study psychology do not see it. The problem is the word repression itself. If repression is a "bad" thing which people need psychologists to help them rid themselves of, just how it is bad ought to be easy to explain. In fact, any meaning one attempts to give that word cannot possibly be the harmful thing the psychologists universally teach it is.

The Freudian Fraud

Sigmund Freud first used the term repression in 1894 to describe what he called "defense mechanisms." In the 1930's his Daughter Anna fully developed the concept of defense mechanisms and broke it up into major mechanisms, repression and denial, and these into further minor mechanism, not of interest here. Anna described repression as a mechanism that excludes from consciousness, certain memories, impulses, or desires, that are painful, unacceptable, or difficult to deal with. There is no explanation of how this mechanism works. How, for example, does one go about repressing a feeling or desire?

Repression is sometimes described as "pushing down" a desire into "unconsciousness," (or worse, subconsciousness), or as turning a desire off. In fact, a feeling is what it is and there is nothing in the world we can do to push it down or turn it off. The feelings are involuntary and automatic, and we have absolutely no direct control over them. If repression means pushing feelings out of consciousness, or in some other way making feelings "unfelt," it cannot be done.

The feelings and desires can only be controlled indirectly because, while they are automatic, involuntary, responses, it is whatever we are conscious of, especially, what we think and think about, they are responses to, and we are in control of what we think and think about. But the feelings themselves are not in our direct control at all. In that sense, they simply cannot be repressed.

If desires and feelings really could be repressed, in the sense of being shut off, no one would ever suffer from desires or feelings they preferred not to have. They would simply repress them. The reason people suffer from unwanted desires and unpleasant feelings is because repressing desires and feelings is exactly the thing they cannot do.

Some psychologists explain, however, that it is not really what they mean by repression. Repression is not actually shutting feelings and desires off, not becoming unconscious of them, it is really the other thing Anna Freud described, "denial." It is not really burying feeling and desires, it is denying one has them. But this is no clearer than the other. How does on go about evading or denying a desire or feeling? It is absurd on the face of it. To whom, exactly, is the denial made? How can one deny a desire or feeling without recognizing they have it to deny? What are they denying? This is exactly the kind of language that is meant by the term psychobabble.

Choosing Is Repression

What the psychologists actually mean by repression, when it is finally made explicit, is choosing not to fulfill some desires or choosing to ignore some feelings. To name that "repression" and treat it as a psychological problem is a terrible evil.

If that is repression, human beings cannot live without repressing desires and feelings. We always have more desires than we can possibly fulfill, even if we believe every desire ought to be fulfilled. We cannot eat everything on the menu we desire to eat, because neither time or the capacity of our stomachs make it possible. We must "repress" (refuse to fulfill) our desire for all the food on the menu except what we order.

We all have feelings we do not like and feelings which, if we allowed them to influence our choices, would prevent us from being and doing what we choose for our own best interest. We do not always feel like doing the work we have chosen to do, but "repress" (choose to ignore) that feeling, because our work is what we value most.

We all have desires for things we know are wrong. If we only ever had desires for what is right, we would not need a code of ethics, we could always just do whatever we desired. We know we cannot, which means, we must identify and suppress all desires to do that which violates our own ethical values.

Anything anyone has ever done that is self-destructive or wrong they first had a desire to do. Anyone who has ever overcome a desire to do what is self-destructive or wrong had to suppress that desire. That is what the psychologists call a harmful thing, as though anyone suffers because they repressed a desire to do something self-destructive or that goes against their own values, or their own self-interest.

If repression means choosing not to yield to every desire we have, not giving in to every whim and impulse, and not allowing feelings we have identified as less important than our own values to influence our decisions, then it is impossible to live successfully as a human being without repression. It is exactly what virtue, character, and morality are; without it, human achievement, success, and happiness are not possible.

Bad Choice is not Repression

If one's values are wrong, if their philosophy of life is one of altruism, for example, holding self-sacrifice, not self-fulfillment, as their highest value, the desires they choose to "repress," will be the wrong ones. They will choose to "repress" their desire to achieve their own happiness above all other things, they will repress those feelings of meaninglessness and fear resulting from a pointless and wasted life.

There are people who repress desires for the wrong reasons, and there are people who attempt to evade feelings by refusing to identify the cause of those feelings. Some people do not correctly choose which desires to fulfill and which to repress and some people really do ignore feelings which are warnings of something very wrong in their lives, but these are simply wrong choices not the psychological repression psychologists use as an excuse for giving up choosing altogether and teaching people to do whatever they feel like, because the feelings have some secret knowledge of which the rational mind is not conscious.

Embrace, Embrace, Embrace

The picture psychologists seem to paint is a world filled with people miserably repressing desires and feelings. This may partly be understood from the nature of the psychologists' own experience. People do not drop by the psychologist's office for a friendly chat, people who go to see psychologists are sick, or at least think they are. If one spends most of their days talking to and associating with people who are less than psychologically sound, one's view of people is likely to be distorted.

When a psychologist allows that experience to color his view of everything, when a psychologist allows that distortion to be his means of judging society and culture, when a psychologist can characterize the two books, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, dedicated to the highest and best of human life, achievement, and happiness, to man living without fear, or pain, or guilt, as being harmful, that psychologist has crossed over the line from being merely mistaken to being overtly evil.

When people, normal people, moral and healthy people read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged what they see on page after page is people who value their lives and their happiness as their highest ideal, who can never relent in their pursuit of that ideal, people who will allow no petty whim or desire, no trivial pain, no temporary discomfort prevent them from having what they live for, the enjoyment of their own life. They see people embracing their desire for nothing less than the best, embracing the life and the world as theirs to enjoy, embracing them as their ultimate reason for living; they see only embrace, embrace, embrace.

—(02/21/16)