Sublimation – A Mature Defense Mechanism

~ By Robin Avery ~

Little did I know that when I was venting my youthful anger at the woodpile, chopping and splitting firewood for winter, I was participating in what many, including Sigmund Freud and his daughter, Anna, believe to be the most useful and constructive emotional defense mechanism—sublimation.

Freudian psychological theory (sorry B.F. Skinner, you come later) states that human beings are driven by tension, called anxiety, which is rooted in deep fears. With the three parts of our self – the classic Freudian trilogy of Id, Ego and Superego – we work to lessen this tension.

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"Sublimation – A Mature Defense Mechanism"

The Ego makes behavioral decisions, and behaviors have consequences. Ego is tempted by the lower pleasure driven impulses of sex and aggression (the Id), which compete with ideals and morals (the Super Ego). Defense mechanisms assist Ego in handling conflicts between the Id and the Super Ego. You may not be aware of defense mechanisms, but they have a way of distorting or transforming, and even falsifying reality to lessen tension.

It was Sigmund’s daughter who identified defense mechanisms. Sometimes referred to as transference, they fall into four types. I want to focus on the positive defense mechanisms, so will skip over the first three – pathological, immature and neurotic – and focus on the “Mature” defense mechanisms consisting of sublimation (taking a negative emotion and turning it into a healthy action), altruism (giving to others), and humor (considered the most “well-adjusted” of all defense mechanisms). This column is focused specifically on sublimation.

Sublimation reminds me of the medieval alchemist attempting to turn lead into gold; in fact, that’s the origin of the word. In chemistry, sublimation describes a process by which a solid turns into a gas, skipping entirely the liquid phase. Personal transformation—to find a way to celebrate and live life as fully, happily and richly as possible in the late years—is a highly desirable goal for many Elders. It is achievable, but you have to be willing to go for it!

How old will you be by the time you finish your first oil painting, or learn to play the piano? The same age as if you didn’t do either.

“I’m too old” is simply evasion. It’s the Ego convincing you that you don’t want to be a beginner again. Sublimation is a “spirit and mind lift,” instead of a “facelift.” As French philosopher Jean Rostand put it, “a person is not old if they are seeking something.” We do not stop playing because we are old; we grow old because we stop playing. Sublimation has a strong, creative, and playful impulse. Sublimation can feel like a personal revolution, planting new seeds; even like scattering seeds into the wind and seeing which way it blows.

There’s an ancient Rosicrucian formula for creativity. It states that creativity is a not a product but a process that in general follows a certain pattern that begins with intention (sometimes called inspiration) and is followed by exploration, frustration, incubation, illumination, elaboration and fruition. The pattern isn’t necessarily linear—in other words, you can come out of incubation and step back to intention. Every step of the way is full of surprises and adventure.

We need an intention to start something. Write down the intentions you come up with, such as getting out to the park more for a good walk, take cooking classes, finding socially fun ways to meet more people, learning to draw, or start a life review project. Creativity is like English Ivy. With just a little attention it grows and grows! But to muster the passion, energy and desire to grow, you need a sense of health and personal wellness, the ability to rouse your spirit. This is the “spirituality of aging.” Julia Cameron, author of “The Artist’s Way” describes it thus: “opening our souls to what must be made, we meet our Maker.”

Sublimation requires six key components in order to find oneself included in the Happy/Well category of Elder, and not find oneself among the category of Sad/Sick old. This makes for wonderful conversation with family and friends.

  • Attitude – Positive self-image; there’s medical and scientific evidence for choosing a positive view of yourself and life.
  • Fearlessness – Numerous positive relationships with others; a renewed confidence comes naturally in successful social adventures.
  • Purpose – A sense of direction rouses, focuses and exercises the spirit; purpose brings vitality.
  • Personal Growth – Recognize your many talents and potentials; be your own best friend.
  • Autonomy – Stand up for yourself, and make those choices in your life that may go against conventional wisdom, but enrich your time.
  • Common sense – It’s a joy to manage life and the immediate environment in ways that satisfy, and meets ones needs.

In our next column we will conclude our look at the Harvard Study’s observations of how the Happy/Well age. Please make sure to return next month as we explore that wonderful phase of life called “Generativity,” which will be followed by columns on “Keeper of the Meaning,” and finally, “Integrity.”

Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow.” The Talmud

Robin Avery

Robin Avery

Robin Avery is a WI Badger, the Founder of Shanagolden Management, LLC, an Operator of assisted living communities, a Gerontologist, and Founder of Robin can be reached at

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