The Psychology Of Sublimation And How To Employ It In Your Life

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Every person is a mixture of good and bad things…

…you, me, your mother, your friend, the person sitting next to you on the bus.

We all have positive and negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that impact the way we view and interact with the rest of the world.

The good and positive aspects of ourselves are what tend to help us build a healthy and happy life.

However, if we leave the negative and bad aspects of ourselves intact, we can wind up setting back or even wiping out any progress we may make toward becoming a better person.

Yet, the process of self-improvement often requires a host of different approaches or tools to correct these negative aspects of ourselves.

One such approach you can actively use is sublimation.

In psychology, sublimation is a positive, mature type of defense mechanism that allows you to convert negative, socially unacceptable impulses, thoughts, or behaviors into something else that is positive and socially acceptable.

The aim of this approach is to reduce the destructiveness of that negativity. To lessen the impact it has on your life.

The effort you put into changing the outcome of problematic thoughts and feelings can even rewire that initial impulse in some people.

For others, you may still regularly experience those negative thoughts or impulses, but seek to channel them into something positive instead.

Sublimation can be subconscious or it may be an active choice.

People who engage in self-improvement can actively choose to reduce the impact of negative thoughts or behaviors by understanding and using sublimation.

Sublimation As A Subconscious Process

Sublimation is a subconscious process for the majority.

You may be aware that the negative feelings or behaviors you have are socially unacceptable and destructive, so you look for other ways to express them because you don’t want to suffer the negative consequences of those behaviors.

It may also shape the way you interact with the world.

Take this example of subconscious sublimation: a person who experiences anxiety driving at night will most likely look for a job where they don’t have to drive in the dark.

The person is adapting their behavior to curtail their discomfort and avoid anxiety attacks.

Here’s another: an adult child may drink alcohol to cope with dealing with her difficult parents. She may emotionally (or even physically) distance herself from her parents so they cannot cause so much stress in her life. This helps her avoid the uncomfortable emotions that trigger her drinking.

She just knows she feels better when she spends less time with her family.

These processes aren’t necessarily conscious choices. But when they are conscious choices, sublimation can be used to foster a healthier mentality.

Examples Of Sublimation In Active Practice

Carol is an aggressive, hyper-competitive person. She is constantly looking to push herself toward the next challenge and overcome the obstacles in front of her. She doesn’t have much time for people who can’t keep up. As a result, her hyper-competitive nature can alienate her from coworkers, friends, or family members who have no desire to compete with her or on that level.

Carol could take all of that aggressiveness and hyper-competitive energy and channel it into hobbies that support that kind of behavior.

She could choose to get into competitive martial arts, sports, or fitness where those kinds of qualities will help her excel.

Even if she’s not competing against other people, she could compete against herself as an athlete, looking to set new personal records and push her body to greater heights.

Jason lives with high-functioning autism. Like many people with autism, he finds unpredictability and regular change distressing enough to where it can trigger overload and anxiety. He gravitates toward an ordered life that follows strong patterns and tends to be more of a logical, black and white thinker.

People like Jason function well in hard disciplines like maths and engineering, or really any career where there is consistent logic or processes being applied.

Engineering attracts people like Jason because it tends to have set procedures that don’t fluctuate much because of safety and tolerance standards.

He may even find that a career featuring repetitive processes, like manufacturing or logistics, brings him some comfort and allows him to excel because they turn potentially negative drawbacks into positive qualities.

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Amanda is an alcoholic. She’s had a rough life filled with emotional turmoil and trauma that she feels like she can’t handle. When she is faced with difficult emotions, she turns to alcohol to help numb her pain and forget her problems. That behavior turns into a regular habit, where her instinct tells her to seek comfort in alcohol so she can better manage the stresses of her life.

Amanda could work toward replacing that instinctive need for alcohol with a healthier activity. Instead of drinking, she could exercise, work, or meditate to channel that energy into something more positive.

Sublimation isn’t going to fix the root of her alcoholism or stave off physical addiction. For that, she will probably need to seek additional professional help to overcome.

She may eventually find that she prefers to hit the gym or go for a walk instead of feeling the pull to drink.

Matthew experiences a tragic, messy heartbreak at the end of a relationship. Though he is tempted to engage in self-destructive behaviors to cope with his heartbreak, he can instead choose to pour those emotions into creating artwork.

Historically, some of the greatest works of art were inspired by grand feelings of the artists and the human condition.

A person doesn’t even need to necessarily be good at art to experience catharsis from expressing their emotions in an artform.

Creation in any form is a much healthier outlet than the self-destructive coping mechanisms many people turn to when experiencing tragedy or heartbreak.

How To Use Sublimation For Self-Improvement

The core idea behind sublimation is to channel negative, socially unacceptable behaviors, thoughts, and feelings into positive, socially acceptable behavior.

It will provide the greatest benefit if there is some overlap between the old negative behavior or thoughts and the new positive actions.

In the previous examples, the emotions and situations all have some overlap to them, which allows the person to feel and process the negativity in a healthier way.

Carol is using her hyper-competitiveness and aggression in sports instead of the workplace or her personal life.

Jason is using the more difficult quirks of autism as a means of making a living instead of trying to adopt a less structured life that may overwhelm and upset him.

Amanda can channel her negative emotions and replace her desire to drink with a hobby or exercise, creating an all new outlet for that negativity. She may still feel that negativity, but she is improving herself instead of letting it harm her.

And Matthew channels his heartbreak into art, something that people have done for thousands of years.

The switch doesn’t have to be something that’s a long-term problem either….

Perhaps you had an unexpectedly stressful day at work. Going for a jog can help you blow off that steam instead of letting the stress fester or drowning it in a bottle of wine.

Just having a different strategy for the negative emotions that you will eventually feel in your life, even if everything is going well right now, can significantly reduce stress and improve happiness.

Sublimation And Reasonable Expectations

The process of changing core facets and behaviors about oneself is difficult.

It may be helpful to work with a certified mental health counselor to address emotional problems or dysfunctional behaviors because they can provide a neutral source of support, frameworks to operate within, and a means to gauge progress.

The idea behind sublimation is simple, but not easy. The most difficult part is continuing to work in a consistent way toward success. It’s not something that becomes second nature overnight.

The other issue is that though it can potentially change your emotional landscape, there’s no guarantee of that happening. You may still experience those negative feelings, but just channel them into something positive instead.

Sublimation is a powerful tool that can change your life for the better. It is also something that anyone can use in their own life.

So ask yourself how you might channel a negative thought, emotion, or behavior into something more positive.

About The Author

Jack Nollan is a person who has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years now. Jack is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspective from the side of the mental health consumer. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.