In our series of cognitive distortions, sublimation is one type of distortion that at first appearance does not seem like a negative ‘distortion’. Sublimation is, in essence, turning something that is perceived as a weakness or inappropriate to the society/culture, into something that is good and acceptable. It is adaptable as somewhat of a strength, because it turns a negative emotion into a positive behavioral response. However, as described, it stems from something that might be harmful at worse, and at best, challenging for the person experiencing the raw negative emotion in its pure form.
An example of sublimation might look like someone who struggles with loss of control to be a really hands on and productive manager, or someone that has aggressive urges to become a football lineman, releasing the aggression in a culturally-appropriate setting such as a football game (and probably playing the game well). A personal favorite that I have of sublimation is channeling an uncomfortable emotion into something humorous. Neither of any examples are necessarily ‘bad’ in fact, in all situations and forms of sublimation, it probably makes the person quite good at what they are invested in, liked for what they are doing, and might diffuse the immediate pressure of the emotion.
However, living in cycles of sublimation might not truly feel as rewarding as it sounds. While there are undoubtedly positive aspects and rewards in this defense mechanism, it is believed that sublimation patterns are repeating cycles of negative emotions experiences, or dysregulated states, which is why it is coined as a distortion and defense mechanism. This is where it can get challenging, because it is incredibly reinforcing to use sublimation! There are many benefits of this—such as the successful football player or high-achieving boss, and really, it is rewarding being able to find an accepted way of channeling these negative emotions. The reality often is though, that operating from our defense mechanisms, even in sublimation, can leave us feeling ungrounded and unresolved. We are operating out of discomfort from what is happening inside of us. Although the temporary relief of letting it out can be rewarding, it is a defense mechanism protecting us from experiencing and working through the hurt or pain that it is keeping us from feeling.
In accessing and healing what is beyond our defense mechanisms of sublimation, I believe a person first needs to feel safe enough to go there. This can be established in trust and safety of a therapeutic relationship, a comforting and attentive parent, or trusted friend—safety might even look like being in a place in life where your cup is not too full to let out this pain and feel it pass through. Allowing ourselves the ability to be self-aware of what we are protecting ourselves from, the hurtful beliefs we are carrying and the emotional and physical ways our body holds onto it, are all important areas to allow ourselves the space to mindfully tap into. You aren’t crazy for using sublimation, it makes sense that our bodies are wanting to protect us from things that feel too difficult, but sometimes it begins to be its own source 0f pain and discomfort in our lives—and that’s often the light at the end of the tunnel, when we are ready to change.
Want to learn more? Check out the first blog of the series here.
If you’re interested in starting your own work to heal and grow, we would love to support you. Reach out for a free consultation.
**The information contained herein is not therapeutic advice nor a substitute for therapy. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any mental health problem. If you are located within the United States and you need emergency assistance please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. If you are located within Colorado you may also call the Colorado Crisis Line at 844-493-TALK (8255).
Natasha. Mantra Care. “Sublimation: A Meaningful Change.” Retrieved from https://mantracare.org/therapy/what-is/sublimation/