How we repress and avoid psychic pain


Strategies of the socialized secondary self

The socialization that leads from the primary to the secondary self is inseparably linked to the process of repression and suppression of unwanted emotional responses. Therefore the development of the secondary self, the very core product of this process, also coincides with the repression of the psychic experience of pain.


The primary psychological pain caused by deprivation or loss of love, (which is associated with the separation from the primary self) is so deep and unsurpassable unpleasant in quality, that we had to develop coping strategies: reactive psychic feelings, which I call secondary feelings

These secondary feelings are initially secondary pain/psychic insult, secondary rage/anger, secondary fear/anxiety to lose face. In the process of socialization more differentiated secondary feelings emerge, such as shame, envy, condemnation, etc.

The following model which shows the consequences of psychic injuries (insult) is derived from physiologically determined feelings of the primary self. In this process secondary rage and secondary fear replace aggressiveness and fear. The secondary rage – to which hatred and violence are associated – I dealt with in the following section on Anger, Violence and Hatred as a reaction to psychic pain. (Secondary anxiety, to which I assign panic and depression I have already explained.)

Psychic Insults – the origin of hatred and violence

In the course of socialization which is accompanied by a corresponding increase in ego development and ego identification, a more complex variant of psychic secondary pain has developed, the phenomenon of psychic insult: the threat associated with psychic insult primarily refers to the questioning of our ego-personality, that is our secondary self.

The more insecure we feel about the role we take up in society, the more strongly we react to downgrading “injuries”, to devaluations. The amount of vulnerability or the capacity to endure psychic insult depends on our ego strength.

In extreme cases psychic insults may lead to lifelong hatred and violent acts of revenge. Aggression-repressed individuals who turn these feelings against themselves tend to depression and in the worst case even to suicide.

Collective psychic insults may trigger blood vengeance for generations in clan-based societies. Individual, family and national psychic insults, additionally justified by religious meta-systems – being the highest level of a secondary self-complex – form the ingredients from which wars have drawn their emotional fuel for thousands of years.

Psychic secondary pain ( i.e.reaction to psychic injury free of bodily injury)


Secondary feelings of anxiety and rage are replaced by increasingly differentiated defensive strategies (against the psychic pain of love deprivation). I refer to this differentiation process as cascade of repression. Corresponding to it is an increasing loss of the intensity to feel.

Repression is a basic strategy to deal with the psychic pain of love Deprivation

There are several mechanisms (coping strategies) that allow socialized humans to better cope with the psychic pain of early love deprivation and the memories that are repeatedly reactivated by interpersonal encounters and external influences.

The process of repression has been shown – along with sublimation – to be the preferred strategy in the development of the secondary self as well as in its maintenance. This process, known as a defense mechanism, generates the contents of the personal unconscious. In regard to socialization it is desirable, even indispensable.

The path of healing leads back to the primary self

According to FREUD “failed” repression expresses itself in neurotic symptoms. Only the “failed” repression forces adults to face the repressed. It takes a high level of suffering to follow this path of conscious insight. It leads back to the primary self

However, the only sensible behavior of the adult human being would be to undo the repression. As long as we are identified with our secondary self and think we have everything under control it seems to be extraordinarily difficult for us to accept what is and to express this also physically and thereby to redeem. Yet looked at from an existential level, this is the only healing way. 

On the “necessity of repression”

Basically, the essential thing that man does is repressing: that is his life.” With this statement GEORG GRODDECK proves to be a faithful disciple of his revered teacher SIGMUND FREUD.

And he immediately explains why man must repress: “In truth an immense amount of impressions are constantly pouring upon us from the outer world: they would destroy us if it was not for the IT that spots them; it uses for our ego what suits us and represses what does not suit, it uses it for something else, now and then also for becoming ill.” 

For the official psychology and psychiatry this early plea for the necessity of repression expresses the fundamental conviction which is still valid today.

In the following however, I refer to effects which puts the positive effect of this strategy into perspective. At the same time I agree with GEORG GRODDECK that repression is necessary for socialization and that in the course of a psychoanalysis not everything repressed should be made accessible to the consciousness. 

Therapeutic approaches

The therapeutic goal is to release from their prison of the repressed those parts that prevent recovery, in the sense of an obstetric function of the therapist. In a deeper therapy this also results in a spiritually meaningful “second birth“: By perceiving the effects of socialization on my whole behavior and feelings, I am enabled to live my life more independently of the pressures of social norms.

Then I am able to decide freely what I want to keep in my capacity as a member of society and what I want to discard as incompatible with my individual and spiritual path.

How complexes arise

For me the danger of the repressive strategy lies in the fact that it is not a one-time process by which we are able to dispose unpleasant things into the unconscious once and for all. The more we – for whatever reason – are forced to repress, the more the repressed contents become energetically charged – C. G. JUNG speaks of complexes. The split off, psychic personality parts increasingly lead their own life in the unconscious and make themselves disturbingly noticeable as counter-tendencies in the consciousness. A vicious circle is set in motion, unfolding a momentum of its own, which slips more and more out of our control. 

In my opinion the central motor for repression is the painful experienced fact of primary deprivation of love. Yet this “Urschmerz” belongs to the condition humaine and is unavoidable. Without it ego development is not possible. It is an indispensable condition to mature as an adult on one side as well as to experience transcendence (the state of Zen reality) on another side.

Thus, it cannot be a question of how this primary and psychologically most painful experience can be bypassed. Rather ways need to be presented by which the individual and the society is able to deal with it. At the same time it needs to be shown what socialization (oriented according to the values of our Western society) consequently brings with it.

Strategies to avoid and substitute:
the cascade of repression

Here I define the term “repression” more broadly than it is found in the psychoanalytic definition. The cascade of repression indicates how the defense against psychic pain over love deprivation is approached by increasingly more sophisticated means. It highlights the avoidance and replacement strategies that have been adopted in the context of increased socialization.

In the concept of modern, rational man the “permanent higher development” appears in a different light when we turn our gaze to the essence of man. In this view figuratively speaking, the differentiation of defenses leads to an increased separation of the primary and from the secondary self, which makes reconnection to the primary self increasingly difficult.

The more repressed original feelings are repressed, the more alienated our current feelings and symptoms are and the easier they can be interchanged. On the other side follows: the closer we get to the original sense, the less substitution is possible.

In our consumer society socialization drives the cascade of repression further and further aiming for the greatest possible control to create as many substitute needs as possible, which are to be satisfied with ever new offers and demands.

As long as primary feelings are repressed, we will welcome any new compensatory satisfaction – in the hope of satisfying our unnamed longing.

Cascade of Repression

How emotions are “developing” and life energy is displaced and repressed

The Displacement Cascade
Cascade of repression (Verdrängungskaskade)

Accumulated energies that thrive to be acted out

With its accumulated energies the cascade of repression keeps the spiral of violence in the go. Aggression that is not acted out builds up an even greater potential of violent energy. Those who do not direct aggression against themselves in the form of shame and guilt as well as depression are forced to create relieving situations again and again in which energies can leak out in small, more or less socially accepted doses.

The vital energies of self-love and primary excited love wither away in the course of the repression process. What remains are constructs of reality that are non-real.

The individual’s mastery of the strategies of repression and sublimation shows how well the person is adapted to the norms of society. In addition developmentally preferred qualities of the ability to control and thus of well-dosed postponement and deferrals are desirable.

Some addictive behavior is distinctly welcomed, such as possessiveness, work- and consumption addiction or excessive hunger for adventurous experiences. Behind all these compensatory actions and interventions the need for self-love is no longer understandable to modern man. The more he conforms to the demands of this achievement- and consumer society, the more he has lost the ability to empathize with himself, “forgotten” to realize his real state of mind and his real needs.

Projection as STRATEGY to avoid PAIN

The repressed cannot be pacified arbitrarily, it ought to be integrated into our personality. Yet it is almost “impossible” to accept a part which is not loved. Therefore the repression mechanism makes use of other strategies to prevent the unpleasant tendency of becoming aware.

In the process of projection the repressed energy is transferred outward onto other persons, thus preventing the ego from having to recognize these contents as its own. If this happens socially sanctioned, this mechanism often works for a longer time. As long as it is in accordance with the values of the group or society the projection of self-contempt – which has arisen from the experience of not being sufficient – is considered as respectable strategy.

Who despises, devalues others, yet indirectly he devalues himself. Chronic fear of failure creates contempt as a way of living. 

The more we despise others, looking down from a socially secure position, the more at ease we find ourselves in the justification of our doing. After all, “the other” has really behaved out of line, impossibly, ridiculously or even meanly. We are sure of our cause – confirmed by brethren and sisters in belief – most of whom carry and project similar repressions, having been socialized in the same culture.

The better socialized the despiser is, the more handy is his “weapon”. Often it becomes very difficult to point out the destructiveness of such behavior, because it is used very “tactfully”. 

Different ways of assimilating to social demands

As might be assumed, successful socialization is related to biographical and constitutional factors. I distinguish four types of assimilation according to their capacity for repression and their choice of compensatory satisfactions. (When in the following I speak of “strong” and “weak” people, the quotation marks indicate that I am not describing an objectively demonstrable fact, but a subjective adaptation fate by the people concerned themselves.)

Four types of assimilation

  1. “Strong” individuals, who feel accepted within the family, generally pass through socialization without major problems. They confidently cope with the strains and especially with the double standards that climbing the social ladder involves.

    They form the elite of conformists, stand behind social values, defend successfully the status quo and in turn pass on the values of this “normality.” For them, the advantages of conformist behavior outweigh the disadvantages, reason triumphs over basic needs and feelings. 
  2. Assimilated “weak” individuals probably represent the most common version of those who within their family of origin feel rejected, i.e. accepted only under conditions. With them, fear exceeds their existential rage. They direct the rage against themselves and are ashamed, both, because they do not find the courage to defend themselves for their own sake and that in the eyes of others they fail again and again and also because they do not meet all the demands that a successful mastering of the cascade of repression would involve.

    Conformed and other-directed they struggle through life. In contrast to the “strong” assimilated ones they suffer from the external determination. The consumption frenzy and other permitted or prohibited compensatory addictions as well as psychotropic drugs keep them more or less in balance. 
  3. Early rebellious “strong” individuals usually stand out by strong distinction and opposition tendencies within the family. Under repressive conditions they do not hold back their anger by excessive fear.

    Numerous opposition members in politics and in the social field are recruited from this group. The less they experience within the family that conflicts can be resolved without violence, the more likely they are to engage in violent delinquent behavior.  
  4. “Strong” individuals who by suffering mental disturbances or externally imposed strokes of fate are forced to question their intentions caused by a breakdown in their course of life. They may become existential rebels.

    Possibly this path leads them all the way to the experience of transcendence. In this process of self-search they will dissolve the cascade of repression in reverse direction to primary pain in order to get in touch with their primary self

Selection as driving force in the process of repression

When dealing with the mechanisms of repression that have evolved over millennia, we must not forget one crucial point: Indispensable to the process of successful repression of primary pain is a stress-resistant, adaptive and resilient brain-organic substrate.

The complicated tasks of ego organization

Last but not least this is evident in the developmental success of Homo sapiens. The ability of an individual to behave in a disciplined manner, to control his instincts and to succeed in the complicated tasks of ego organization requires optimal physical and mental abilities. Therein, seen from an evolutionarily point, lies most probably the meaning of this selection process. 

These abilities include the development of the mechanism of repression with the formation of a personal unconscious that effectively “keeps under seal” all the parts that are in conflict with social assimilation and that can cope with increasing psychic stress.

However, the human being cannot endure any amount of repression, since the contents repressed into the unconscious are energetically charged and have the tendency to make themselves noticeable – contrary to the intentions of the ego.

The attempt to prevent this mechanism leads to an increasing isolation of the unconscious from the ego. Not only the personal unconscious with the repressed contents are sealed off but also the species-specific collective unconscious (this includes the primary excited love of my model of feelings). As a consequence we are also cut off from our creativity and our “gut knowledge“.

Drugs provide access to original perceptions

The enormous fascination of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, which provide precisely this access to the unconscious by chemical means, is now no longer surprising: hallucinogens lift the barrier between consciousness and the unconscious, thus providing access to primal sensations.

However, this chemically induced opening of the unconscious does not select in regard to self-love and primary excitement love. Being flooded with repressed content may also lead to horror trips. Additionally, without a competent therapeutic-spiritual guidance the conscious integration of drug-induced experiences is usually lacking.

It is obvious that this fascination cannot be suppressed by prohibition. When we use drugs we become dependent and alienated in a new way. Meditation, the natural but strenuous and demanding path is able to open access to the unconscious without chemicals. 

Addictions as STRATEGY to avoid pain

In the light of my model of feelings, the close connection between addictions and psychic pain seems to be obvious. Regardless of whether we are talking about forbidden, tolerated or socially accepted addictions, in my view the underlying cause of all of them is the need to be able to repress psychic pain thanks to their use or to avoid having to feel it in the first place.

(In chronic substance abuse however, a secondary phenomenon must be taken into account: As a result of the body’s habituation to certain drugs, there may be not only a purely psychic but also a biochemical dependence, which leads to physical withdrawal symptoms when the addictive substance is renounced.) 

A detailed discussion of this wide-ranging topic is not possible here. The following compilation provides a rough overview, in which I consider addictions in terms of active and passive strategies. With regard to the physiological connections, I refer to the remarks on the physiology of being love as well as primary excited love.

Addiction strategies

  • Stimulating addictions as a substitute for primary excited love
    This list is long, containing old familiar addictive substances such as nicotine, caffeine and cocaine, but also modern ones such as stimulants (anabolic steroids, amphetamines). In addition, addictions that are independent of addictive substances, such as work addiction and achievement addiction, must be added to this list, as well as above all extreme sports, stock market– and speculation addiction, the whole range of sex addictions, etc., which have developed into lucrative growth markets.
    Since they promote both the willingness to work and the increase of sales, they might be branded as harmful to health, but still they are not outlawed. In many cases the addicts even enjoy particularly high social esteem.
    Basically, these addictions intensify the sympathetic autonomic system with dopamine as the key substance.  
  • Softening addictions as a substitute for being love
    These addictions predominantly affect the passive parasympathetic vegetative system via oxytocin and endorphins, either softening or moving toward a similar state as being love. Accordingly, with the exception of consumption frenzy and binge eating, they at most are socially tolerated, but predominantly ostracized.
    I count alcohol addiction, heroin as well as excessive hashish use and especially drug abuse to these addictions (sleeping pills, sedative psychotropic drugs).
  • Special role of sugar
    A special position among the addictive substances takes sugar (glucose). It is “natural” (though not used by men as a “cheap everyday stimulants” before the advent of sugar plantations), has an exciting effect on the supply of metabolic energy, and is sought for its seductive sweetness by young and old as a substitute for (being) love. Despite of its obviously harmful effects on the body.

Dr. Kurt Eugen Schneider
Dr. Kurt Eugen Schneider