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  • Writer's pictureSonia Neale

Common Unconscious Defence Mechanisms, Sublimation - What Lies Beneath

As a therapist I’m interested not only in the way humans interact with each other, but I’m curious about their motives, their fears and their hopes and dreams, and I am completely and utterly fascinated by the way we (and I include myself here) can use unconscious defence mechanisms to distort reality to suit our own personal narrative and deny the bleeding obvious even when it slaps us in the face. We want others to see only our best self and that we are not only coping, but that we are happy, and that no noxious weeds, only sweet smelling roses and blooming daffodils, grow and flourish in our mentally well garden.

So what lies beneath the soil of civility? We all behave in certain ways to protect or defend our most vulnerable feelings, our inner self and self-image. This blog is the first in a series of Unconscious Defence Mechanisms (meaning they are out of our awareness) that we all employ at some time or another in order to hide an unpalatable truth about ourselves or others. This one is about sublimation, a fancy psychoanalytic word for when people bury deep inside their soul, dangerous and unacceptable impulses, disturbing thoughts and erratic emotions and instead channel this dark energy into something more socially acceptable. Classic examples include exercising hard to rid oneself of irksome, distracting sexual feelings or using black humour to cover up dark, murderous impulses.

I remember being fifteen, in the throes of puberty and madly in love with Prince Charles, who was 28 and single at the time and played a lot of vigorous sports involving horses. My naïve, sexually inquisitive 1977 self asked Mum if he was still a virgin (like she had a crystal ball into these matters) and I remember Mum saying he probably was and that intensive sport was his way of using up (or sublimating) his restless sexual energy. I swallowed that explanation hook, line and sinker because it fitted in with my world-view that he was a really nice decent bloke, trying hard to save himself for the right woman, and whom one day I might marry and become the Queen of England. Back in those pre-internet days, the Royal Family were deemed as virtuous, sexless, setting an exemplary example to the great unwashed public and quite beyond reproach. These were lofty standards that my rambunctious and disorderly family never quite achieved. Or came close to achieving.

Many years ago, when I was a mother of three small children and married to someone who was not Prince Charles, I found the job overwhelming and was worried, no, terrified I was not a good mother. I had some very unacceptable thoughts and impulses during the motherhood years between 1990 and 2015 which was when my last child left home. At the time I just free-fall dissociated and metabolised any excess energy (and by that I mean murderous impulses) I had into writing so-called light-hearted comedy about the anger, resentment, horror, pain and frustration of motherhood and my family. I wrote witty anecdotes involving all the socially undesirable household happenings, all the warts, lice, tinea, fleas, broken bones, teenage hormones, father-son and mother-daughter dynamics, sibling rivalry and “adult coping skills” involving caffeine, red wine, funky cigarettes and even funkier 1970s teenage boybands.

I sublimated so much free-range evil and menace (think Hansel and Gretel), that I caught the attention of an ABC 720 radio producer, herself with two children who resonated with my pain and anguish and gave me a weekly radio spot called “Bad Mother’s Revenge.” She was also instrumental in getting my first two books published. Sublimation saved our lives and my children somehow all turned out into people I actually like (some things are miracles best not examined too closely).

By this stage Prince Charles had not only married Princess Diana, but somehow there ended up being three people in the marital bed. This was the time that, like most of us, His Royal Highness was himself probably having quite a few subliminal dangerous and unacceptable impulses, disturbing thoughts and erratic emotions. Sublimation keeps the dark side of the force at bay allowing us to be civilised and safe, and this includes the Royal Family but it’s secretly nice to know that what lies beneath the British Monarchy, is just as rambunctious and disorderly as the rest of us.

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