Repression is the act of holding something or someone back, or holding something or someone down. Feelings can be repressed, like when someone is trying not to cry; or society can be repressed, if its government limits the people’s freedoms. An example of repression lies in women being denied certain rights, such as voting, in certain countries. To explore this concept, consider the following repression definition.

Definition of Repression


  1. The act of restraining someone or something;
  2. The act of suppressing an emotion, thought, or quality.


1325-1375        Middle English

What is Repression

Repression is similar to suppression, in that both refer to something being restrained, held back, or prevented. Those who bottle up their feelings are said to be emotionally repressed. This occurs when people are either afraid to speak their mind, or are prevented from doing so. Emotional repression can have dangerous consequences, however, as passionate emotions can build up to such a point that they are eventually released as anger or, worse, as violent behaviors.

What is Repressive Law

Repressive law is a legal system that focuses on the punishment that a criminal will receive, rather than on rehabilitation in the hope of keeping him from committing crime again.  The consequences of committing a crime in a repressive law system are typically extreme. The laws that define a repressive law system are based on a set of local societal norms. Should anyone violate any of those laws, the members of that society may feel like they were personally wronged, and want to see the criminal apprehended and punished quickly.

Repressive law differs from what is known as “restitutive law,” in that restitutive law asks that the criminal pay for the harm he caused, to his victim, which is making “restitution.” This is not only significantly less severe, but the criminal only has to answer to one person (the victim), rather than to society as a whole.

Psychological Repression

Psychological repression is the act of pushing upsetting memories, thoughts, or feelings out of one’s mind. Examples of repression that may be considered psychological include those relating to sexual or violent urges, or otherwise painful childhood memories. Experts believe that psychological repression can lead to anxiety and other neuroses, and that individuals start to experience these conditions when the forbidden impulse or memory threatens to come back into the conscious mind from the unconscious one.

Some psychoanalysts work with patients to attempt to free their patients’ repressed memories through “free association.” Free association is the process by which a patient is presented with an image that may cause another entirely unrelated image to come into the patient’s mind. Ink blot, or Rorschach, tests are used to test free association. Psychoanalysts also examine their patients’ dreams for insight into their psychological repression.

Repression vs. False

Some memory researchers agree with the idea that patients can recover repressed memories with help from a psychoanalyst. Others, however, believe that children who have suffered through a traumatic event do not repress their memories, but rather that they can never forget them. These researchers point to children in concentration camps, or children who have witnessed a parent being murdered, and the accounts these children gave of the events years later that prove they never forgot the horrifying details of what they saw.

These researchers believe that memory is unreliable, and that it can be taught to “remember” things that never happened. The process of fabricating a memory is called “false memory,” and that is what these researchers claim some patients have do when pressed to recall supposedly repressed memories. However, the researchers themselves may be unreliable, as many are not licensed, nor are they professionals in the field of mental health.

Some victims of trauma are, in fact, able to forget what they went through, and psychoanalysts believe this is because their memories have repressed the details of the traumatic event by pushing those feelings and memories deep into their unconscious minds. However, some therapists believe that those memories can be recovered through hypnosis and other forms of treatment (such as free association), and that these treatment methods must be discussed in order to encourage patients to seek help, and to reassure them that they can be treated in these ways.

Because some therapists are certain that their patients will not recover until they can confront their deeply buried memories, patients have actually been directed to cut ties with their families in an effort to make their recovery processes faster and more efficient.

Political Repression

Political repression is the mistreatment of a person or group based on political reasons, especially if that mistreatment involves limiting participation in a political aspect of society. Examples of repression of this kind include:

  • Human rights violations
  • Police brutality
  • Imprisonment
  • Abuse of surveillance
  • Violent actions, such as murder, torture, or extrajudicial punishments

Political activists, and those who oppose the government, are especially likely to be targeted by these forms of repression, but political repression can happen to anyone in the general society. In certain countries, not only is political repression approved, but the government may even participate in organizing it and carrying it out via secret police, death squads, or paramilitary groups. These forms of political repression are also referred to as political discrimination or politicism.

Religious Persecution as a Means of

Religious persecution as a means of repression has been a problem for centuries, and in modern times it is particularly rampant in the country of Nigeria, where thousands of Christians and Muslims have been murdered for their faith. Not one person has been convicted and sentenced in Nigeria for any of these murders during the ten years since the extreme violence initially broke out.

Nigeria is far from alone on this issue. Over two dozen countries participate in religious persecution as a means of repression. For instance, in Egypt, members of the Baha’i faith, as well as Muslims, have not only been imprisoned for their religious beliefs but have also been fired from their jobs, kicked out of college, and prohibited from obtaining bank accounts, driver’s licenses, and even copies of their own birth certificates.

Further examples of religious persecution as a means of repression can be found in Saudi Arabia, China, India, Afghanistan, Russia, Cuba, Turkey, Venezuela, and Somalia, to name a few. Both China and Iran made headlines for their extreme methods of repressing religion. China implemented tougher security measures and tighter restraints on Islamists in an effort to curb any “potential violence” that those who followed the religion might engage in; and Iran labeled anyone who dared to disagree with domestic politics an “enemy of God” – which is a capital offense in Iran (i.e. punishable by death).

Repression Example in a Sexual Abuse Case

In 2005, Catholic priest Paul Shanley was convicted on two counts of the sexual abuse of a child. His conviction was based on the testimony of the victim: a young adult male who claimed to have recently unearthed repressed memories of the sexual abuse that he had suffered as a child.

In 2002, the victim’s girlfriend noticed an article in a Boston newspaper that alleged that Shanley had sexually abused children. The victim was surprised to see this article and recalled some of the interactions he personally had with Shanley, such as being taken out of class to be disciplined by Shanley several times between the ages of 6 and 12 years old. Even after looking up some more information about Shanley, the victim could not recall any traumatic memories.

A few weeks after the article was printed, the victim learned that one of his childhood friends had made allegations against their former priest as well. The victim decided to reach out to his former friend, and he got an attorney. As a member of the Air Force, the victim met with an Air Force psychologist to discuss everything that was going on. The psychologist suggested the victim start a diary to keep track of any memories he had that involved Shanley.

During Shanley’s trial, the victim testified that Shanley had sexually abused him on several occasions, providing the court with specific details of the incidents, and that he had not remembered these events until he spoke with others about the case, 13 years after the alleged offenses had occurred. As expected, Shanley’s defense team argued that the abuse had never occurred, and that the alleged victim was making it all up, in order to benefit financially. They also argued that repressed memory was unreliable, and that unless other sources could back up those supposed memories, it would be impossible to prove whether or not those memories were of events that had actually happened.

In response, the prosecution called expert witnesses to testify that victims of sexual abuse could indeed repress those memories for several years, and that those memories could then be reliably recovered years later. One of the experts, Dr. James Chu, testified that dissociative amnesia is a legitimate diagnosis, and that while it is uncommon, neither is it rare.

Upon Shanley’s conviction, the defense made a motion for a new trial, which the lower court denied. The matter went up to the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, which ultimately affirmed the lower court’s denial of a new trial. The Court held that the expert witness testimony that was given in support of dissociative amnesia and its related repressed memories was admissible, and Shanley’s conviction was upheld.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Death squad — a group that kills or forces the disappearance of an individual in order to politically repress them.
  • Extrajudicial Punishment – Punishment for a crime, carried out without legal process.
  • Neurosis — mental illnesses relating to depression, anxiety, or obsessive compulsion.
  • Paramilitary group — an armed group that is not recognized as an official military force.

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