“Daddy, you are so kind, and you have a good heart.” Seven-year-old Cindy articulated these words to her father, Dan, after witnessing him placing a $1 bill into the basket of a homeless man, with an infected, open wound, sitting on the street, outside the subway station.
In a previous article, entitled, Wearing Your Psychodynamically Informed Hat: Elaboration on the Concept of Defense Mechanism, I explained that Dan’s kind gesture was an example of a mature defense mechanism, known as altruism. Dan, as a doctor, saw the man and his wound and had an array of thoughts and feelings, including anxiety, and managed to cope with them through the process of altruism. In the above referenced article, I listed fifteen additional examples of mature defense mechanisms, and in this current article, I will elaborate on a common defense mechanism—sublimation.
“I’m here because I fight a lot. I get into trouble with the law, and my attorney and social worker told me to come here.” A 19-year-old gentleman, whom I will call Junior, said this when he met with me. “I’ve been fighting since I was a kid. My cousins used to pick on me a lot, and I had to defend myself. I fought in school, and I fought so much that I got expelled from school. My mother got so tired of me, she threw me out on the street and I had to defend myself, and now I got arrested,” Junior added.
Here are the details of our conversation:
Me: How did you learn to be a fighter? (I was looking for an explanatory model, but in an indirect way.)
Junior: It’s been the only way I’ve been able to get people get off my back. When they tease me, I ask them to stop, they keep going at it until I start fighting.
Me: You seem to be very good at it. (Strength model)
Junior: Well, it’s been working for me; so, I guess I am. (Junior said this while smiling.)
Me: Have you ever thought of becoming a boxer? (Intentional pause)
Junior: All my life, I wanted to become a boxer. My dad laughed at me, my mom told me it was too dangerous, and ever since, nothing has happened. How did you know that?
Me: I don’t know. I am simply asking.
Junior: No. How would you know to ask that?
Me: Well, I guess I am the doctor (Using a bit of humor, to diffuse a bit, and make sure we stay on this topic). Well, ok. You have been fighting all your life; you have been successful at getting people off your back, just through fighting. I am just thinking there are ways for you to do that without you getting into trouble, and boxing might be it.
Junior: I always wanted to be a boxer. I wanted to be like Mohamad Ali. I admire him. He’s my idol.
Me: Let’s then take steps to make that happen for you. First, how important is it for you right now to do that?
Junior: Very important. I would give it a 12 out of 10.
Me: This is good. Now, what are the first steps do you think you need to take right now for this?
Junior: I have no idea. I wouldn’t know where to even start.
Me: It seems that way. How ready do you think you are for this?
Junior: I don’t know about being ready, but I’ve always wanted to do that.
Junior agreed to allow me, along with his therapist, to help him take the steps towards boxing. We found him a boxing school, which he then started attending and quickly excelled, and quickly became a professional boxer. Junior has been able to sublimate. He learned to channel his repressed anger and his anxiety into something socially acceptable. He has used sublimation, an example of a mature defense mechanism.
For more in this series of articles, check below!
Dr. Sidor is quadruple board certified in psychiatry, with vast clinical, teaching, supervision, mentorship, and management experience. He also has extensive experience in public speaking, leadership, business, and research, in addition to a passion for program development and project management. His overall goal is to empower all health care professionals throughout the United States and globally, towards ensuring the continuity of excellent patient care, while balancing the need to take care of themselves. Dr. Sidor is the main instructor for the SWEET Institute, and he is currently an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University. He is also the past Medical Director and Chief Medical Officer for CASES (Center for Alternative Sentencing and employment Services), where he continues to see patients and consult on challenging cases. He speaks and writes fluently in six (6) languages—French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Creole and Italian.
Anna Freud, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (Karnac Books, 2011), p. 44.
Carl Jung, Letters, ed. By G. Adler and A. Jaffé (Princeton University Press; Princeton, 1974), vol. 1, 171.
C. G. Jung, Dreams: (From Volumes 4, 8, 12, and 16 of the Collected Works of C. G. Jung), Princeton University Press (2012), p. 100.