Freud's conception of the mind is characterized by primarily by dynamism, seen in the distribution of psychic energy, the interplay between the different levels of consciousness, and the interaction between the various functions of the mind. The single function of the mind which brings together these various aspects is repression, the maintenance of what is and what isn't appropriately retained in the conscious mind.
Repression, a fundamental, usually unconscious function of the ego, maintains equilibrium in the individual by repressing inappropriate, unfeasible, or guilt-causing urges, memories and wishes (all usually of the id) to the level of the unconscious, where they will be out of sight, if not out of mind. The ability to repress dangerous or unsettling thoughts turns out to be vital to the individual's ability to negotiate his way through life. If a child had never learned to repress the urge to steal his sister's ice cream cone, for example, he would have spent years in punishment. If the boss at work cannot repress her sexual desire for her secretary, she will be unable to function, her mind consumed by illicit, inappropriate and impossible urges. Only the timely repression of harmful impulses and urges gives the individual the capacity to move on and meet the demands of an ever-changing world.
Although repression thus functions as a vital coping tool, it also can cause great anguish. A repressed urge of the id, though it may be in the unconscious, still affects the actions and thoughts of the individual. Indeed, conflicting urges or painful memories thus repressed have the potential to cause great anxiety, though the individual will not understand what causes it. As the repressed items teem and surge beneath the conscious surface, they sap vital psychic energy and constantly force the individual to maintain lines of defense mechanisms against his own unconscious. But as the urges boil up, the individual eventually will find release, through some external displacement, displaced emotion, or other mechanism. This release, coming as it does from uncontrollable and often unfathomable depths, can cause unpredictable, sometimes unimaginable reactions: The wife who has repressed her anger at her husband for fifteen years suddenly lights him and his bed on fire; the frustrated worker smashes equipment while on the job one afternoon. The repression causes anxiety, discomfort, even neurosis; the cathartic release causes massive emotional and often physical damage.
Regardless of the consequences, the release of the repressed urges and memories does more good than harm, resulting in a new balance and distribution of psychic energy and an end to subtle and eating anxiety.
Last modified 1998