Undoing (psychology)

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Undoing is a defense mechanism in which a person tries to cancel out or remove an unhealthy, destructive or otherwise threatening thought or action by engaging in contrary behavior. For example, after thinking about being violent with someone, one would then be overly nice or accommodating to them. It is one of several defense mechanisms proposed by the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud during his career, many of which were later developed further by his daughter Anna Freud. The German term "Ungeschehenmachen" was first used to describe this defense mechanism. Transliterated, it means "making un-happened", which is essentially the core of "undoing". Undoing refers to the phenomenon whereby a person tries to alter the past in some way to avoid or feign disappearance of an adversity or mishap. [1]


Freud's development of the concept

Freud first described the practice of undoing in his 1909 "Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis". Here he recounted how his patient (the "Rat Man") first removed a stone from the road in case his lady's carriage should overturn upon it, and thereafter 'felt obliged to go back and replace the stone in its original position in the middle of the road'. [2] Freud argued that his 'undoing this deed of love by replacing the stone where...her carriage might come to grief against it...was determined by a motive contrary to that which produced the first part' [3] by hate, not love.

It was two decades later in 1926 that he formalised the ego defense as' undoing what has been done....it is, as it were, negative magic, and endeavours, by means of motor symbolism, to blow away not merely the consequences of some event (or experience or impression) but the event itself'. [4] Freud then went on to use '"undoing" what has been done...[as] good enough grounds for re-introducing the old concept of defence, which can cover all these processes that have the same purpose—namely the protection of the ego against instinctual demands' [5] —one of the major technical advances of his later years.

In psychoanalysis after Freud

The first psychoanalytic half-century saw several writers exploring the concept of undoing in Freud's wake. Anna Freud listed it among the ego mechanisms; Ernest Jones and Ella Freeman Sharpe both wrote articles linking it with 'actions and attitudes aimed at the undoing of imaginative destructions. Strivings for reparation may...be the main motive'. [6] Otto Fenichel devoted a substantial section of his "mechanism of defense" to summarizing past work in his encyclopedic Theory of Neurosis: he was especially interested in how 'the undoing sometimes does not consist in a compulsion to do the opposite of what has been done previously but in a compulsion to repeat the very same act...with the opposite unconscious meaning'. [7]

The second half of the twentieth century saw little new theoretical or creative work around the concept. Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis laid stress on how 'Undoing in the pathological sense is directed at the act's very reality, and the aim is to suppress it absolutely, as though time were reversed'. [8] The Freud encyclopedia highlighted how 'Acts of expiation can be seen as forms of undoing'; [9] George Eman Vaillant placed undoing among the neurotic defenses in his hierarchy of defense mechanisms.

Melanie Klein in her early work had written of undoing in terms of a kind of magical reparation: 'a tendency to undo harm and put objects to right magically'. [10] Later, however, she would use it in terms of a kind of ego disintegration—'a process of undoing, or what she called "a falling into bits"' [11] —and it was in this latter, rather different sense of the term that later Kleinians would tend to use it: 'an invitation to dissolution and undoing...leaving the mental field open for enactment and horror'. [12]


There is a proposal that speaks specifically about the automaticity of this counter factual thinking. This theory, as stipulated by Medvec, Madey and Gilovich (1995) states that Undoing can occur as an automatic response to a situation. Their findings involved Olympic Silver Medalists who were less happy about their achievement than the bronze medalists, even though it is known that Silver medalists have a higher honor. To the individuals, the Silver Medal represented how close they were to winning which is worse than being awarded bronze, which signified how close they were to not having a placement at all. This suggests that the counterfactual thinking was a sort of implicit way of control and was not actually deliberately employed as a mechanism. [13]

Further uses

Undoing can be used to 'explain away' habits or behaviors that are not in line with an individual's personality. For example, in the case of a person who is well organised in the workplace, yet always forgets to pay bills on time at home, Freudian psychologists could argue that his tardiness with bills is an undoing of his desire to be orderly, or vice versa. Freud has been criticized regarding examples such as this because his theory is so complicated that most problems can be explained by another part of the theory.[ citation needed ]

For some people undoing can be used to reduce cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable feeling created when an attitude and an action, or two attitudes are in conflict with one another.

In criminal profiling the term refers to a pattern of behavior by which an offender tries to undo their crime symbolically, e.g. by painting the face of a person killed by the perpetrator, covering up and decorating the corpse with flowers, personal belongings and jewelry, or folding the hands, imitating a laying-out.

Effects of positive emotions

Happiness, joy, love, excitement are all positive emotions and there is no arguing that these emotions contribute in large to how we act, how we think, and what we do. In contrast there are also negative feelings such as sadness that can lead us to act in certain ways that may not necessarily be good. Studies have been performed that have shown that positive emotions can be used to "correct" or "undo" the effects of negative emotions. Barbara Fredrickson and Robert Levenson have come up with the undoing hypothesis. In essence what the hypothesis states is that people might hold in the effects of their positive emotions to counterbalance the effects of their negative emotions. [14] Overall positive emotions help lower the potentially health-damaging cardiovascular reactivity that lingers following negative emotions. This effect may be especially important for those most at risk for developing coronary heart disease. [14]

Effects of negative emotions

Negative emotions, including anger and fear, can be seen as the evolution of human adaptation to survival in life-threatening situations. For example, anger shows the sign of attack, fear shows the sign of escape. These emotional reactions interconnect with our mind and body. These negative emotions are influenced by the physiological support mechanisms, such as the physical energy, that relies on the body to mobilize at an optimal level for individual action to react. In the attack or flee situation, it produces heightened cardiovascular re-activity that redistributes blood flow to relevant skeletal muscles. However, in extreme cases, negative emotions will cause damage to people's health in their cardiovascular re-activity. [14]


Undoing is tentatively classified at the "Mental inhibitions (compromise formation) level" in DSM-IV-TR's proposed Defensive Functioning Scale (under Appendix B, "Criteria Sets and Axes Provided for Further Study.") [15]

Related Research Articles

Id, ego and super-ego Psychological concepts by Sigmund Freud

The id, ego, and super-ego are a set of three concepts in psychoanalytic theory describing distinct, interacting agents in the psychic apparatus. The three agents are theoretical constructs that describe the activities and interactions of the mental life of a person. In the ego psychology model of the psyche, the id is the set of uncoordinated instinctual desires; the super-ego plays the critical and moralizing role; and the ego is the organized, realistic agent that mediates between the instinctual desires of the id and the critical super-ego; Freud explained that:

The functional importance of the ego is manifested in the fact that, normally, control over the approaches to motility devolves upon it. Thus, in its relation to the id, [the ego] is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength, while the ego uses borrowed forces. The analogy may be carried a little further. Often, a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide [the horse] where it wants to go; so, in the same way, the ego is in the habit of transforming the id's will into action, as if it were its own.

Psychoanalytic theory is the theory of personality organization and the dynamics of personality development that guides psychoanalysis, a clinical method for treating psychopathology. First laid out by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century, psychoanalytic theory has undergone many refinements since his work. The psychoanalytic theory came to full prominence in the last third of the twentieth century as part of the flow of critical discourse regarding psychological treatments after the 1960s, long after Freud's death in 1939. Freud had ceased his analysis of the brain and his physiological studies and shifted his focus to the study of the mind and the related psychological attributes making up the mind, and on treatment using free association and the phenomena of transference. His study emphasized the recognition of childhood events that could influence the mental functioning of adults. His examination of the genetic and then the developmental aspects gave the psychoanalytic theory its characteristics. Starting with his publication of The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, his theories began to gain prominence.

Psychological projection Attributing parts of the self to others

Psychological projection is the process of misinterpreting what is "inside" as coming from "outside". It forms the basis of empathy by the projection of personal experiences to understand someone else's subjective world. In its malignant forms, it is a defense mechanism in which the ego defends itself against disowned and highly negative parts of the self by denying their existence in themselves and attributing them to others, breeding misunderstanding and causing untold interpersonal damage. A bully may project their own feelings of vulnerability onto the target, or a person who is confused may project feelings of confusion and inadequacy onto other people. Projection incorporates blame shifting and can manifest as shame dumping. Projection has been described as an early phase of introjection.

Defence mechanism Unconscious psychological mechanism that reduces anxiety arising from unacceptable or potentially harmful stimuli

In psychoanalytic theory, a defence mechanism, is an unconscious psychological operation that functions to protect a person from anxiety-producing thoughts and feelings related to internal conflicts and outer stressors.

Genital stage Freudian psychosexual development

The genital stage in psychoanalysis is the term used by Sigmund Freud to describe the final stage of human psychosexual development. The individual develops a strong sexual interest in people outside of the family.

In psychology, displacement is an unconscious defence mechanism whereby the mind substitutes either a new aim or a new object for goals felt in their original form to be dangerous or unacceptable.

In psychoanalysis, cathexis is defined as the process of allocation of mental or emotional energy to a person, object, or idea.

In psychoanalysis, anticathexis, or countercathexis, is the energy used by the ego to bind the primitive impulses of the Id. Sometimes the ego follows the instructions of the superego in doing so; sometimes however it develops a double-countercathexis, so as to block feelings of guilt and anxiety deriving from the superego, as well as id impulses.

In psychology, intellectualization is a defense mechanism by which reasoning is used to block confrontation with an unconscious conflict and its associated emotional stress – where thinking is used to avoid feeling. It involves removing one's self, emotionally, from a stressful event. Intellectualization may accompany, but is different from, rationalization, the pseudo-rational justification of irrational acts.

Death drive Concept from Freudian psychoanalytics

In classical Freudian psychoanalytic theory, the death drive is the drive toward death and destruction, often expressed through behaviors such as aggression, repetition compulsion, and self-destructiveness. It was originally proposed by Sabina Spielrein in her paper "Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being" in 1912, which was then taken up by Sigmund Freud in 1920 in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. This concept has been translated as "opposition between the ego or death instincts and the sexual or life instincts". In Pleasure Principle, Freud used the plural "death drives" (Todestriebe) much more frequently than the singular.

Repetition compulsion Psychological phenomenon in which a person reenacts to relive an event or its circumstances

Repetition compulsion is a psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats an event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes re-enacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again. This "re-living" can also take the form of dreams in which memories and feelings of what happened are repeated, and even hallucinated.

In Freudian psychoanalysis, the ego ideal is the inner image of oneself as one wants to become. Alternatively, "the Freudian notion of a perfect or ideal self housed in the superego," consisting of "the individual's conscious and unconscious images of what he would like to be, patterned after certain people whom ... he regards as ideal."

Otto Fenichel Austrian psychoanalyst (1897–1946)

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Narcissistic defenses are those processes whereby the idealized aspects of the self are preserved, and its limitations denied. They tend to be rigid and totalistic. They are often driven by feelings of shame and guilt, conscious or unconscious.

Narcissistic neurosis is a term introduced by Sigmund Freud to distinguish the class of neuroses characterised by their lack of object relations and their fixation upon the early stage of libidinal narcissism. The term is less current in contemporary psychoanalysis, but still a focus for analytic controversy.

Freuds psychoanalytic theories Look to unconscious drives to explain human behavior

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Some Character-Types Met within Psycho-Analytic Work is an essay by Sigmund Freud from 1916, comprising three character studies—of what he called 'The Exceptions', 'Those Wrecked by Success' and 'Criminals from a Sense of Guilt'.


  1. Laplanche, J. and Pontalis, J-B. (1973), The language of psycho-analysis (D. Nicholson-Smith, Trans). New York: Norton.
  2. Sigmund Freud, Case Studies II (London 1991) p. 70
  3. Freud, Studies p. 72
  4. Sigmund Freud, On Psychopathology (Middlesex 1987) p. 275
  5. Freud, Psychopathology p. 324
  6. Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (London 1946) p. 155
  7. Fenichel, Theory pp. 153–4
  8. Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis (London 1988) p. 478
  9. Edward Erwin, The Freud encyclopedia (2002) p. 140
  10. Melanie Klein, Developments in Psycho-Analysis (London 1989) p. 61
  11. Meira Likierman, Melanie Klein: Her Work in Context (2002) p. 167
  12. Leslie Sohn, in H. S. Klein/J. Symington eds., Imprisoned Pain and its transformation (London 2000) p. 202
  13. Medvec, V.H., Madey, S. F. and Gilouich, T. (1995). When less is more: Counterfactual thinking and satisfaction among Olympic Medalists, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology69, 603–610
  14. 1 2 3 Fredrickson, B. L., Mancuso, R. A., Branigan, C. and Tugade, M. M. (2000). The undoing effect of positive emotions. Motivation and Emotion24, 237–258.
  15. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., text revision ed.). American Psychiatric Association. p. 808.

Further reading