OCD: The Distress of Repression

Oct 13, 2022

Tool are laid out neatly on a workbench, illustrating the compulsive behavior associated with OCD.
Photo Credit: Cesar Carlevarino-Aragon via Unsplash

Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts; compulsions are unwarranted, involuntary behaviors. Though different, they often go together, for compulsions pose as protection from the imagined bad consequences of obsessions. They tend to escalate, demanding more time and attention: spontaneity is sacrificed to schedule, desire surrenders to compliance, and aliveness is stifled by stiffness.

OCD’s insistence on “rightness” attempts to deny feelings, especially anger, neediness, and desire, displacing them onto rigid exercise routines, midnight phone scrolling, finicky dietary convictions, and other attempts to serve performance and perfection. Marie-Louise von Franz, Jung’s close collaborator, says, “Every content of the unconscious with which one is not properly related tends to obsess one, for it gets at us from behind…You can either be possessed by a content constellated in the unconscious, or you can have a relationship to it. The more one represses it; the more one is affected by it.” When the unconscious is denied, it turns to unwanted forms of expression.

Here’s the dream we analyze:

“I am standing in a field in winter. The earth is cold and hard. I have a simple, woven cloth wrapped around my head and am carrying a basket in the crook of my arm. I am in the field harvesting potatoes. I work slowly and methodically, moving up and down the rows, but at some point, I realize that the crops I am harvesting are upside down. The potatoes sit neatly atop the earth, and it is only when I pull them up that I can see all the green parts of the plant. This realization doesn’t phase me, and I continue to harvest. As I work, I am aware of a sense of great peace. I bend to pick up yet another potato and realize there is no resistance, for the potato has no stem, leaves, or roots. It is a solitary object. I stand and hold the potato in the palm of my hand. It is fairly small and somewhat paler than the rest. All of a sudden, the potato sprouts small white wings, which begin to flutter. The potato hovers above my hand for a few moments and then flies away. I watch it against the sky and am suddenly aware that the sky has become a brilliant blue, whereas, in the beginning of the dream, it was a heavy, pearly grey that threatened snow. I awake with a feeling of enormous well-being.”


Nancy J. Dougherty and Jacqueline J. West. The Matrix and Meaning of Character: An Archetypal and Developmental Approach. https://www.amazon.com/dp/0415403006/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_CWV9HCTBJT9N9CPJZN7N

Nancy McWilliams. Psychoanalytic Diagnosis: Understanding Personality Structure in the Clinical Process. https://www.amazon.com/dp/1462543693/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_ZADS2EPQNM082KGVM76Z


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  1. Simcha

    Deep gratitude for this episode – I’m writing belatedly because I had to listen to this podcast over and over again before I arrived at my question.

    This podcast for me is “classic” TJL: while addressing OCD, you three touch on elements that many non-OCD people might recognise (and thus benefit from your discussion).

    In other words, I don’t suffer from OCD – at least until I obsessively listened to this podcast (!). But I heard what can only be called “echos” which stood out because they were familiar to me.

    My question: Deb describes three ways we separate from out affect: 1) Displacement (e.g. the working person who comes home and kicks the cat, but out of frustration with work); 2) Shame (no example); and 3) reaction formation (e.g. people who deny their urge towards messiness excessively clean).

    Since there was no elaboration on shame, I’m wondering what Deb meant by shame as a way to separate us from our affect:
    – we are / were shamed by others?
    – we ourselves use shame to block affect, as if shame were “The Go-To” affect (ergo: when one feels shame, one is blocked from feeling anything else, whether “negative” affect such as fear or “positive” affect such as joy).
    – or both options

    From my readings on trauma (especially Kalsched), I have learned that early trauma sufferers (i.e. pre-language or before 18 months) often feel shame. So I’ve wondered if it’s a “gut reaction” to avoid any other feelings. And also what is the SOURCE of this shame?

    From my own experience, I’ve often felt deep shame – but without knowing why. What did I actually do? This experience makes me wonder if there is a “core” shame experience (if so, what was it?) and / or if shame just becomes The Go-To emotion, blocking all other emotions.

    I hope that’s clear – but thank you again for such an incredible podcast.

    • Joseph Lee

      From Deb:

      Dear Astute and Reflective Listener!

      Your question about shame is very important, and your experience of having felt deep shame without knowing why is an experience familiar to many people. A truly fulsome response is a topic for depth and exploration—a book–and it always amazes me that it is not usually included in pro forma lists of core human feelings. Here is what I can offer you as an immediate response.

      Let’s first differentiate shame from guilt, as they are often confused. Guilt is a later developmental emotion: the child has done something bad (snitch a cookie before dinner, smacked his younger sibling). Guilt is about behavior, and assumes a basic sense of conscience—knowing “the rules” and breaking them.

      Shame, unlike guilt, is a feeling that one’s basic self is somehow bad. Haven’t we all seen a dog cower under the owner’s stern—and shaming—”bad dog”!? The poor animal feels worthless, inherently abominable. This is “interpersonal,” for the dog has somehow misbehaved, and the temporary alienation from positive relationship with the owner is his punishment. The same thing happens with a time out for a toddler or young child: he or she is exiled—abandoned, albeit temporarily—which has deep evolutional and emotional roots in humans. We need acceptance so badly when we are little that even a temporary severing of relationship is powerful.

      There is also a less obvious and more pervasive kind of shame that stems from early infant and childhood experiences not available to consciousness—but our bodies and emotions remember. These are usually more subtle, but nonetheless substantial experiences of being insufficiently attended to, mirrored, and found enjoyable that amount to a kind of emotional neglect or abandonment. It’s as if the child was not valued enough, not important enough, to receive the kind of interactive attention, comfort, and touch that all of us need.

      In addition, if there was an early, premature disruption in the relationshIp with a primary caregiver, it would have the same effect, as a young one would not be able to understand that the caregiver’s absence was not rejection. Gabor Mate speaks eloquently (youtube) about this; although his mother gave him to a surrogate to save his life, he experienced only a devastating lack. I suspect that this is the kind of shame you may be inquiring about. Of course, as you already understand from your reading of Donald Kalsched, this can also constitute a form of relational trauma.

      I hope to have at least touched on an answer to your question. Thank you for the thoughtfulness of your inquiry, and one that really matters, and for taking the time to write to us.

      Onward and all best – Deb

  2. Simcha

    Thank you so much for taking the time – that’s such a generous (and helpful) response.


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