How to Turn Negative Urges into Positive Actions

Written by Dr. Perry, PhD
Image Credit: Pixabay

“Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.” ~Hans Selye

Sublimation is a subconscious psychological defense mechanism whereby we take a negative impulse and channel it into a positive behavior. This is similar to displacement (click here to refer to my earlier post on displacement) but instead of taking a negative impulse, such as aggression towards one’s boss, and displacing that negative feeling onto an innocent third party such as your husband or wife, we take the initial socially unacceptable impulse and direct it towards a positive action. We seek a positive alternative form of fulfillment for the initial destructive urge. According to Freud, the strength of the negative urge would define the strength of the positive outcome.

Our initial impulses can be subconsciously directed into a number of different areas. Here are some ways that we can engage in sublimation.

1. Anger/Emotional disconnect from partner
If you argued with your partner and have become emotionally disconnected and are momentarily not speaking to each other, you might focus on organizing the home or perhaps focus on work or school work.

2. Aggression
Subconscious feelings of aggression can be positively sublimated into any area of sports. Aggression can also be sublimated into creative expression such as sculpting. Freud wrote about a man who as a child went around aggressively cutting the tails of neighborhood dogs. This man did not grow up to be a serial killer but instead became a renowned surgeon.

3. Unhappiness
Many unhappy moments have become beautiful pieces of music or powerful pieces of literature. The power of the initial sad moment has the potential to be converted into an artistic endeavor that touches many.

4. Pain
A child with an abusive past may sublimate their pain into a career in law enforcement in order to combat those who inflict pain on those that hurt others.

5. Repressed sexuality
The human sex drive is a powerful emotion that can be redirected into many aspects of a person’s life. For example, it can be the force behind artistic creativity, the founding of companies or life-changing ideas. Freud theorized that Leonardo da Vinci had been a highly sexual child who later sublimated his sexuality to scientific study and art.

6. Envy
Envy of another’s athletic ability or possessions can be sublimated into one’s own pursuit of a better life or one’s own physicality.

7. Wounded Ego
A wounded ego can sublimate into gratitude and appreciation of others.

8. Sexual rejection
Being rejected by one’s love interest can be quite painful. Often times this pain is sublimated into creativity and the result may be a beautiful book, poem or movie.

9. Fear of failure
The fear of failure may be sublimated into becoming an expert in one’s work or being extremely knowledgeable and efficient in an area of expertise.

10. Unstable childhood
A childhood full of unpredictability and instability may be sublimated into setting healthy boundaries as an adult.

I believe that we can learn from the subconscious ability to turn a negative impulse into a positive action. We can learn to be aware of disappointments in life and turn powerful negative urges into positive action. For example, if a person does not receive a raise or promotion at work, the feeling of anger or disappointment can be used to improve their performance or find a better career field. Anger can always be channeled into a great workout by finding a positive release for negative impulses.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. I would love to hear how you think sublimation may have had an impact on your own life. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

The thoughts expressed in this blog post are my own and are not meant to create a therapeutic relationship with the reader. This blog does not replace or substitute the help of a mental health professional. Please note, I am unable to answer your specific mental health questions as I am not fully aware of all of the circumstances.

Dr. Perry

Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology
M.A. in Clinical Psychology
B.A. in Psychology

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74 responses to How to Turn Negative Urges into Positive Actions

  1. I love it! Sounds like Alchemy. I love the whole concept that we can take something negative and transmute it into positive energy that we can channel toward a more positive outcome. Thank you for posting Dr. Perry!

    Liked by 13 people

    • I was going to say, when the house is extra spotless, uh oh! Be afraid, be very afraid! 😆 It helps to clean to get my mind off what’s really going on and it avoid conflict.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Truth is... says:

    – Thank you for your helpful and thought provoking examples of how negatives can be turned over to positives. In a similar way, ‘opposite action’ is a key theme in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy which I find helpful to apply to my life…
    – I’m looking forward to your next post!

    Liked by 8 people

  3. Anna says:

    Oh boy… I can relate! Whenever something hits me wrong and it results in my getting angry or upset, I clean like a mad woman. Before I know it, I’m not upset anymore and I have a sparkling clean house!

    Liked by 8 people

  4. lifeinkarolingston says:

    And that is all possible to do! 😊 Turn all negative impulses or experiences into something positive and good! Great post! 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

  5. Great post – fascinating read. It was funny to recognise several techniques that I use, displacement activities etc…I agree, rather than letting the emotion burn and fester, turn it into something with a different outcome. 😺💕x

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Yes, it seems like turning a negative emotion into something that is active- a positive activity–is a real win. Especially if you are AWARE of the emotion and eventually deal with the situation that gave rise to the negative emotions (if possible!). I love all the examples you gave!

    Liked by 7 people

  7. Andrea M says:

    Thank you for bringing this topic to my attention. This was very helpful! Thank you as always Doc!

    Liked by 4 people

  8. Jamie says:

    Great article ❤ I haven't heard of sublimation until now. I think I am already doing this but it's good to know so I can make sure to do it more!

    Liked by 5 people

  9. Greetings Dr. Perry.

    I didn’t know this concept was called sublimation. As a person who had anger and past issues, I wanted to channel all the agony into something creative. That’s when poetry, sketching and reading proved to be great channels. I’ll definitely keep the above mentioned points in mind.
    Keep us updated on different psychological hacks. Thank you.

    Liked by 6 people

  10. Miriam says:

    It’s so true and I know that often for myself, when I’m in the depths of angst and pain, it can be when I produce my most heartfelt writing. And I’ve often used the energy from an initial angry situation to go on a cleaning and decluttering frenzy. Works wonders!!!

    Liked by 5 people

  11. Tanja Stoeski says:

    I like to channel negative experiences and emotions through my writing, drawing mainly and sometimes through reiki healing, angels, ascended masters and animal card readings. Good article by the way.

    Liked by 5 people

  12. Dr. Perry
    Couldn’t agree more. Thank you very much for this insightful post. I know, in my own experience, that my wounds have led to a degree of sublimation in my own relationships. However, I have found that mutual healing with my partner has helped this tremendously and allowed us to grow stronger.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. Sarah Marshall says:

    Thank you for another informative post Dr.
    Perry. I always enjoy reading your content. Have a wonderful day! 🌼

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Andy says:

    I think I have done a lot of sublimation in my life without realizing there is an actual term for it. Thank you for sharing your insight about this Doc. Be well.

    Liked by 3 people

  15. Tamara says:

    Great post Dr. Perry! I have never heard of sublimation until now. Thank you for sharing your insight!

    Liked by 2 people

  16. laholmberg says:

    Great post! I’ve come to think of negative urges and inherent traits as dragons. At one time I thought of myself as a dragon slayer, in that I believed my goal was to destroy my dragons. But upon awakening, I realized that my dragons were there for my BENEFIT- their force waiting to be accessed upon my acknowledgement of their existence. That is when I became a dragon tamer- using my dragons to fuel my evolvement. We’ve all got dragons. The question is, how will you utilize yours?

    Liked by 4 people

  17. onthepages says:

    I think I find it happening the most in fear of failure where I’ll over use learning to become the subject matter expert in my social spaces. Problem I find there is to much learning creates stalled action because I feel I’ve not mastered enough. One can still move forward even with out knowing everything. Great post. Thank you!

    Liked by 5 people

  18. 0nushi0 says:

    This is wonderful post. Yes, I’ve had many bad urges all the time, that sometimes I’ve been able to transform into positive action. But I never knew of the term “sublimation”, & perhaps being aware of this, give me more capacity to perform it. Indeed, even writing in my own blog is a “sublimation” act for the fear, depression, anger, & loneliness that dominate my life…

    Liked by 3 people

  19. Uzma says:

    That is a very useful information, i think an age that brings wisdom/ maturity is the software needed for this transformation. As lately, I have been rummaging through all my fears and failures to understand the strength they meant all along. Your list is such a powerful insight… a food for thought for me that I would love to reflect upon… thanks to give us hope, while we struggle to survive between negative and positive.. till death to part!

    Liked by 2 people

  20. M. Oniker says:

    I struggle with this, as it is easy to get sucked into the negative and just swim around in that. When deeply depressed it is difficult to get up and shower, much less create, but I have found that creating virtual photographs (photographs taken in a virtual world), often channeled through music helps me both swim in it and then get out of the pool. When I feel better, poetry also comes from the dark in blurts.

    Liked by 3 people

  21. I love the message that the dark doesn’t have to become something where no blessing can be found. I personally love the changes in my life and personality after suffering trauma. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. This is brilliant! I have always run to my journal when life gets tough. Although I never knew the word sublimation (thanks for that, btw), I’ve always figured that having a difficult life is what made me a writer. You have inspired me to expand this idea into the conscious realm and use sublimation as a practical tool. Hmm…I should hit the gym when I’m stressed. Yep, brilliant!

    Liked by 2 people

  23. Art and writing has a powerful effect on my emotions. It’s also very calming when you are angry, upset or depressed. I think it also helps us to think clearly about negative circumstances.

    Liked by 3 people

  24. Redrose33 says:

    Thank you for this, it shows the ways in which I can turn my pain into something beautiful

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Really good post, and two of these strike as immediately true just from this year for me! I really like the idea of taking negatives and harnessing them in a positive way, and its interesting to reflect and become more self-aware; I think that means it should be possible to try to consciously use this approach more often in future. Thank you, Nick. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dr. Perry says:

      I am happy to hear this post resonated with you Nick. Thank you for your comment!✨

      Liked by 1 person

  26. Thank you for the useful article! I’ve found that I have been using some of those tips (mainly sublimating negative feelings through sport activities). I will try to implement other ideas, as well.

    Liked by 2 people

  27. WoW 😮 so true Dr. Perry Looking back I have definitely found myself being more creative and/or more physically engaged in another activity after such an incident occurs. Quite helpful explanation! 🙂👌🏾

    Liked by 2 people

  28. 13iankaa says:

    Thank you for an amazing read. I can relate my own experiences with the examples you shared. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  29. Runnergirl says:

    What a fascinating concept. I believe I sublimate a lot. I just never realized I was doing it. When I am feeling overwhelmed I take that energy and go for a run. It’s powers me to run even faster or longer.

    Liked by 2 people

  30. Amazing post! Very insightful about how to transmute the subconscious to a more positive energy. I use this quite often when working. Instead of getting mad I usually find a way to keep going or shift to something else.

    Liked by 1 person

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