How to Turn Negative Urges into Positive Actions

Written by Dr. Eric Perry
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

“My mission is to provide you with solutions and insights to help you achieve your goals in a way that fits your lifestyle and your timeline.” ~Dr. Perry

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161 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 24 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 13 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 15 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 18 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 12 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 13 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 14 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 11 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 13 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 14 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 12 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 13 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 12 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 10 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 10 people

  15. Tamara says:

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

    Liked by 10 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 12 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 14 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 11 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 10 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 11 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 8 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 11 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 10 people

  24. 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 10 people

  25. 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 9 people

  26. 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 8 people

  27. 13iankaa says:

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

    Liked by 10 people

  28. 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 8 people

  29. 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 10 people

  30. Gila Daman says:

    This is something I have thought about and I really appreciate you explaining it in more detail. I have gone through suffering and have also come to the conclusion that suffering and pain can be channeled into creativity—in fact I think that is what they are meant to be. It is when we remain we repressed with that negative energy/experience that true suffering comes. My greatest point of creativity and self-expression came in my 20s after my father suddenly passed away when I was 21. Following that I had several unhealthy relationships—and in the end, the way I coped with it all was coming back as a more self-expressed, creative version of myself.

    Liked by 8 people

  31. iamvhardik says:

    I can relate to article. Of the emotions suppressed in my childhood, the emotion most repressed helps bring the most clarity of thought today.

    Liked by 9 people

  32. Love it. Every thing you wrote can been seen every where in real life.
    One thing I would add to the topic of sublimation is how disabled people develop certain extra ordinary qualities, thanks to the power of sublimation!! Loved your post

    Liked by 7 people

  33. lprslr says:

    This is why I write. To take the negative of losing my spouse, and turn it around into a positive If starting my life again. The sadness is still there, but writing is the buffer.

    Liked by 8 people

  34. Dr. Perry,

    Sublimation has played a huge role in my life, especially as it pertains to my work and events that occurred in my childhood. I was once “in love” (so I thought), with this guy, and when he broke my heart, the pain I felt as a result of that, was turned it a book and ended up being my most purchased book. To be honest, I’ve even been paid to come and speak to high-school students and offer motivation to them, based upon my book. Once again, you write amazing posts, that I look forward to reading.

    Liked by 8 people

  35. In this same vein of thought, it might follow that if we always received/achieved what we wanted, there would be no motivation to pursue what we actually need. Just as in cinema and literature, the characters must first exhaust their pursuits of their short-term WANTS before they can discover their true NEEDS. Rejection, failure, and pain are all opportunities to learn about what we lack internally so that we can either rearrange ourselves or look outside ourselves.

    Liked by 8 people

  36. Yeti says:

    After reading this post i resonate mostly with the first aspect of sublimation. Often when my wife and i disgree or get upset we go into a cleaning frenzy, though we tend to interrupt each other and it leads to another drawn out argument. Perhaps it would be a plausible option to allow our aggression to play itself out in the cleaning before we redirect ourselves to resolve the issue.

    Liked by 6 people

  37. Love this. Very helpful. I will try it. I am suffering from agression towards my husband because i feel he cant fulfill my emotional needs. I have anxiety and am often depressed and he doesnt believe in mental illnesses so he thinks my mood swings are just wierd. I end up hurting him with my harsh words because i feel so hurt. I feel i need external validayion from him all the time and i know it is wrong and demanding. I will try to take my frustration out into exercise and housework

    Liked by 8 people

  38. wow! I am amazed by these examples. unconsciously I always knew that whenever you encounter something uncomfortable, it will probably require a some sort of change in your approach. great post

    Liked by 5 people

  39. Thank for for this impactful post.

    I concur with you that, “we can learn from the subconscious ability to turn a negative impulse into a positive action.” I also believe in self awareness. We all have blind spots that we need to be aware of and do something about it.

    Liked by 5 people

  40. Informative and interesting article!

    As a young child who experienced domestic violence, I unfortunately channeled the anger/fear towards peers and became a bully. Now, I am studying psychology and planning to become a counsellor to encourage others in difficult times. I’ve seen many comments from SM claiming it strange and concerning that children who were bullies are now working in industries like law enforcement, mental health or medicine. While I can see why there would be concern, I believe people do mature and some find meaningful ways to contribute to society.

    Liked by 5 people

  41. Makes a lot of sense, thank you. I always write in my journal when I am feeling upset, sad, challenged, overwhelmed etc and it it makes me feel so much better getting it down on paper. Many times, I have turned this into positive outcomes and blogged about it to see if I can help others.

    Liked by 7 people

  42. Tejal says:

    This was a timely read for me. Recently some developments at work made me very sad, disappointed. I couldn’t understand how to channelise this energy. I was very upset for few days. So i wanted to understand your views from a professional context. how do we develop positive approach in official capacity – eg when u have to work on a project, knowing its not your perferred choice

    Liked by 7 people

  43. Thank you Sir for sharing your wonderful insights. Love it. I’ve always want to be happy but life was not as easy or friendly to us yet if we look on things in a positive note, we can become greater and we could be the better version of ourselves.

    Liked by 5 people

  44. hearmorefromgod says:

    WOW! I have spent a lot of time looking around your new website. You have so much great advice! I have made some notes I can refer to when I find myself falling into negative feelings or responses to my circumstances.

    Liked by 5 people

  45. I really enjoy your clear and insightful style of writing. Coping with the mind and with difficult emotions can be a real challenge, particularly if one is not schooled in understanding how to channel negativity. I know this from my own life experience. So thank you for your posts and your skillful ability to teach. I have enjoyed your words and find them helpful.

    Liked by 6 people

  46. This is fascinating. I think I’ve done this before, but unconsciously so. In particular the fear of failure where I tried hard to become an expert in my fields. I see how turning the negative stress into a positive one is so much more productive, but at times, even if I excelled, I still was unable to shed that negative feeling. It sort of remained underneath the surface.

    Liked by 6 people

  47. Sounds like making lemonade out of lemons!

    Raised in a dysfunctional, often chaotic family, my adult organizational skills are excellent. Likewise, a disappointing relationship turned me toward gardening…another form of nurturing.

    Liked by 6 people

  48. I’ve never heard anything remotely like this before. I need to read again and again. I want to be so intentional to turn all my negatives into a positive act and also to encourage my kids to do the same. Not to downplay their emotions or negate the things they are feeling as invalid but to help them recognize we don’t hurt others bc we are hurting but instead channel it elsewhere. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 5 people

  49. I have found that this is very true. Negative emotions in childhood can turn a person into a very positive and motivated individual if they choose to use this advice. Thanks for taking the time to let people have this information.

    Liked by 6 people

  50. It seem to be part of one or the other situation of our life. Being a performer all my life fear of failure made me an expert.. I would put all my efforts in that one thing. Today whenever I fear I know I would grow to next level.

    Liked by 5 people

  51. heart2hoot says:

    Wow! I resonate so much with this post and as simple as it really seems on the outside looking in, they aren’t always the things I would immediately think to do when in the moment of despair and trouble. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I will now be going in to my next psychotherapy session to talk about sublimation. 🙂 Cheers!

    Liked by 7 people

  52. Hmm I like this! Transference of neg energy into something more usable and positive. Sometimes it’s very surprising how well an activity can take your mind of some of life’s tougher things. Thanks Doc P

    Liked by 5 people

  53. I am pleased to be able to say that I have been practising this way of living for many years. It was a psychologist who helped me see different ways of being. It is clear that you have that same ability to help others. Regards Vivienne

    Liked by 6 people

  54. mrssws says:

    Whenever I feel depressed and unable to function, I re-organize my closet and drawers.

    Whenever I feel angry, I go for a walk.

    Whenever I feel alone, I remind myself that there have been times when I would kill for a moment with myself.

    I’m grateful for all I have and all I don’t.

    Liked by 6 people

  55. PPR says:

    I did not realize I did this without knowing the actual word for it. Now I know why I always want to turn my negative emotions to positive ones; good to know I’m not an escape artist. Happy Easter 🐰

    Liked by 4 people

  56. I really wish people talk more about sublimation. It’s something that should talked more about, if not in schools, at least in the general public.

    Ever thought about submitting this post to Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, or even Cosmo? I definitely think younger people need to read of this.

    Liked by 3 people

  57. Wow! This is an amazing blog entry that I would like to share this helpful blog to my friends too. I agree with channeling negative emotion into something positive. I bake cake whenever I get too stressed at work and it has helped me find balance in my thoughts and emotions.

    Liked by 3 people

  58. This is fascinating, and you describe it well. When I’m extremely worried about something, I clean the house, whether it needs cleaning or not. (It usually does.) I didn’t know there was a name for that. I always thought it was about control — I have no control over the situation I’m worrying about so I do an activity that I can control, and that makes me feel better. There’s probably a name for that, too. Lol.

    Liked by 3 people

  59. Excellent article. When I have that ticked off vibe coming present, or an agitation, I put in the clutch so to speak, and take a breather to allow it the space to come to light inside. It’s most often an angry Part from earlier trauma that’s been couped up since then — cabin fever? It take a while sometimes, though, as trauma is most likely fresh when it reappears and its mood is taken with the gravitas it deserves. if I listen to it and give it berth inside, it often begins to re-trusts me, and when asked may even gift me a message as it doses me with more of myself as it integrates. I find traumas have wisdom from their inner imprisonment within the trauma itself. This technique I use is a function of the Brainspotting sessions I’ve done. Sublimation, as expressed in your article struck strong chords to resonate with me that can extend its effectiveness… and get me to clean the house for fun in the interim.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  60. ClarityHunt says:

    Really enjoyed this writing. So much I thought about it. So much of my own production comes as a result of many of those 10 feelings you mentioned. They are like inspiration for a release

    Liked by 2 people

  61. Thank you Dr.Perry. Love this post and I want to share my story…When I lost my father I felt so alone, hurt and sometimes angry. I used to go for a long run and all my negative emotions pushed me to keep on going and to get my frustrations out. It helped me so much and I still do this daily when I feel frustrated.

    Liked by 3 people

  62. These 2 articles really hit me. I remember going through so much stress, dealing with it all externally well, when the Oreck vacuum store set me off by refusing my warranty & I went BALLISTIC. It was the straw that broke me, I recognized it immediately and apologized. Since I was a good customer (the owner wasn’t there, he knew me) he called later and we both apologized.
    With all this COVID stress, this past week I’ve decided to throw myself into getting instrument rating flying. It would take a month out of my life anyway, I might as well do it now. It’s a good distraction, although I think it’s odd that risking your life flying is about equal to walking into a crowded grocery store? These past 2 pinpoint how I try to be, even though I’ve been known to do both – I displace a lot.


  63. Beautifully explained. The ability to mould a negative emotion into something creative and useful demonstrates great strength of character. In my view such a person has evolved emotionally….


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