The Strange World of Emotion

Home Glossary List of Articles Emotion E1 Abreaction A1
< previous Article 1 Section 4  -  Idealism next >

Sublimation of Mental States

The text size is relative and can be enlarged or reduced in Internet Explorer and Firefox from the View Menu. 

The links in the table on the left take you to sub-headings on this page.


The Need for Clear Terminology

The realm of emotions has always been a confused one within traditional views of morality. The importance of emotions to moral debate is that some attitudes to morality and virtue arise from the sublimations of particular emotions. The confusion about emotions has led to confusion about morality. Hence some traditional moral views are inherently confused. [¹]

To penetrate and attempt to clear the confusion I need to make some distinctions in terminology. I give specific meanings to the terms ‘morality’, ‘virtue’, and ‘ethics’.

Over the past few centuries the progress of science and technology has been quite spectacular. However, the moral development of mankind has not kept pace with it.

In general, the moral standards of most Western peoples are patchy and poor, and only kept in place by social pressures rather than by individual integrity. In fact, social pressures are both the usual source of moral standards and the force that maintains them.

Sub - Headings
Jealousy and Narcissism
Love and Hate
Self-pity and Vanity
Guilt and Pride
Resentment and Bitterness
Greed and Envy
Anger and Fear
End Note

Social pressures produce social conditioning and social learning. Conditioning always produces mental conflict. However, when the conditioning has been absorbed into the subconscious level of the person's mind, and no longer generates friction, then it can be called learning.

For most people, moral standards are derived from social conditioning.

The rules of social behaviour that a person adheres to represent the level of goodness that he can practice and the level of truth about ideas of right and wrong that he can accept.

When a person advances beyond the social consensus and becomes an idealist (who has ideals that are non-materialistic, such as ethical, spiritual, or political fairness ones), the contemporary state of social conditioning becomes restrictive to his further evolution. He needs to examine, and possibly discard, contemporary moral standards until he can formulate a higher set of rules for himself. Social conditioning is always a challenge to overcome in order to progress to higher standards.

Standards reflect character traits. I need to make a distinction in the origin of these traits. I need to make this distinction because character traits have two different roots. Each person has two aspects to his character, a social  aspect and an individual aspect. Each aspect gives rise to its own standards and traits. So in order to label the roots of character traits  I use the terms ‘morality’ and ‘virtue’. 

( I am therefore changing traditional terminology, which treats these two terms as being more or less identical ). 

There are two roots because some traits of responsible behaviour are social ones, and others are purely aspects of individuality.

I use the term ‘morality’ when social traits are produced by social learning.

I use the term ‘virtues’ when individual traits arise as a reaction to social conditioning.

Top of Page

The problem with any morality that is derived from social learning or any virtue that is generated as a reaction to it is that they are unstable and likely to change (in the direction of becoming more right-wing) during times of social abreaction. [2a]. When, however, some deliberate choice is involved in determining one's standards then I use the term ‘ethics’. I prefer to cultivate ethics rather than either morality or virtue. Conditioning and learning just affect behaviour. Deliberation brings in motives. [2b]

I consider ethics to be the critical and clear-minded analysis of the problems of right and wrong, good and evil.

To ensure that ethical debate is meaningful, an understanding of the processes of sublimation and internalisation is needed. Both use emotions and desires, but emotion is more prominent in sublimation whereas internalisation focuses primarily on desire.

To begin with, I need to repeat a couple of ideas from previous articles.

the two psychological mechanisms of projection and introjection link together in a loop to create the dialogue between what I call the ‘desire for power ’ and the ‘will to power ’. These are two paths to power.
In the desire for power, the person aims at power over his situations and environment (this is the use of the will ) ; the desire for power is centred on jealousy.
In the will to power, he aims at power over himself (this is the control of the will ) ; the will to power is centred on narcissism. (see article Power).

the determinism that acts on a person has two major factors: the need for social approval and the inferiority complex. [³]

Top of Page


Any state of mind is always underpinned by emotional factors. I use the term ‘emotional dynamics’ to mean the principal emotions that drive any particular state of mind.

Sublimation is the process of making emotional dynamics that are (usually) considered to be unpleasant into socially-acceptable attitudes and states of mind. It is the process whereby the emotions (and their associated beliefs and attitudes) that are considered to be ‘bad’ are transformed into qualities of character that are considered to be ‘good’. In past times negative emotions were repressed. Now they need to be sublimated. Repression denies wholeness to a person. Sublimation enables one to fulfil oneself. The rationale of sublimation is that all emotions have a place in human development.

Freud, in his early writings, considered that the primary drive in man is the sexual instinct, libido ; the process of sublimation becomes the various ways of re-directing libido. I reject this assumption. I reject the idea that any physiological drive or instinct can produce ethical, even spiritual, states of mind. Existential choice can never arise from any instinct.

Nietzsche proposed that  the will to power is the person's primary drive (Hollingdale, 1973). I accept this as a partial explanation of the evolutionary process, but with a qualification. For Nietzsche the will to power was more of a physiological drive rather than ‘will’ in the conventional sense. I translate the will to power back into an existential drive, without any connotations of instinct.

For me, the will to power is the conscious and /or subconscious means of directing personal evolution. The will to power acts as an existential drive, focusing on the use of free will. 
The dynamic of this process is the person's intensity of idealism. The psychological content of this drive arises from ways of satisfying the need for social approval and ways of compensating the inferiority complex.

Top of Page

The binary (or complementary) process to the will to power is  the desire for power. The desire for power always arises first in the person's evolutionary journey, and only when it is frustrated and then (sometimes) repudiated does the will to power arise – frustration begins the process of self-questioning, which is the origin of idealism. [4]

Freud had little understanding of power. The desire for power can explain everything that Freud explained using the concept of libido, and more besides. The re-direction of the desire for power into sexuality gives rise to the sexual politics of the family. But I cannot see how re-direction of libido can give rise to the politics of power ; it may generate the idea that might is right (a rationalisation of physical strength, which can pass as a product of an instinct), but nothing else. Certainly not socialism or anarchism or existentialism.

After reading Nietzsche's concept of sublimation, I set myself the task of identifying attitudes that have their base in my repertoire of regular emotions. The difficulty with establishing the sublimation of an emotion is that it cannot be deduced by either wishful or logical thinking. The only way to do it is to take any major attitude that is currently dominant in your mind, or any major ideal that is currently motivating you, and then try to identify through awareness what emotion it springs from, that is, what subconscious emotion is associated with it. Identifying emotions is an empirical task and not a rational one. Conversely, any rational conjecture on sublimation has to be verified by empiricism.

Emotions form into pairs or binaries. Therefore the sublimation of one emotion needs to be compatible with the sublimation of its binary. [5]
In addition, some emotions have an additional complexity : they are compound and consist of two simpler emotions (these two emotions are factors of the compound emotion). The factors do not exert their influence simultaneously ; only one is dominant at any particular time. I use the term ‘mode’ to indicate which factor is being dominant at that time, that is, to indicate the manner in which the compound emotion is being experienced.

For example, guilt comprises the two simpler emotions of self-pity and self-hate. I denote this in the following way.  Guilt = self-pity + self-hate.
So when the self-pity factor is being dominant, I describe this as experiencing guilt (in the mode of self-pity). Similarly, when the self-hate factor is being dominant, this is guilt (in the mode of self-hate).

I give a list of some binary emotions and their sublimations

Top of Page

Jealousy and Narcissism

Some moral practitioners want to better the condition of the world rather than to concentrate on personal salvation ; such moral idealists usually focus on the practice of duty and social obligation. Social concerns have a base in jealousy. The sublimation of jealousy leads to morality.

The narcissistic person prefers to be free, free from social obligations and morality, since these carry the blemish of coercion. The sublimation of narcissism produces individualism. Individualism has various levels to it: for example, at the bottom is the amoral person ; somewhere in the middle we have the individualism of nineteenth century Liberalism, defined in political and economic terms ; at the top is the subjective existentialist, trying to break all the chains of coercion that restrict him.

To be more specific about the sublimations of these two emotions I turn to the end states of each emotion.

Jealousy = love + self-pity

The love mode generates sociability and a focus on community, which is needed when individualism is no longer the best response to changing times. The self-pity mode generates social dependency. Through sublimation, social dependency transforms into a positive asset. Obligation and duty, and morality in general, are social traits of good character that make social dependency respectable.

Narcissism = love + vanity

The sublimation of the love mode gives a positive feature to egoism. Individualism is the love of a completely free life, without any chains. Without individualism, there would be nothing to challenge a community (based on jealousy) that had deteriorated and become unable to meet the needs of changing times. The vanity mode fosters my own abilities and strengths. Virtues are the individual's traits of good character that are independent of society, such as dignity, tolerance, courage, integrity. Some of these traits (such as integrity) do not arise from narcissism, but nevertheless require an affirmation of narcissism before they can be developed.

The sublimations of jealousy are:
love mode generates sociability ;
self-pity mode generates morality.

The sublimations of narcissism are:
love mode generates individualism ;
vanity mode generates virtues.

In times of social change, people tend to centre on either jealousy or narcissism. Change is a dialogue between people who need to affirm their sense of individuality and other people who need to base themselves on a sense of community.

Top of Page

Additional comments on narcissism and jealousy.

The roots of some sublimations are not always as obvious as they might appear.
For example, the ideals of brotherhood and camaraderie are quite different. The ideal of brotherhood is a social one, and reflects the love mode of jealousy. Here each person is assumed to be one's equal, even though this assumption is generally false ; the group is a collection of socially-centred people. Whereas camaraderie within a group reflects the love mode of narcissism, because each person is definitely one's equal, in tried and tested ways ; the group is a collection of individuals. In peculiar circumstances, such as the trench warfare of World War I, ideals of brotherhood and camaraderie intermingle.

The connection between jealousy, desire for power (focused on jealousy), and morality (sublimation of jealousy) ‘stabilises’ or solidifies a person's character and makes him dislike social change. As a deep psycho-analysis abreacts the intensity of jealousy so this type of power is lost and the person becomes de-stabilised. He then becomes vulnerable to swings of mania and depression. The depressive stage of manic depression arises from jealousy in self-pity mode. Hence any loss of moral codes (the failure of sublimation) can lead to depression ; depression can become the response to jealousy (self-pity mode) instead of morality. [6]

A deep psycho-analysis also abreacts the intensity of narcissism, thereby enabling the person to feel more at home in a community.

Top of Page

Love and Hate

I look at the binary comprising love and hate. It is not just negative emotions that cause problems and so need to be sublimated. Even pure love needs to be sublimated, just like other emotions ; love can cause difficulties for the idealist, just as any other emotion can. Love can take away the need to learn about oneself and other people.

Equality is the only attitude that is derivable from a motivation of pure love. Equality dissolves the passion from love, thereby enabling love to be applied to everyone in the same way. The unconscious idea that creates pure love is  ‘I am the same as everyone else’. [7]. The practice of equality enables a person to treat everybody in the same way.

All ability in concentration and meditation requires an emotional dynamic of hate. Hate clears the mind of trivialities and produces a mood that can be mistaken for a mild sense of calmness, but also clears the person from society and into solitude. The unconscious idea that maintains hate is  ‘I am different from everyone else’. It is more common for original thinkers of any depth to be anti-social, for example Newton ; it is unusual for such a thinker to be social, for example Leibniz. The Buddhist way of offsetting the necessity of hate in the meditator is the advocacy of a compassionate attitude to all others. Compassion dissolves the passion from hate.

The sublimation of love is equality.
The sublimation of hate is compassion.

Top of Page

Self-pity and Vanity

At one stage of my psycho-analysis I was plunged into a state of catatonia for a few minutes. This experience haunted me for a year and generated a great amount of hopelessness and self-pity. I scrambled out of it by affirming faith in myself.

The sublimation of self-pity is faith. There are three forms of self-pity, so there are also three forms of faith. Jealousy is a social emotion, and its mode of self-pity generates blind faith in a teacher or in any person acting as a role model. Guilt in self-pity mode is the ultimate disaster, so faith needs the highest helping hand, that of god.

The sublimations of self-pity are:
self-pity generates faith in oneself ;
self-pity (guilt) generates faith in god ;
self-pity (jealousy) generates faith in a teacher.

Vanity is a most interesting paradox. Vanity is usually conflated with egoism and then almost universally denounced in traditional religious ethics, both Eastern and Western. This view indicates confusion and self-deception. If a person examines the emotional dynamics of any of his noble ideals he will find that they are based on vanity. Vanity is the carrier wave for all ideals.

The sublimation of vanity is idealism.

For example: if a person sets justice as his noblest ideal, then the emotional dynamics of this ideal are vanity plus envy (the pursuit of justice is the sublimation of envy). If a person prefers duty (as an aspect of morality) to be his best ideal, then the emotional dynamics of this ideal are vanity plus jealousy (mode of self-pity).

It is a common criticism of idealists that they are vain – this only means that their idealism is intense, and so their vanity is correspondingly intense. For normal man, his vanity within his ideals may not be noticeable simply because his ideals are not set very high. However, for the high-flying idealist who considers himself to be following a spiritual practice, his intense vanity does cause serious problems, such as a sensitivity both to criticism and to failures in relationships.

This is the paradox of spirituality : vanity causes problems, but you cannot do without it if you want to achieve your spiritual ideals.

Top of Page

Guilt and Pride

The factors of guilt are:

Guilt = self-hate + self-pity

The self-hate mode produces a very unpleasant state of mind and can cause intense levels of distress. The usual way to survive this kind of self-hate is to aim for a state of purity where criticism no longer harms oneself.

The self-pity mode is debilitating and makes one languid and tired ; no matter how long one rests, one never gets refreshed. To overcome it one needs to generate an attitude of perfectionism. Becoming a perfectionist in one’s work creates a resolute mental routine that offsets the meaninglessness that the self-pity mode produces. Set routines maintain set lines of thinking, and so banish any questions. Set routines are a way of handling a lack of meaning.

The factors of pride are:

Pride = vanity + hatred of other people

Pride can be inflexible ; in some ways this attitude is valuable. The bedrock of my character is my integrity: I can sacrifice everything except that. If I lose my integrity in any social situation then I switch to guilt and start to feel intense self-hatred, and even the desire for suicide. The vanity mode generates integrity and cannot be devalued without intense trauma.

I hate other people when they impose themselves on me. Only my world is important. What is important about my world is the freedom to do things my way, irrespective of the demands of other people. I only begin to consider that other people’s views are just as good as mine when I learn to respect people.

The sublimations of guilt are:
self-hate mode generates purity ;
self-pity mode generates perfectionism.

The sublimations of pride are:
vanity mode generates integrity ;
hate mode generates respect for other people.

Top of Page

Resentment and Bitterness

A person may be deeply upset by some form of immorality that he has done earlier in his life, or he may believe that he is the victim of some form of injustice. Such beliefs generate intense resentment and bitterness.

Forgiveness dissolves resentment. And the fading of bitterness leads to the acceptance of the previously-disturbing belief. Since resentment and bitterness are regular states of mind produced by regular sequences of abreaction, so forgiveness and acceptance need to become regular states of mind too.

The sublimation of resentment is forgiveness.
The sublimation of bitterness is acceptance.

Greed and Envy

These two emotions are very important, since they can shape the course of a nation's history.

A person seeks a moral teacher because he has no sense of being a moral authority himself. By doing the will of a teacher the person acquires a surrogate moral authority. The drama of being devoted to an outstanding person revolves around the greed for moral authority, and the person gets this authority in the measure that he is devoted to the teacher. Greed is consecrated into devotion.

Therefore, the more that a person is centred on a materialist life, which means that greed is focused on materialist desires, then correspondingly the less capable of spiritual effort such a person will be.

When envy stirs in me I deny attachment to any people who I feel have shown a lack of fairness to me. Envy is stimulated by being on the receiving end of injustice. I direct my envy internally to destroy social conditioning ; this destructiveness is my revenge for the trauma of my infancy. I can give up my envy, my revenge, when justice has been done to me.

Politicians direct envy externally to destroy political systems and social groups: for example, Hitler (with his anti-Semitism) and Stalin (the 1930s communist show trials). Envy is the motive when barbarian tribes destroy more cultured societies : for example, the fall of the Minoan and the Roman civilisations.

Envy is the most destructive of all emotions and it is the basis of Freud’s ‘death instinct ’ [8]. Correspondingly, the only basis for an enduring and non-destructive society is justice. Justice precedes in importance all other attitudes and ideals, even those of freedom and equality. If a society lacks justice it will not survive for very long: it will eventually become destructive, since envy will sooner or later eclipse all ‘good’ emotions, including love.

The sublimation of greed is devotion.
The sublimation of envy is justice.

Top of Page

Anger and Fear

Often my response to dominant fear is to access anger and then keep it controlled by my idealism so that I can face the unpleasant situation. Anger sustains the attitudes needed to give leadership when a person is under great stress in difficult situations.

What is the sublimation of fear ?  It is the consciousness of freedom. Fear of something always prevents a person from being what he wants to be. Freedom is the only state of mind that enables a person to face fear without denying it, without repressing it, or without switching to anger as an antidote.

The sublimation of anger is leadership.
The sublimation of fear is freedom.

There are three other ways of handling fear

1). When fear is absent, then equanimity can arise. Equanimity means the cessation of making value judgements, and this is the basis on which any situation can be faced directly and harmoniously. However, this state of mind is the most difficult of all to achieve.

2). A common desire for religious persons and meditators is to yearn for peace, the ‘peace that passes understanding’. How does peace compare with equanimity ?  The difference between them is the difference between repression (absence from the conscious mind, but present in the subconscious mind) and the absence from both conscious and subconscious minds. Peace is the repression of fear.

3). Another common desire of meditators is to still the mind of all activity in order to generate a state of internal silence. This desire arises from bitterness. It represents neither equanimity nor peace.

Top of Page

End Note

It is always possible that the sublimation of an emotion may have more than one corresponding attitude and belief ; there may be perhaps two or three, in a hierarchy of importance. The particular one espoused will then reflect the need of the age. In a low-stress society, an attitude at the bottom of the hierarchy may be what is needed. In a high-stress society the attitude at the top is the one to achieve.

In general, sublimation is the process whereby a person re-directs his emotional drives from lower goals to higher ones ; his unrefined emotional motivations are transformed into attitudes and qualities of character that are either socially-acceptable or less egoistic.

Each person has many goals, many ideals, which he wishes to achieve. These can be graded according to the intensity of the underlying emotional motivations. This means that whatever is a person's highest ideal will indicate which is the most powerful emotional drive in him.

Different ideals sublimate different emotions.


The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it.  For the addresses of my websites, see the Links page.

[¹]. My definitions, descriptions, and analysis of emotions are given in the three articles on Emotion. See home page. [1]

[2a]. My analysis of the process of abreaction is given in the five articles on Abreaction. See home page.
In particular, ideas on social abreaction are given in the fourth article : Resentment and Bitterness. [2a]

[2b]. There are more notes on the terms morality, virtue, and ethics in the article Morality. [2b]

[3]. The need for social approval and the inferiority complex are described in the article Aspects of Personal Identity.
A more general account of determinism is given in the article Determinism, on my website Discover Your Mind[3]

[4]. The terms "will to power" and "desire for power" are explained in more detail in the article Power.
There is an article on Personal Evolution. [4]

[5]. The binary nature of emotions is explained in the first article on Emotion. [5]

[6]. Mania and depression are the subject of articles on my website Patterns of Confusion[6]

[7]. I introduce the use of the term "unconscious idea" in the first article on Emotion. [7]

[8]. Envy is described in two articles on my website Patterns of Confusion. The two articles are Depression and Autism and other States of Despair, and Envy and the Death Desire.[8]

For more ideas on sublimation, the sublimation of sexuality is analysed in the article Sexuality and Ethics.


Hollingdale, R.J.  Nietzsche. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.

Home List of  Articles Links Top of Page

The articles in this section are :

Sublimation - deriving good attitudes from distressful beliefs.

Faith - completes the patterns of bonding ; three forms of faith.

Morality - a look at origins and terminology.

Sexuality and Ethics - how sexuality affects ethics.

Personal Evolution - practising ethics, and negotiating goodness.

Nihilism - static and dynamic structures ; sexuality and authority.

The copyright is mine, and the articles are free to use. They can be reproduced anywhere, so long as the source is acknowledged.

Copyright © 2002 Ian Heath
All Rights Reserved

Ian Heath
London, UK

The address of this site is

My email address is likely to change,
so if you want to write to me, go to the Home page
and use the address at the bottom.

Also, since there are numerous articles on this site, please include the title of the article if you want me to clarify or discuss particular issues.

It may be a few days before I can reply to correspondence.