Displacement is a psychological defense mechanism in which negative feelings are transferred from the original source of the emotion to a less threatening person or object. The negative emotions elicited toward the source of the feelings are instead redirected toward a more powerless substitute. This target may take the form of a person or even an object. This defense allows the individual to act out their emotions in a way that reduces the chances of negative repercussions.
Displaced aggression is one of the classic examples of this defense. When people feel angry but cannot direct that anger toward the source of their frustration, they transfer those feelings to someone or something else. A person who becomes angry at her professor, for example, may come home and take her anger out on her spouse. The spouse may, in turn, displace this anger towards their children, who then take out their frustrations on each other.
When people experience negative emotions or impulses, they often look for different ways to cope with these unwanted feelings. Sometimes people are aware of themselves doing this, but in many cases, it takes place without conscious awareness.
Defense mechanisms are one way of reducing anxiety and restoring balance. These defenses operate unconsciously to help reduce anxiety from things that people find threatening or unacceptable. While unconscious feelings or urges might be outside of awareness, they can still influence behavior and create anxiety for the individual.
In the case of displacement, the unwanted impulses are “displaced” or shifted from the original source of the anxiety on to something that poses less of a threat.
Reacting to the original threat might be unacceptable or even dangerous, so the person must find a less threatening subject to act as an outlet for their frustrations.
How It Works
Imagine that you had a bad day at work and were reprimanded by your manager. Venting your anger or frustration on your boss would not only be unwise, but it might also even lead to you losing your job. Instead, you withhold your emotions until you get home from work, where you unleash your frustrations on your unsuspecting roommate, yelling at him over a very minor irritation.
Your feelings of anxiety are eventually released but in a rather indirect way. The consequences of yelling at your roommate are likely less severe than those of yelling at your manager or co-workers.
The object or person that becomes the subject of these feelings of displacement can vary, but is usually chosen because they are less threatening or even completely powerless. If you have ever felt upset about something and subsequently taken out your negative emotions on a friend, family member, or even a complete stranger, then you have first-hand experience with this common defense mechanism.
The thing to remember is that you are not consciously choosing to vent your emotions in this way. You might be feeling upset about something, when someone around you engages in the smallest action that triggers a sudden outpouring of your aggression. The triggering event, however, is usually relatively insignificant, while your reaction is completely out of proportion and over the top. Unlike the conscious coping strategies that we use to manage daily stress, defense mechanisms operate on an entirely unconscious level.
It was Freud’s daughter Anna who first described many of the most notable defense mechanisms in her book “The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense.” She did not include displacement as one of her original defense mechanisms, later commenting that she believed the phenomenon was related more to what is known as the primary process rather than the ego’s secondary process.
She also later stated that while her original list outlined some of the more prominent defenses, she believed it was far from definitive. While not one of the original defenses described by Freud, displacement is frequently identified by subsequent thinkers as an important ego defense mechanism.
In one 70-year longitudinal study, researchers found that the adaptive use of defense mechanisms such displacement was associated with better physical health later in life. The researchers suggest that the use of mature defenses plays an important role in creating solid and supportive social relationships, which then help contribute to improved health.
Examples of Displacement
- A woman is berated by her boss at work for her poor performance during a presentation. After work, the woman stops at a local restaurant and then yells at her waitress over a small mistake on her order.
- You feel that your spouse has not been helping with household chores. When your children begin to whine about doing their chores, you explode in anger, yelling at them and accusing them of never helping around the house.
- A man is attracted to his wife’s best friend. He displaces this inappropriate desire by unconsciously developing a sexual fetish for glasses similar to the ones his wife friend wears.
- A woman loses her job and is concerned about being able to pay her bills. When she has trouble finding a new job, she displaces her feelings of frustration and failure on to minorities in her community, blaming them for her inability to find employment.
As you can see from the previous examples, displaced anger is one of the most commonly described examples of this defense mechanism. In addition to smaller scale examples of displaced interpersonal aggression, prejudices against certain social groups are sometimes linked to this defense as well.
For example, the animosity that Germans felt toward Jewish people following World War I may have been an example of displaced feelings of anger over the economic ramifications of the war. Rather than direct these feelings of anger toward their own actions or their own government, some people redirected their rage toward less-threatening targets.
While displacement serves as a way to redirect feelings, and it could result in potentially harmful events, in some cases it is not necessarily a bad thing. In a lot of instances, it serves as a way to channel emotions and urges that might be considered inappropriate into healthy outlets if we use it in a positive way.
The use of defense mechanisms is common and a normal part of everyday functioning. When used appropriately, defenses such as displacement serve to protect us from negative feelings, help minimize disappointments, protect self-esteem, and manage stress levels.
Such mechanisms can become problematic, however, when people rely on them too heavily or when they act out in ways that are threatening toward others.
Like other defense mechanisms, displacement serves to help protect us from anxiety. By hiding certain things that are stressful or unacceptable, these mechanisms minimize anxiety and protect the sense of self. Overuse of these mechanisms, however, is sometimes linked to psychological distress and poor functioning.
There are many factors to consider about the use of displacement as a defense.
Young children tend to be more direct in their feelings and are therefore more likely to express their emotions toward the original target, regardless of the appropriateness of the response. A four-year-old child, for example, is much more likely to simply yell at a parent when they are upset. A 14-year-old, on the other hand, might instead take out his frustration by fighting with his younger siblings.
Highly upsetting urges or feelings might result in greater displays of emotion toward the substitute target. A highly inappropriate urge, such as a desire to hit someone, might be expressed later in the form of a highly charged emotional outburst, such as yelling at a spouse.
Almost everyone has at least some experience with taking out negative emotions on a secondary target, whether it is being short-tempered with a friend or fighting a spouse. While this reaction is normal from time to time, it can cross the line into maladaptive or even abusive behavior if the person relies on this defense mechanism to deal with all of their emotional upset.
Studies have found that displacement as a defense mechanism is more common in men than women.
Freud himself believed that a certain subtype of displacement known as sublimation could serve as an important source of creativity and inspiration. According to Freud, sublimation involves displacing unacceptable sexual urges toward non-sexual activities that are productive and socially acceptable. Sublimating these urges toward other pursuits such as working or creating provide an outlet for such energy in a way that is useful.
What Can You Do
The use of displacement as a defense mechanism is something that therapists or counselors may address over the course of psychotherapy. It is also something that you might want to look for in your own behavior. While it is not always harmful, over-reliance on this form of defense can be problematic. There are steps you can take to make sure you are using displacement in a healthy way.
One of the first steps is to consider actions that might be due to displacement. This can often be quite difficult. Displacement is not something that can be easily viewed, so it is often only possible to make inferences. A therapist might do this by looking for contradictions between your words, body language, or other signals and your behaviors.
For example, you say that you do not mind that your spouse has to work so many late nights and weekends, but your body language and behaviors might tell another story. You might be short-tempered and irritable around your children each evening, taking out your frustrations on your kids rather than your spouse.
Reflection is another strategy that therapists may use over the course of treatment to help clients recognize their own displacement. The therapist may reflect the client’s feelings back toward them, often in a way that encourages the client to consider what they are really saying. The hope is to get the client to identify some of the other concealed worries or concerns that might have played a role in his or her behavior.
For example, a woman might express her anger at a co-worker. Eventually, the client might reveal one of her underlying worries: the new manager in her office does not recognize her talents and efforts. Rather than express this frustration on her boss (an inappropriate and more threatening target), she takes her frustrations out on the co-worker.
Once you start to recognize instances of unhealthy displacement in your own life, the next step is to look for purposeful ways to alter your thinking and behavior. When you find yourself engaging in maladaptive behaviors that may be the result of sublimation, make a conscious effort to reframe the situation and seek a healthier outlet for your feelings.
For example, if you are yelling at your spouse due to the displacement of your frustrations from work, step back and take a moment to regain control. Make a conscious effort to redirect your feelings toward a more appropriate target. Alternative outlets might include writing down your feelings, engaging in physical exercise, or working out your feelings through a productive hobby.
One study suggests that displacement remains poorly supported by empirical evidence. However, studies do suggest that physical and emotional arousal states tend to carry over from one situation to the next. You might restrain yourself from reacting in one setting because it would be socially inappropriate, but your emotional state remains the same in subsequent situations where you are able to react with fewer social consequences.
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