We’ve all been accused of taking our frustrations out on someone else, but we might not have been aware that this has a psychological basis behind it: Displacement.
Displacement, in Freudian terms, is an unconscious defense mechanism taking one emotion (usually a hostile or angry emotion) from one situation and dropping it into another, shifting displeasure away from ourselves and the person causing the stress to a less threatening target. It is essentially “punching down” when we feel that someone of authority, power or equal standing has “harmed” us.
It occurs when we know we want to react, but, for a variety of reasons, we know we can’t or shouldn’t in the way that we’d like.
Often it’s a direct transfer of action, as in being shouted at in an argument and turning that embarrassment and anger into shouting at your child who’s happened to wander in with a question.
But it can also take the form of something completely unrelated.
Example 1: Unrelated Transfer
You’re at college, and rather than devote extra time to studying, you opt to go partying with friends. A couple days later, you do poorly on an important test, but rather than acknowledge that it was because you weren’t sufficiently prepared for it (or blame your friends), you decide the professor asked unclear questions. You can’t confront the professor with this; you can, however, work up a serious sweat monopolizing the campus gym’s punching bags or in your band playing wild drum solos that, in all probability, annoy those listening.
Displacement values personal safety over risk. It can be harmful in convincing the individual that goals (even the goals of simply living day by day) are ultimately spurious, and it ties in closely with fear of rejection, sharing many of that fear’s detrimental qualities: fear of success, dissatisfaction with life, an inability to commit, an exaggerated need for distractions.
Example 2: Direct Transfer
You’ve planned all week to clean out the garage with your partner’s help. The weekend comes and your partner, for legitimate reasons, is called in to work. You can’t fault them for things out of their control, and you certainly don’t want to create undue and potentially lasting drama in the relationship over it, but you’ve wanted to get this done for ages.
You hold onto your frustration until Monday morning, when you can be briefly snippy and ugly with coworkers without causing lasting harm. You’re emboldened by the knowledge that “everyone is allowed to be in a mood from time to time.”
Example 3: Displaced Denial
Displacement can become very passive-aggressive in its expression, sort of a “I didn’t want that anyway” reaction. It happens a lot in matters of the heart. When a loved one rebuffs an intimate advance, what’s often our first response? We didn’t really want to, we were just doing it for them. An inner monologue takes over to protect our egos, telling us what we wanted was something else entirely.
Displacement can even affect our career goals. Sometimes, the person who harms us most is our self, and the mind is quick to displace feelings of fear, rejection, or whether we’re willing to step out of our comfort zones, with thoughts of not really wanting the position we’d worked so hard for, but instead another one with less risk.
Example 4: Innocent Deception
If a person feels like their partner prioritizes work over them, that person might flirt with an acquaintance to get some attention. Even if the flirting isn’t overt, this is a form of displacement; rather than punish the partner directly, the person exacts “revenge” without the partner’s knowledge by finding a different target, acquiring the attention desired, and declaring no harm in the deed.
The guy who can’t take “no” at a bar and gets loud at closing. The kid constantly picking fights for no discernible reason. The woman who screeches at her daughter for some small infraction. These are people who can’t sublimate their displacement into anything other than violent outbursts. Those who operate under abnormally high levels of defensive displacement (often those who are immature, trying to bolster low self-esteem, or possessing feelings of entitlement) find emotional and physical violence their primary release.
Aggressive displacement erodes relationship goals, career goals, home life – literally every aspect of what one views as being within the scope of the pursuit of happiness.
Example 6: Positive Displacement
Even though anger and hostility are the hallmarks, displacement can take the form of beneficial outlets too.
A woman can’t get her family to listen to her; instead she throws herself into her art, eventually crafting brilliant pieces that gain acclaim.
A pious person displaces their sensual inclinations into the realm of culinary delights.
A man who gave up his athletic ambitions due to an overbearing father gives a grant to a community group to refurbish a playground.
Example 7: Displacement As Cognitive Therapy
When someone hurts us, we want to lash out. That’s part of our lizard brains. We also know, however, how potent hierarchies and social conventions can be. Displacement keeps us from harming the thousands of fragilities we all contain.
Yet, if we’re able to view our instances of displacement in action, we open parts of our inner agency to amazing avenues of clarity.
For example, if we know we’re shifting our frustrations about life in general to everyone else, we might instead shift toward being more empathetic toward others rather than accusatory.
Displacement can become a workable mechanism for releasing energy safely and beneficially.
Even our dreams, which might be considered our deepest unconscious displacements, might see improvement. There’s definitely no need to see displacement as an evil, hidden mechanism undermining our truest desires. Being a little more conscious of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it is a winning path toward a more joyful and communicative life.