What Is Displacement in Psychology?

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What Is Displacement?

Displacement is a psychological defense mechanism in which a person redirects a negative emotion from its original source to a less threatening recipient. A classic example of the defense is displaced aggression. If a person is angry but cannot direct their anger toward the source without consequences, they might "take out" their anger on a person or thing that poses less of a risk.

What Is a Defense Mechanism?

Defense mechanisms are unconscious strategies people use to cope with unacceptable feelings. Unlike the conscious coping strategies that we use to manage daily stress, defense mechanisms operate on an entirely unconscious level.

Defense mechanisms are one way the mind unconsciously attempts to reduce anxiety and restore emotional balance. Psychological defenses operate without conscious awareness to help cope with threatening people, things, or environments. While people might not be aware of these feelings and urges, they still influence behavior and can cause anxiety.

When people use displacement, the mind senses that reacting to the original source of frustration might be unacceptable—even dangerous. Instead, it finds us a less threatening subject that can serve as a safer outlet for these negative feelings.

History of Displacement in Psychology

Sigmund Freud's daughter Anna Freud was one of the first psychologists to make a list of defense mechanisms (which she knew was incomplete). Displacement was not on her original list. Researchers later introduced the idea of displacement as an important ego defense mechanism.

Signs of Displacement

Defense mechanisms are very common and are usually a normal aspect of daily functioning. Displacement as a defense helps us channel emotions and urges that could be considered inappropriate or harmful to more healthy, safe, or productive outlets.

When used appropriately, defenses such as displacement protect us from negative feelings, help minimize disappointment, protect our self-esteem, and manage stress levels. Displacement can protect us from anxiety by hiding things that are stressful or unacceptable to us and helping to preserve our sense of self.

Defense mechanisms like displacement can be unhelpful if people rely on them too heavily, or when they lead to problematic behaviors and interactions with others. Overuse of these mechanisms may contribute to psychological distress and poor functioning.

Displacement serves as a way to redirect feelings, but it also has the potential to cause harm. There are several factors that influence how and when displacement occurs.

Age

Young children are more direct about expressing their feelings. Therefore, they are more likely to express their negative emotions toward the original target (regardless of the appropriateness of the response).

For example, a 4-year-old child is likely to simply yell at a parent when they are upset. On the other hand, a 14-year-old might displace their frustration with a parent by fighting with a younger sibling.

Intensity

Highly upsetting urges or feelings might result in greater displays of emotion toward the substitute target. For example, an inappropriate urge (such as the desire to hit someone) might be expressed as a highly charged emotional outburst (such as yelling at a spouse).

Frequency

Most people have experienced taking out their negative emotions on a secondary target. While displacement can be a normal response, it can cross the line into maladaptive or even abusive behavior. If a person relies on displacement as a defense mechanism to deal with all of their emotional upset, it is less likely to be helpful and may cause harm.

Types of Displacement

Displacement can manifest in a couple of different forms. It can be displayed as anger toward a less threatening target, or it can occur in a more adaptive form known as sublimation.

Sigmund Freud believed that sublimation served as an important source of creativity and inspiration.

Sublimation involves displacing unacceptable sexual urges toward non-sexual activities that are productive and socially acceptable, like work and creativity. Sublimating provides a constructive outlet for unacceptable urges.

How It Works

Imagine that you were reprimanded by your manager at work. Venting your anger or frustration directly to your boss would not only be unwise, but it might even cost you your job. Instead, you withhold (or suppress) your emotions until the end of the day.

As soon as you get home, you may unleash your anger on your unsuspecting roommate or find yourself overreacting to a triggering event like your children misbehaving. More often than not, the triggering event is relatively insignificant. It's your reaction that is out of proportion—even over the top.

The anger you were feeling at your boss is released, but in an indirect way. The consequences of yelling at your roommate or scolding your children are likely to be less severe than if you had taken out your frustration at your boss or coworkers.

The object or person that becomes the subject of displaced feelings can vary but is usually chosen because it is less threatening (or even powerless).

If you've ever taken out negative feelings on a friend, family member, or even a complete stranger when you were upset about something else, then you have used displacement as a defense mechanism (even if you weren't aware of it).

Examples of Displacement

Here are a few imagined scenarios (many of which might sound or feel familiar to you) that exemplify displacement.

  • An employee is berated by their boss for their poor performance during a presentation. The employee leaves work to have lunch at a restaurant, where they yell at the wait staff over a small mistake with their order.
  • You are frustrated with your spouse because they have not been helping you with household chores. When you ask your kids to start their chores, and they respond by whining, your anger explodes. You yell at them and accuse them of never helping around the house.
  • A person is attracted to their spouse's best friend, but they know that acting on it would have catastrophic consequences. Instead, the desire they feel is unconsciously displaced, and they develop a preference for glasses similar to the ones worn by the spouse's best friend.
  • You lose your job and have a hard time finding a new one. Fearing that you won't be able to pay your bills, you start taking your frustration and feelings of failure out on other people in your community, blaming them for your inability to find employment.

Recap

Displacement involves redirecting unwanted feelings onto something else that is less threatening. Unfortunately, this can sometimes involve directing negative feelings toward friends, family, or others.

Impact of Displacement

Displacement can lead to unintended consequences and even chain reactions.

  • Inappropriate expressions of emotion: Displaced emotions are often extreme and out of proportion.
  • Cycles of anger and negativity: Displaced aggression, for example, can become a cycle. Imagine an employee who is angry with their boss. They take out their anger on their spouse when they get home. Now angry themselves, the spouse might be irritable with their children. In turn, the kids might take their frustrations out on each other.
  • Relationship problems: Because loved ones are often the targets of displacement, feelings of resentment and conflict can undermine the health and stability of the relationship.
  • Prejudice: Displaced interpersonal aggression can also cause prejudice against specific social groups. For example, some scholars have argued that the Germans' animosity toward the Jewish people following World War I may have been an example of displaced feelings of anger over the economic ramifications of the war.
  • Scapegoating: In the previous example, people redirected their rage toward a group of people they deemed to be less threatening targets rather than directing their collective anger toward their actions or their government. This phenomenon is also known as scapegoating.

Research on the validity of displacement has been mixed. For example, one older study suggested that empirical evidence poorly supports displacement. However, later research supported the theory that physical and emotional arousal states tend to carry over from one situation to the next.

For example, while you might restrain yourself in a social setting because reacting would be inappropriate, pushing your feelings down won't make them go away. Your emotional state will stay the same. Later on, you might find yourself in a setting where you can react with fewer consequences, at which time you will unleash the feelings you suppressed.

Other studies have also offered broad support for defense mechanisms, including displacement, as being important to human health and relationships. Looking at data from a 70-year longitudinal study, a group of researchers found that psychological defense mechanisms might influence the body as well as the mind.

Participants who used adaptive defense mechanisms (including displacement) at mid-life had better physical health later in life. Mature defenses (such as sublimation) may play a key role in creating solid and supportive social relationships, contributing to improved physical health.

How to Deal With Displacement

Overreliance on displacement or any other defense mechanism can be ineffective or even problematic. If you are concerned about your use of displacement as a defense mechanism, it's something you can address with a therapist or counselor as part of psychotherapy. It can be helpful to look at your own behavior to get a better sense of whether you use displacement in a helpful way.

Assess

One of the first steps is also one of the more difficult: observing your behavior and actions and determining whether displacement could be causing them. Displacement is not something that can be easily viewed. Often, it's only possible to make inferences based on what you can examine of your own behavior.

At this stage, it can be helpful to work with a therapist. They can look at your behavior from an "outside" point of view and help you see things from a more objective perspective.

A therapist is able to witness (and point out) contradictions between your behavior and your words, body language, or other signals.

For example, you might tell your therapist that you do not mind that your spouse works late nights and weekends, but your body language and your speech might suggest otherwise. As you share more about your behavior, it might become clear that when you are short-tempered with your kids in the evening, it's really a sign of the frustration you feel with your spouse.

Reflect

Reflection is a strategy therapists can use to help you recognize when you are using defense mechanisms like displacement. With this strategy, your therapist reflects your feelings back to you in a way that encourages you to consider what you have done or said.

The goal of using the reflection technique is to reveal concealed worries or concerns that played a role in your behavior.

For example, as you are telling your therapist about expressing anger at a coworker, you might reveal one of your underlying worries—that your new manager does not recognize your talents and efforts. Rather than expressing your emotions to your boss (a threatening target), you took your frustration out on your coworker (a less threatening target).

Reframe

Once you start to recognize episodes of unhealthy displacement in your own life, the next step is to look for purposeful ways to alter your thinking and behavior. For example, if you are yelling at your spouse because you are displacing your frustrations from work, stop, step back, and take a moment to regain control.

When you find yourself engaging in maladaptive behaviors caused by displacement, try to reframe the situation and find a healthier outlet for your feelings.

Make a conscious effort to redirect your negative feelings toward an appropriate target. Alternative outlets could include writing about a situation and how you felt, participating in a sport or physical exercise, or engaging in a productive hobby.

A Word From Verywell

Like other psychological mechanisms of defense, displacement can be a normal and healthy way of coping with unconscious negative emotions. However, overly relying on displacement as a way to handle negative feelings can be unhelpful and even destructive—particularly if you take your frustrations out on defenseless people around you.

It can be hard to recognize our own displacement, if you are concerned about how you use this defense mechanism, therapy can help you see when your actions, words, or behaviors are really a defense mechanism. Once you learn to recognize displacement, you can take steps to challenge the defense mechanism and find more effective ways to cope.

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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.