Displacement: A Common and Often Damaging Defense Mechanism

Many times, behind your anger, there's an unaccepted and negative valence emotion that you use against those who don't deserve it.
Displacement: A Common and Often Damaging Defense Mechanism
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 12 January, 2022

Displacement is a common type of defense mechanism. It appears when you find it difficult to deal with certain complicated feelings or sensations. In fact, instead of facing them and trying to understand them, your mind chooses to redirect them to another sphere, dimension, behavior, or person.

There are many situations that build-up to this psycho-emotional process and that’ll probably sound familiar to you. For example, when you have a boss who makes you feel stressed and uncomfortable. This is a situation that isn’t easy to deal with because it’s difficult for you to manage these negative valence feelings.

Instead, what you often do is pour all your contempt, pain, and injustice onto your partner by way of a bad mood. Indeed, your frustration and internal suffering are displaced externally via your unadjusted reactions towards those who least deserve them. This is an extremely unhealthy manner of releasing your anger because it generates, in the short term, regret and greater discomfort.

Suppressing or displacing your emotions is useless. Not only does your adverse or problematic emotional state remain, but it also intensifies. Let’s take a closer look.

What you deny submits you. What you accept transforms you.”

-Carl Jung-

Couple arguing due to displaced emotion

Displacement

The concept of displacement, (verschiebung in German) was originated by Sigmund Freud. It’s an unconscious defense mechanism that your mind activates when it can’t accept an overly hostile emotion. Instead, your mind displaces it, in an attempt to find a more acceptable outlet for it, thus releasing any associated tension.

The father of psychoanalysis established that, in general, people carry out many types of ‘displacements’. For example, with the classic process of psychological projection. In this process, when you don’t accept a characteristic or problematic dimension in yourself, you ‘displace’ it to others. Therefore, you see in those around you faults that are actually your own.

However, Freud explained that not all displacements are negative. Sublimation, for example, is about moving unacceptable sexual feelings into creative settings. On the other hand, art may be seen as a mechanism to express, in an innocuous and cathartic way, some of those impulses that your mind finds difficult to accept.

Indeed, displacement is a mental behavior that you frequently carry out.

Defense mechanisms are resources that your mind performs when it tries, unconsciously and almost automatically, to reduce anxiety and contradiction in order to restore your emotional balance.

Displaced denial: when you don’t accept what you feel

Displaced emotion manifests itself in many ways. The most recurrent is denying what you feel and even what you want. Let’s take an example. Say you’ve long dreamed of being promoted at work. Yet, whenever the opportunity arises, it’s denied to you. In fact, it’s always someone else who moves up the ladder.

In the end, your mind, unable to process so much frustration, anger, injustice, and disappointment, ends up convincing you that you didn’t really want that promotion after all. You deny those emotions and you also deny your ambitions. This defense mechanism puts you in a comfort zone where life, apparently, stops hurting you. However, in turn, your potential becomes limited.

Transference: emotion as an aggressive weapon

However, everything that you haven’t accepted, assumed, or processed is still there. In fact, denying an emotion is like trying to submerge a ball underwater. In the end, it ends up emerging with force. Sometimes, it even hits you. This is what happens to the displaced emotion when transference takes place.

These are the situations in which, by accumulating so much frustration and negativity, you end up dumping it on others. You speak badly to your partner, you have less and less patience with your children, and you argue more and more with your friends.

Displacing emotions has the consequence, in many cases, of impregnating that negativity in its victims.

Displaced emotion and behavioral transference

The displaced emotion looks for valid channels to express itself. These are sometimes pathological. Examples may be undertaking a physical sport or seeking in art a means to expend the emotional energy you don’t need to cope in an intelligent way. These behaviors are appropriate and positive tools.

However, the emotion that you don’t accept can also end up being channeled through self-harm. This is clearly a problematic answer that requires professional attention.

heart-shaped leaf symbolizing displaced emotion

How to handle these situations?

Arthur J. Clark, a professor at the University of St. Lawrence, conducted an interesting work on the subject of defense mechanisms. In his book, Defense Mechanisms in the Counseling Process (2012) he analyzes how displacement is a process that’s frequently encountered in psychological therapy.

Clark suggests that when a person smiles when things go wrong, it’s because they’ve thought of someone to blame. However, what can be done in these kinds of circumstances? Without a doubt, the most important thing is to be aware. Nevertheless, this isn’t necessarily simple because this type of mechanism is automatic and unconscious.

Techniques such as reflection and framing can help. The first allows you to become aware of your hidden concerns and worries that mediate your behavior and dealings with others. The second involves distancing yourself a little from your own reality and seeing things with greater perspective, rethinking narratives, and discovering emotions that you’ve been neglecting.

In essence, displacing what you feel makes your life experience far worse. Therefore, you should try and avoid falling into these bad habits. In this respect, don’t hesitate to ask for professional help.

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  • Arthur J. Clark, Defense Mechanisms in the Counselling Process (1998), Chap. 3: “Displacement”
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  • Mark Krupnick, Displacement: Derrida and After (1983)
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