The Psychological Defense Mechanism of Displacement

Written by Dr. Eric Perry
Image Credit: Pixabay

“Turning feelings into words can help us process and overcome adversity.” ~Sheryl Sandberg

Our emotional responses to everyday life events do not always take a linear path from perception to a reaction. Every day we encounter an endless assembly line of external stimuli that we must quickly access, process and classify. Our brains must categorize these happenings and life moments quickly in order to respond appropriately. Often our subconscious will identify some event as potentially threatening to our sense of self and to our place in the world. Our subconscious will respond by redirecting the impulse away from ourselves towards an external object. This object can be a person, animal or inanimate object. We can also redirect our impulse to an activity. This redirecting of our original impulse is known as psychological displacement.

According to Sigmund Freud, “The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.” Freud believed that our personalities are comprised of 3 systems. We can think of this Freudian system as a Matryoshka doll, also known as a Russian nesting doll, comprised of 3 empty forms, each enveloping the other. At the core of this tripartite is the Id, which according to Freud contains all of our primitive and instinctual desires. The Id is much like an unrestrained inner child seeking to satisfy whatever it desires. The Ego according to Freud is the part of the self that has been directly influenced by the external world and acts like the adult part, controlling and keeping in check the child part, the Id. Whereas the Id may be impulsive and unreasonable, the Ego responds to reason and makes up the decision-making component of our personality. The third party to this tripartite is the Superego, which is comprised of the conscience and the ideal self. According to Freud, the conscience will restrain the ego by causing feelings of guilt when we give in to the Id’s impulsive behavior. The ideal self or the ego ideal is the imaginary picture we have of our most perfect self.

Although the Id, Ego and Superego are no longer accepted and are seen as a primitive view of how the brain functions, we cannot deny that Freud was an original thinker. Although his description of the human psyche is now seen by some as simplistic, he was correct in his belief that the brain can be compartmentalized. Today, although some of his views are quite controversial, Freud who passed away in 1939, is regarded as one of the most well-known pioneers to identify the existence of the unconscious mind. His theories laid the groundwork for others to expand on, disprove and continue research of the unconscious.

One of Freud’s concepts still relevant today is that of psychological defense mechanisms. Freud developed the idea of the defense mechanism from his belief in the Id, Ego and Superego. This concept was further developed and expanded by his daughter Anna Freud. Freud believed that humans are driven to avoid tension and feelings of anxiety that arise when there is a conflict between the Id and the Ego. In turn, we seek to diminish these unpleasant feelings through unconscious defense mechanisms that arise when our view of ourselves is threatened.

Displacement is one of the defense mechanisms that we adopt in order to avoid uncomfortable emotions and thoughts which are perceived as threats to our conscious minds. It is the redirection of an impulse (usually aggression) onto a powerless substitute target. In can show up in many ways in our daily lives and can have a profound impact on our relationships.

Here are some ways displacement shows up in our daily lives:

1. Displaced Aggression
Displaced Aggression may manifest itself as verbal attacks and/or physical abuse towards others. This may occur when, for example, your boss has screamed at you all day and as a result of his or her behavior, feelings of aggression and an impulse to physically retaliate are provoked. Frustrated and unable to actually retaliate at work, we suppress our impulse. Once we are at home, we may redirect our suppressed impulse towards an innocent target. We may act out our aggression by scolding our pet or perhaps by engaging in something more serious such as emotionally or physically abuse our spouse or children.

a. Scapegoating behavior
The aggressive behavior may be displaced onto others who have no personal connection to us or to what is causing the anger or frustration. This displacement may occur towards individuals or an entire group of people and may be based on gender, race or other traits. For example, a person may have aggressive impulses towards their mother that they are not able to express. These aggressive tendencies may later find an outlet in their interactions with all women.

b. Communication
One of the most common ways that displaced aggression will be redirected is in our speech and communication styles. In my practice, I find that many of the emotional disconnects that occur between couples have a common source. The displaced aggression may originate from an external source such as an employer or an unpleasant interaction with another person. However, often the spouse or loved one who is the target of the displaced aggression may be the actual spark of initial aggressive impulse. For example, when one spouse exhibits contemptuous verbal or physical behavior towards the other, this may result in the receiving partner experiencing internal aggressive thoughts. Much later, this misdirected aggression may show up as unprovoked angry speech or their own display of contemptuous speech. This will, in turn, perpetuate a chain-reaction of abusive and unhealthy speech that is counterproductive to the overall health of the relationship.

2. Fear
Fear is a strong emotion that may be displaced when we are unable to express the fear we feel towards a person. For example, a child who fears their father will displace the fear onto an animal. Unable to express this fear, the child may develop a phobia towards a specific animal that reminds the child of the parent.

3. Libido
The libido, also known as sex drive is one of the most powerful biological instincts. It is an important factor in the formation and maintenance of intimate relationships. Displaced sexual energy may reveal itself in numerous ways including sexual fetishes, infidelity, dislike of certain groups, artistic creativity or harmful behaviors.

When we displace our initial impulses onto others we begin a chain-reaction of behavior that makes us both perpetrators and victims of displacement. For example, the person who is angry at their boss will express the displaced aggression by yelling at their spouse who in turn may continue the cycle. It is important for us to recognize what we are feeling, the origin of these feelings and our reactions. If you find yourself verbally attacking your loved ones, ask yourself, “What is the true origin of these feelings?”

I hope you found this post helpful and informative. I invite you to reflect on ways that displacement has had an effect on your life. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section so others can learn from your insight. Thank you for reading, sharing and commenting.

The thoughts expressed in this blog post are my own and are not meant to create a professional relationship with the reader. This blog does not replace or substitute the help of a medical professional. Please note, I am unable to answer your specific questions as I am not fully aware of all of the circumstances.

Dr. Perry

Copy of Dr. Eric Perry

“I help ambitious and high achieving individuals manifest a life of success and fulfillment in order to achieve the life they truly desire.”

Dr. Eric Perry |

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62 responses to The Psychological Defense Mechanism of Displacement

  1. Melissa G says:

    Great post and insight. People are angry and can’t explain or properly express their aggression. Everything you said makes sense and I believe the first step is being intentional. Intentional with our words, relationships, and the way we make others and ourselves feel. It’s so easy to displace feelings, working on this now, just being aware. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 12 people

    • Dr. Perry says:

      Thank you for your comment Melissa. I absolutely agree setting the intention is key ✨

      Liked by 7 people

  2. winknbees says:

    The next thing that is difficult is deciding if a feeling is displaced. After being on an emotionally abusive relationship it is sometimes hard to tell if I’m projecting or if I have a true cause to be upset.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. Todd says:

    Love this. It’s easy to sometimes just dismiss our feelings as being our feelings and justified solely on that basis alone. It’s more difficult to take the step to understand where those feelings are actually coming from. I think everyone can relate to having a bad day and taking it out on someone completely unrelated to us having that bad day. It happens sometimes. Understanding where our emotions are coming from and being mindful about where those emotions are directed is very important to building and maintaining solid relationships with those we care about. Emotions, like energy, usually have to go somewhere. Now, whether they’re able to be dissipated through an empathetic ear (which requires us to be vulnerable) or directed in constructive methods (through exercise or having a tough conversation with the person who caused those emotions) there needs to be some form of outlet and we need to understand what works for us. Denying emotions and biological urges always plays out somewhere else, usually in unexpected and unproductive ways. Thank you for the insight!

    Liked by 9 people

  4. Love love love this post and how you brought Freud’s ideas, concepts, and application to our lives in one article.
    🙂 More more more! Please.

    I’d love to see you write an article, if possible about the relation or correlation between Freud’s idea here and how they relate to the Oedipus complex.

    The psychological concepts and ideas of Freud have always fascinated me. As well as Pavlov.

    The last five serious and less serious relationships I’ve had are with men much younger.

    Some background: Looking back since puberty and adolescence younger boys have been attracted to me. Now, at 50-55 it’s men from 19 – 44. Of course I’m flattered but it goes much deeper. (It must be something I’m doing as well as their attraction to older women)

    Again, this article is fabulous.

    Liked by 5 people

  5. kinchski says:

    I have been on the receiving end of this phenomenon (a lot) and also been guilty of it (as has everyone, I think)

    This is one of the biggest things I try to work on, and one of the many benefits of mindfulness practices!

    Liked by 5 people

  6. Displacement is a major issue in my life given my stressful work environment and family life. I am aware of what I’m doing, yet I continue in doing so. Yet, not sure if what I do is displacement as I tend to do more self-harming behavior because I can’t see myself redirecting my frustration towards others. Either way, this post has got me reflecting and thinking.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. I’ve never seen the ego and superego explained this clearly. In fact I had no idea there was a superego. This explains a lot. Wonderful post have a lovely day 😊

    Liked by 5 people

  8. literarylew says:

    Very well done, as always. You explain the intricacies of the heart in terms we can readily understand. Re the Sandberg quote, George Eliot once said, “Speak words which give shape to our anguish….”

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Andy Cortez says:

    I’ve heard about a lot of different defense mechanisms but not this one. Thank you for adding to my knowledge Doc!!

    Liked by 4 people

  10. 🌸Anne🌸 says:

    I loved your explanation of Freud’s concepts in this post. This clarified some things for me. Thank you Dr. Perry 💜

    Liked by 4 people

  11. Tamara says:

    This is definitely something I need to think about. Thank you for sharing about this topic Dr. Perry. I always am happy to see notifications about new posts from you!

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Mike P says:

    I like how you can a very complex topic and simplify it so we all can understand and apply it to our lives. Bravo as always Doc !

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Irene says:

    I have a family member that does this to me! She gets upset at something her mother says and she takes it out on me! I love knowing about this becasue it will help me not to take it personally. Thank you Dr. Perry!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. happierhealthierlifestyle27 says:

    I agree with having to recognize your feelings. To many times people react to something before thinking about it and dont really own their own ideas, thoughts, and feelings. Working with 3 and 4 year olds I am always encouraging them to express those feelings and explain them to peers. The earlier you start the better ☺👍 keep up the awesome posts xD

    Liked by 3 people

  15. SandyQuinn says:

    Thank you for another informative post Dr. Perry. I have been subscribed to you by email since January 2018 and am so happy I found you. Can’t wait to read more!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr. Perry says:

      Hi Sandy, good to hear from you. Thank you so much for your support and encouragement✨

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Allie says:

    It relieves my anxiety to some degree that I found your blog Dr. Perry. I love learning more things about myself and understanding psychology definitely helps too. Thank you for making sense of this topic for me. I struggle with a lot of anxiety and I think I have been putting that out to other people. I don’t know if that’s exactly displacement but just being more aware is going to help me not take it out on others. Please keep doing what you are doing. You are really making a difference, at least for me you are. Thanks again<3

    Liked by 3 people

    • Dr. Perry says:

      Hi Allie, thank you for your kind words. Your feedback is greatly appreciated. One of purposes of this blog is to help others understand different topics in the area of psychology. It makes me happy that I can help you in the way you described✨

      Liked by 1 person

  17. saharmunjare says:

    Hello Dr. Perry. My sister told me about your blog and I am so glad she did. I am now a follower by email. This article was very interesting and totally new for me. I hope to read more posts from you and cannot wait! ❤

    Liked by 3 people

  18. I just now realized where my fear of birds came from. Wow. It never made sense to me, but it does now – totally. Birds are (for me) unpredictable, “sudden,” boundary-violators, fast, etc, which is exactly like my main and chronic abuser ……….

    Liked by 2 people

  19. lprslr says:

    Freud… I prefer Jung’s viewpoints. However, I recognize my anxiety-provoking feelings upon opening a box of my Love’s personal effects as obvious displaced grief…

    Liked by 1 person

  20. I find your blog extremely informative doctor, I did not know about this theory of Freud. I actually find it hard to believe that the theory is no longer accepted, even Mark Manson had written about a theory similar to Freud’s, the difference being he was mentioned only two parts, the Ego and the Id. The Id as the Feeling Brain and the Ego as the Thinking Brain. I really like your blog sir, it’s truly interesting:-)

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Very interesting. Getting under the skin of a problem helps resolve deep rooted conflicts. The complexity of human mind is such that sometimes finding an answer to one situation either gives an insight into another issue or opens up an entirely new problem. Displaced emotions are the bane of every human life and behaviours…


  22. This article reminded me of my studies in special education. Your connection about displacement makes me think about how we process and view the world. It is “food for thought” for anger management – masterclass!

    Liked by 1 person

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