Displacement is the redirection of feelings and impulses towards someone or something less threatening. The classic example of displacement is the person who has had a bad day at work. Instead of taking out his frustration on his boss or colleagues, he stores it all up until six o’clock. He then goes home, bangs the door, kicks the dog, and picks up a quarrel with his spouse.
Displacement can give rise to a chain reaction, with the victim unwittingly becoming a perpetrator. In the example above, the angry man’s spouse might then hit one of their children, perhaps rationalizing her behaviour by thinking of it in terms of a punishment. The next day or month or year, the child might go to school and bully one of his classmates ‘just for fun’.
Displacement commonly concerns anger and frustration, but can also concern other feelings and impulses. Thus, a person who feels lonely outside of a meaningful relationship might spend a lot of time with a placeholder or caressing and cuddling a dog or cat, and a person who is emotionally or sexually attracted to a person of the same sex but finds this completely unacceptable might ‘take it out’ on partners of the opposite sex. This ‘taking it out’ on less threatening objects often has a dual function, not only to release pent up frustration but also to reinforce the person’s supposed heterosexuality, an ego defence called reaction formation ('overdoing the opposite thing'). A more mature response might be to convert or ‘sublime’ the repressed feelings and the frustration into constructive activities such as sport, study, invention, or art.
Displacement also plays a role in scapegoating, in which uncomfortable feelings such as anger and guilt are displaced and projected onto another, often more vulnerable, person or group. The scapegoated person is then persecuted, providing the person doing the scapegoating not only with a conduit for his uncomfortable feelings, but also with pleasurable feelings of piety and self-righteous indignation. The creation of a villain necessarily implies that of a hero, even if both are purely fictional. A good example of a scapegoat is Marie Antoinette, Queen of Louis XVI of France, whom the French people called L’Autre-chienne—a pun playing on Autrichienne (Austrian woman) and Autre chienne (other bitch)—and accused of being profligate and promiscuous. When Marie Antoinette came to France to marry the then heir to the throne, the country had already been near bankrupted by the reckless spending of Louis XV, and the young foreign princess quickly became the target of the people’s mounting ire.
An ego defence that is related to displacement, and that might be considered to be a special form of displacement, is ‘turning against the self’, in which impulses (commonly anger) directed at another person or other people are considered frightening or unacceptable and so redirected upon the self. Turning against the self is common in people with depression, and particularly so in people with suicidal ideation. Indeed, it can be said to underlie almost every case of completed suicide.
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Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Madness, The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide and Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception