Verified by Psychology Today

Displacement is a defense mechanism in which a person redirects an emotional reaction from the rightful recipient onto another person or object.

For example, if a manager screams at an employee, the employee doesn't scream back—but he may yell at his spouse later that night. Displacement often involves deflected anger or aggression, but it can include other feelings and impulses as well.

The concept of defense mechanisms was originally developed by Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna Freud; they function to unconsciously protect the ego from discomfort or distress. Although many Freudian theories have been disproven over time, defense mechanisms like displacement have endured.

Displacement in Therapy and Mental Health

Defense mechanisms crop up for everyone from time to time; displacement only interferes with mental health when it becomes habitual or interferes with daily life, such as a job or relationship.

Displacement may relieve distress or preserve self-esteem in the moment but damage well-being over time. The reaction can exacerbate personal problems or relationship conflict while failing to address the underlying problem.

It can be difficult to recognize displacement, so a therapist can be a helpful guide. The therapist may observe patterns in which a patient seems to overreact or redirect frustration onto a seemingly unrelated person. The pair can then explore the root cause so the patient can move forward.

Displacement in Everyday Life

Displacement can be a difficult dynamic to encounter, or even recognize, yet it can occur in many domains, from relationships to politics. It’s also important to acknowledge that not everyone who expresses frustration or anger is displacing—sometimes a person can be genuinely upset without the other person realizing why.

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