In order to cope with the world around us, human beings are equipped with a particular set of psychological defenses—known more formally as defense mechanisms—which help us navigate the world while protecting ourselves from negative feelings.
These defenses can be particularly helpful in resolving stressful situations, such as employing gratitude or forgiveness. Or they can become unhealthy when they lead to behaviors, feelings or thoughts that simply make us feel overwhelmed or imbued with negative emotion.
One particular defense mechanism, known as displacement, essentially unfolds as literally taking feelings that belong in one situation, and placing them elsewhere. Instead of dealing with the stressful situation at hand, one feels that it is safer to focus on a topic, person or situation where there isn’t as much at stake or where one has better control.
For instance, if a woman is angry after being spoken to disrespectfully by her boss, responding in anger could cost her her employment, which she simply cannot afford to lose. Instead, she might simply displace the negative emotion where the literal and metaphorical costs are not as high, and take it out on her spouse instead. So, instead of focusing on the real issue—the fact that she has been treated poorly at work—she may displace those feelings and put them on to something she could better control—the relationship she has with her spouse. Because dealing with the real issue would require the skills of confrontation and conflict, it would be unconsciously easier emotionally to "snap" in a relationship where she has better control.
Displacement, as far as defense mechanisms go, is pretty common; however, through paying careful attention to what feelings we displace where and analyzing them (hopefully with the help of a trained professional), we can uncover the skills we lack, work on them, and strive toward a more fulfilling life.