Defense Mechanisms: Displacement

Have you ever 'snapped' for no real reason? It might be displaced stress.

Posted Jun 21, 2019

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 incredibly unhealthy when they lead to behaviors or feelings or thoughts which 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. In other words, instead of dealing with a 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 be the cost of a 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 which 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 work towards a more fulfilling life instead.