Displacement is a defense mechanism, a coping strategy that entails a disavowal of thoughts, feelings, or impulses that we view as being inconsistent with and unacceptable to our sense of self. Specifically, displacement involves directing these intensely uncomfortable experiences toward a less threatening target than the original triggering target.
Displaced anger and aggression may reflect the most destructive forms of displacement, as it often causes a ripple effect of negative energy. For example, we might experience anger with a supervisor but instead direct it toward a spouse. Or, we may be angry with a partner and take it out on our children. The target can be a person or an object that can serve as a symbolic substitute for the original source of our anger: a situation, person, or even ourselves. Ultimately, displacement helps us to re-establish some form of emotional equilibrium.
Displacing anger is often rooted in the past
As a clinician addressing issues with anger, I’ve often witnessed how individual history contributes to displaced anger. All too frequently, I’ve listened to clients describe some form of aversive childhood event (ACE) in their development, events that would naturally yield anger (2015). These include situations such as physical or emotional neglect or abuse, sexual abuse, parents’ divorce, being bullied by siblings or peers, or being a witness to violence.
For many, unfortunately, their emotions regarding these events were both consciously and unconsciously disavowed. This is reflected in comments such as “The divorce happened so quickly it wasn’t a big deal.” “Sure my father hit me, but that was what parents did at the time,” or “I really enjoyed being alone most of the time."
As a child, we may suppress or repress feelings about such events due to our inability to effectively manage the fear, anxiety, and confusion as well as anger we experience with caretakers. It is too overwhelming for us to endure such pain and not be able to seek comfort from our caretakers who, in fact, are the perpetrators of our suffering. Displacing anger toward others or with ourselves may be one resolution to this dilemma. When the anger is directed inward we convince ourselves that we were bad or did something wrong.
Idealizing our caretakers may accompany our use of displacement as a way of dealing with such anger. When doing so, we elevate their status in our eyes while minimizing, denying, or suppressing our anger toward them. This approach is often revealed in comments made by my clients, such as, “He was just such a wonderful provider for the family. I understood that he had no time for me,” or “He suffered so much from his father. He was just trying to make me stronger. You got to be tough in this world," or “His criticism was out of love, trying to make me more perfect.”
Certainly, we may experience other events throughout our life that yield anger. The tendency toward conflict avoidance, also often rooted in earlier years, may lead to strong inhibitions regarding anger whether in our personal relationships, at work, or in all areas of our life. Consequently, we may become more prone to displacing such anger.
The damaging impact of displaced anger (aggression)
As I indicated in last month’s post regarding suppressed anger, the pain and anger of our early development doesn't just go away. It seeks attention in various ways, with displacement being one way of managing it.
Issues with authority
Unfortunately, the damage of displacing anger and idealizing a parent might result in conflicts with authority in general. Sensitivity to feeling controlled might also be an outcome of such displacement. Displacement may seem the best alternative when, even as an adult, acknowledging such anger may be experienced as a betrayal of the idealized parent. I’ve often observed this being played out in conflicts reported by clients with supervisors, law enforcement, teachers, and in their personal relationships.
Bullying is strongly reflective of displacement, as those who bully are often the targets of bullying. This dynamic most clearly reveals the potential ripple effect of displacement. A bully is often the victim of violence or abuse at home or in other relationships in which he feels powerless to address his pain and anger. Consequently, a bully may redirect his feelings toward peers and classmates who are less threatening than the abuser. Such bullying is not limited to childhood or adolescence. It can be a significant factor influencing one’s interactions at work and at home.
One review cited displaced aggression, in addition to retaliation, as contributing factors for gang violence. In effect, such violence was not simply rooted in a desire for revenge for transgressions by the offending gang (2013).
Disavowed feelings betray our humanity. It is then no surprise that displaced anger so often contributes to the dehumanization of others. When we ignore our feelings, we become less sensitive to the pain in others and often less compassionate to them as well.
Displacement of frustrations and anger about our economic status and other life challenges may further contribute to anger with minorities, as we blame them for our suffering. When extreme, displacement may even fuel projection, experiencing others as having our feelings. This is the case when the “other” is not only the target of our anger but experienced as being angry toward us. Consequently, it is easy to believe that they are out to harm us. Such displacement and projection, when couched in ongoing hostility toward and rejection of “the other,” then becomes the basis for a preemptive attack on them.
Autocratic leaders rely on displacement as a way to divide groups and redirect anger that could potentially be directed at government leadership. Helping to displace anger is cited in a 10-point checklist on how to become an authoritarian leader (Ingliss, 2019). A review of the history of any autocracy highlights such displacement, accompanied by fueling fear, as a core strategy for strengthening and maintaining authority.
It specifically cites advocating populism and nationalism as a way to achieve this goal. This immediately fosters a focus on distinguishing between the “in-group” and the “other." The ills of our time can then be blamed on them. As such, displaced anger is often a contributing factor to constrictive tribalism, racism, and sexism. It is evidenced in the intense politicization of so much in our daily life that fosters anger toward those who are different.
Diminished support and empowerment
Although fairly common in adults and providing a short-term advantage, displaced anger is destructive in that it can undermine our relationships with others—especially with those who might actually impact our lives in a positive manner. It can foster a loss of support from those with whom we seek connection. And, it is a distraction from our inner suffering that moves us away from self-connection and self-knowledge. Consequently, employing displacement can yield feelings of isolation.
Invariably, as with much of destructive anger, it actually diminishes our sense of agency and empowerment. It fuels the belief that our happiness is highly dependent on others, an attitude that only further supports feelings of victimization and powerlessness.
Each of us is a product of our individual history. All that has happened in our past has contributed to our beliefs about others, the world, and ourselves. We live our lives dictated by narratives we have internalized, often on automatic pilot, and constricted by the confines of what we call our identity. The reality is, when it comes to displacement, we may not know what we don’t know.
As such, self-reflection to enhance self-awareness is the beginning step for increased control over the restrictive narratives that we have internalized. Through this process, we can develop the resilience to recognize, accept, and constructively manage our anger—rather than disavow it through displacement. This requires courage. But through such reflection, we gain increased choice to make decisions that can lead to greater life satisfaction and well-being.
Vasquez, E., Lickel, B. and Hennigan, K. Applying socio-psychological models to understanding displaced and group-based aggression in street gangs. Wood, J. and Gannon, T. (Eds.) (2013). Crime and crime reduction: The importance of group processes. New York, N.Y.: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.
Ingliss, S.(2019) https://theconversation.com/so-you-want-to-be-an-autocrat-heres-the-10-point-checklist-125908