Displacement is a defense mechanism that involves an individual transferring negative feelings from one person or thing to another. For example, a person who is angry at their boss may “take out” their anger on a family member by shouting at them.

The American Psychological Association (APA) says that people use defense mechanisms unconsciously to prevent or release negative thoughts and emotions. Although this process may be helpful for the person’s emotional state, it can lead to problems in relationships if it occurs frequently.

This article discusses the psychoanalytic theory of displacement, looking at its history, some examples, and more.

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According to the APA, displacement is the transfer of negative feelings from one person or thing to another.

The theory is that a person deals with the tension or anxiety associated with negative feelings, such as fear or anger, by releasing them on a nonthreatening target.

For example, if a person experiences negative emotions due to their boss shouting at them, they may transfer these emotions to someone or something else, such as a member of their family or a household object.

The person might feel as though they cannot confront their boss for fear of losing their job. As a result, they may take their anger out on someone who is less threatening, such as their partner or housemate.

As displacement is an unconscious defense mechanism, the person may not realize that they are doing it.

Sigmund Freud was an Austrian neurologist who developed psychoanalysis at the start of the 20th century.

According to the APA, psychoanalysis is a set of theories about emotions and behaviors, and it is based on the idea that mental processes are unconscious. The APA says that the term “unconscious” refers to the processes of the mind of which a person is unaware.

Freud discussed different defense mechanisms throughout his work. These unconscious psychological processes serve to protect a person from unwanted feelings or unacceptable thoughts.

His daughter, Anna Freud, later defined the mechanisms more clearly, creating 10 major defense mechanisms and adding more detail.

Additional researchers continued to add new defense mechanisms throughout the years, including displacement.

Defense mechanisms such as displacement are not inherently bad. For example, displacement may allow a person to express themselves and relieve stress, even if they are directing it toward the wrong target.

This mechanism allows a person to process stress and anxiety in ways that are less threatening and more socially acceptable than confronting the issue head-on — for example, by shouting back at their boss.

Although displacement can serve a positive function for a person, it can also lead to negative consequences that may affect a person’s life and relationships.

Displacement can also be part of a damaging and unhealthy cycle.

For example, if a person has a negative experience at work, they may respond by shouting at their partner over a minor mistake when they get home.

This behavior may make their partner angry and frustrated, and they may release these emotions by shouting at their child. The child may respond to the anger and powerlessness they feel by bullying other children at school.

Impact of displacement

Displacement can have various effects on both an individual level and a global scale. Here are examples of some of the consequences that might result from displacement:

  • Relationship problems: A person who always displaces their work-related anger onto others may begin to have difficulty forming long lasting relationships. By directing their aggression and frustration at their friends and family, they may push them away.
  • Problems with substance misuse and addiction: In a 2017 study, people living with alcohol use disorder scored higher on scores of “immature defensive mechanisms,” such as displacement, than those without this condition. The authors note that addressing these defense mechanisms in people living with alcohol use disorder may help with providing treatment.
  • Prejudice: Displacement might cause a person to transfer anger resulting from one thing toward a specific group of people. For example, if a person struggles to find a new job following a redundancy, they might start to blame immigrants for their lack of employment.
  • Scapegoating: Similarly to the above example, displacement may help explain why people sometimes blame large-scale economic or social issues on others. It can also happen on a small scale in everyday situations. For example, a person might have a difficult commute before returning to a messy home. They might then blame their partner or housemate for the mess, even if it resulted from someone or something else.

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It can be difficult for a person to identify displacement in themselves. However, anyone who realizes that they are reacting emotionally to someone or something can begin by asking themselves whether their reaction is proportionate to the event that triggered it.

For example, if a person shouts at a waiter for bringing them the wrong dish, they may be displacing anger from another event. If they analyze the situation, they may realize that their anger resulted from something that happened elsewhere earlier in the day.

Some other methods may help prevent or minimize displacement. A person could try:

  • Keeping a diary: A diary may help a person analyze their behavior and emotions and keep some distance from the situation. It can also allow them to vent any negative feelings privately.
  • Meditating: Meditation and other mindful practices, such as yoga, may help by allowing a person to be mindful of their feelings and actions.
  • Exercising: Research suggests that regular exercise can reduce stress and increase emotional resilience.

After Anna Freud identified defense mechanisms and expanded on what they are, researchers continued to add to the list of types over the years.

Although each type is different, all defense mechanisms provide ways for a person to deal with difficult emotions. They may help a person avoid feeling unpleasant thoughts, such as grief and guilt.

It is possible to experience multiple defense mechanisms.

Defense mechanismDefinitionExample
AvoidanceDismissing uncomfortable thoughts or feelings by staying away from people, places, or situations associated with them.Someone who has been in a traumatic car accident starts to avoid driving.
DenialContinuing to engage in behaviors that may be damaging while dismissing the real-life consequences of the situation.Someone continues to shop for expensive designer clothes despite being in serious financial debt.
HumourReducing, resisting, or hiding negative emotions that may result from a situation by joking about it.A person tells a funny story about someone during a eulogy.
ProjectionAttributing one’s own behaviors and shortcomings to someone else.A person who is secretly unfaithful to their spouse accuses their spouse of the same behavior.
RegressionReturning to behaviors from an earlier stage of life.A child begins wetting the bed after a traumatic incident, even though they have already grown out of this behavior.
RationalizationJustifying one’s behavior by attempting to provide a rational explanation.After stealing money, a person makes the excuse that they needed it more than the person from whom they stole it.

A person may or may not be aware that they are using these defense mechanisms.

Learn more about defense mechanisms in psychology.

When a person becomes overly dependent on displacement — or any other defense mechanism — for dealing with their stress and emotions, it can become a problematic behavior for them.

A therapist can help a person recognize displacement in their behaviors and work with them to form different strategies to cope with difficult emotions.

Some treatment options that a therapist may provide include:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT is a short-term therapy technique that can help people identify and re-frame their thought patterns. During CBT, a therapist will work with a person to identify negative thoughts and feelings that may arise from specific events. The goal of CBT is to re-frame negative thoughts and actions into more beneficial ways of thinking and behaving.

Learn more about CBT.

Psychodynamic therapy

This more long-term form of talking therapy can help people better understand their thoughts and feelings. Psychodynamic therapy pays special attention to unconscious thoughts and behaviors. For this reason, it can be very helpful for examining and understanding unconscious defense mechanisms.

Learn more about psychodynamic therapy.

Medication

Defense mechanisms are a normal reaction to difficult thoughts and feelings. However, if a person is dealing with mental health issues, such as depression, it can be more difficult to avoid unhealthy defense mechanisms.

Medications such as antidepressants can be effective in treating depression and other mental health conditions.

A person should speak with a doctor if they think that they might have a mental health condition. The doctor can work with the person to create an effective treatment plan.

Learn more about the types, benefits, and side effects of antidepressants.

Displacement is a defense mechanism that some people use unconsciously in response to stress and other negative emotions.

Although it can serve a healthy purpose in some cases, overreliance on it can lead to maladaptive behaviors that create problems in a person’s relationships or work.

Talking with a psychologist or counselor may help people find new and better ways to cope with stress and anxiety.