Everyone feels angry at one time or another. It’s a common and healthy emotion. However, knowing how to release anger and where to direct it appropriately is essential. But what happens when it’s misdirected at someone or something else? There are many types of anger, one being displaced or misplaced anger. It is when you project negative feelings (anger) toward someone who isn’t the true cause of your negative emotion. It can be complicated to explain and difficult to understand, but anger displacement can be a real problem for some people.
While almost everyone has experienced at least a few episodes of misplaced anger, it’s essential to recognize if there’s a consistent pattern. Rest assured, you’re not alone if you take your anger out on the wrong person or situation — it’s more common than you might think. However, learning how to direct anger appropriately is critical. Then, you can express yourself and work through your displacement of anger appropriately.
Keep reading to learn more about displaced anger, including why it happens and how it’s harmful, and most importantly, how you manage it and make healthier choices with options like anger therapy.
What is Displaced Anger?
The American Psychological Association or APA defines displaced anger as “the direction of hostility away from the source of frustration or anger and toward either the self or a different entity.” It’s important to acknowledge that misdirected anger isn’t always pointed at others. The truth is, many people internalize their anger as well, which can be just as destructive.
Misdirecting anger internally vs externally
Understanding the difference between misdirected anger on an internal vs. external level is relatively simple once you know the basics of each.
Misdirecting anger internally
When someone internalizes their anger, they often blame themselves for a situation. People with internalized anger are often in situations or relationships where expressing their anger outwardly might have negative consequences — like in an unhealthy or abusive environment.
This can come from childhood patterns of not being able to find fault with your parents or guardians, so you try and blame yourself or change yourself so that you can gain family acceptance. This is very common so having compassion for yourself is important. These patterns of internalizing anger may have started out as a way of coping. If it is now harming you and not helping you, it’s time to take action and adopt healthier ways of coping
Internalizing your anger can cause health problems and result in mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety.
Misdirecting anger externally
When anger displacement happens externally, someone is overtly angry toward someone or something undeserving. Externalized anger can turn into displaced aggression and violence.
Why People Misdirect Anger
It is important to be able to answer “Why am I so angry.” Whether someone internalizes or externalizes their anger, it’s essential to try and understand why the behavior is taking place or what causes anger in the first place. Displacement of anger is often rooted in the past, based on negative childhood experiences such as:
- Being bullied
- Sexual or physical abuse
- Physical or emotional neglect
- Domestic abuse in the home
- Emotional triggers like work, family, and day-to-day stresses
Adverse childhood stress can affect people’s ability to control or regulate emotions. Research shows that it can also significantly impact the brain regions supporting these skills. For example, we know that children who experience trauma or abuse seem to have more difficulty with anger displacement as adults.
Young kids often think their parents or guardians are heroes, making it hard for them to accept that there is something wrong with them. Kids, in turn, think the problem lies with them, which can lead to this displaced anger.
“Misdirected anger is an unconscious defense mechanism used to display anger and aggression toward individuals who are not involved in the stressors that are causing the anger. It usually occurs because the individual has poor coping skills and/or poor impulse control.”
The Effects of Misdirected Anger
Whether anger is misdirected toward someone or held internally, it can negatively impact your life. Regardless of how it displays, displaced aggression can ruin your relationships, self-worth, and career, significantly diminishing your quality of life.
When you struggle with misguided anger in a romantic relationship, you might use your partner as an emotional punching bag. Unfortunately, this can eat away at the basis of your relationship, eroding trust and diminishing intimacy and closeness.
It’s not just romantic partners who may face the brunt of it though. Family members are often the subject of misplaced anger as well. Your family can be at the center of the storm, simply because they’re there, and it can be easy to lash out at them. Continual anger can cause any type of relationship to break.
Sadly, it’s common for children to be on the receiving end of misplaced anger. People with displaced anger are often harsher with their children, making them the targets of their frustration. Unfortunately, this can have lasting adverse effects on children.
If you fail to deal with your anger properly, it might result in altercations at work. The fall out can cause coworkers to be reluctant to work with you, or worse. If you can’t learn to appropriately manage your anger, your career may be at stake.
“Continued use of this defense mechanism can cause issues within the relationships where the individual is targeting the anger. It could lead to more fights with others. It can also have a ripple effect within the relationships involved where the misdirected anger is perpetuated.”
If any of the above resonates with you, and you’re ready to make a change, the tips below can help you alter your behavior so you can begin to manage anger in a healthy, productive way.
6 Tips to Manage Displaced Anger
Though it may be challenging, it is possible to manage displaced anger. The next time you feel anger bubbling up, try:
- Walking away from the situation
- Find a heathier way to process your anger
- Calling a friend or family member
- Putting yourself in their shoes
- Coming back to the conversation calm
- See a therapist
While it may be tempting to try and rectify the situation after an angry outburst, it’s best to walk away. Talking to someone in the heat of the moment is not productive and may worsen the situation, especially if you’re at fault and have just been heated in anger.
Find a healthier way to process your anger
Search for a healthier way to express your anger or channel it through other less self-destructive habits, whether it be punching a pillow, taking kickboxing classes, painting, etc. Some people feel physically charged when they’re angry and need a way to release and blow off steam.
After you’ve walked away, it’s essential to relax. Do whatever relaxes you — take a short walk, sit outside in the sunshine, breathe deeply, meditate, or do yoga. Relaxing after an episode of anger displacement can be key to moving forward and understanding the situation.
Call a friend or family member
Once you’re relaxed, it might help to call a friend or family member to talk about the situation. An loved one may help you see things from the other person’s point of view, especially if they know you’re struggling and trying to change.
Put yourself in their shoes
Often, it helps to try to put yourself in the receiving end’s shoes. Ask yourself:
- Did they deserve your anger?
- Were they in the wrong place at the wrong time?
- Did they have a bad day and accidentally trigger you?
- Was your anger toward them justified?
Come back to the conversation calm and clear-headed
At this point, hopefully, you’re calm and clear-headed, and it’s okay to come back to the conversation. You probably want to apologize to them for your anger and explain that you were wrong and they shouldn’t have been the actual recipient of your frustration.
See a therapist
If these situations happen frequently, a therapist can help you work through the potential causes of your displaced aggression. Once you know the reasons for your behavior, it can be much easier to recognize triggers, including thoughts or words, and avoid angry outbursts.
“As in other stressful situations, it’s important to disengage from others that the anger is being directed towards. Taking ‘time outs’ to calm down or implement self care techniques are extremely helpful.”
Everyone experiences anger from time to time. It’s a natural emotion, and sometimes, it’s warranted. Like anything else in life, though, there’s a time and place for anger. There are also appropriate and inappropriate ways to express it.
Many people get angry with spouses or loved ones when they weren’t the ones who did anything wrong. However, if you notice that your anger is consistently misguided towards others, it’s a good idea to seek help. Therapy can help you recognize why you have anger in the first place and then teach you how to develop a plan. With the right therapist, you can learn to appropriately act on your emotions in the future.
If you’re ready to deal with displaced anger and are looking for help, Talkspace is there for you. Our online therapy platform is the perfect place for you to get therapy that’s effective, affordable, and convenient. When you have the right tools in place, you can become a more peaceful, positive person, and your misdirected anger can become a thing of your past.
1. Pechtel P, Pizzagalli D. Effects of early life stress on cognitive and affective function: an integrated review of human literature. Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2010;214(1):55-70. doi:10.1007/s00213-010-2009-2. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-010-2009-2. Accessed July 1, 2022.
2. De Brito S, Viding E, Sebastian C et al. Reduced orbitofrontal and temporal grey matter in a community sample of maltreated children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2012;54(1):105-112. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2012.02597.x. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.2012.02597.x. Accessed July 1, 2022.