Displacement as a Defense Mechanism

Published on: 23 Jan 2023
Clinically Reviewed by Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C
Couple arguing in the kitchen

Defense mechanisms are an unconscious strategy used to avoid difficult emotions. The displacement defense mechanism is a way for people to “displace,” or redirect, negative emotions from one source to another. While defense mechanisms can be helpful in the short-term, displacement can cause damage to relationships over time.  

Read on to learn more about displacement defense mechanisms, including real-life examples and how you can learn to cope if you use this type of defense mechanism in your life and relationships. 

What is Displacement?

It isn’t always possible for people to express negative emotions like anger, frustration, or fear directly. Repression of unwanted feelings is common, and displacement defense mechanisms allow someone to transfer unpleasant feelings from their original source to another less threatening target. 

People often find themselves in situations that require them to suppress their emotions. If you’re upset at your boss, for example, voicing your feelings could have serious consequences. When someone engages in displaced aggression, they direct these strong emotions towards another, safer target, such as a family member or a friend.

What is the difference between displacement and projection?

There are some similarities between displacement and projection as a defense mechanism. Both mechanisms essentially involve transferring feelings to someone else, but people use these defense tactics in different ways. 

  • Projection: When someone projects, they’re displacing their own negative traits and emotions onto others. 
  • Displacement: Displacement involves transferring feelings someone has about one person onto someone else. 

In short, projection distorts the motivations of the person being targeted, whereas displacement is a way for someone to attribute an emotional response to the wrong person. 

Examples of Displacement as a Defense Mechanism

Displacement can take many forms. While it’s often associated with misplaced anger, people can also displace other feelings, such as sexual urges. Some additional displacement defense mechanism examples include:

  • Displaced anger: When someone is angry at another person but is unable to express those feelings, they may redirect them toward what they perceive as a safer target. For example, if someone’s been yelled at by their boss, they might lash out at their spouse when they get home from work. Displaced anger can be extremely damaging to relationships. 
  • Sublimation: Sublimation is a way to displace unacceptable urges into socially acceptable activities. For example, research shows that some people with repressed desires learn to copy by redirecting their feelings into creative works. 
  • Bullying: It’s not uncommon for children who are bullied or abused by their caregivers to displace their aggression towards their peers. Victims of abuse often feel powerless, and redirecting anger, especially when it’s toward a non-threatening target, can be a way to gain a sense of power that allows them to feel as if they’re in control. 
  • Displaced attraction: If someone is attracted to a person they can’t pursue, like a friend’s spouse, they may redirect that attraction to another person or an object. As an example, if the object of their attraction wears glasses, they may find themselves drawn to other people who also wear glasses. 
  • Scapegoating: Scapegoating involves a sense of denial of who’s in the wrong, blaming an innocent group or individual for negative experiences. A common displacement defense mechanism example is blaming a marginalized group for an issue they have nothing to do with, such as a poor job market or economic strife. 

Why Do We Use Displacement as a Defense Mechanism?

Defense mechanisms like displacement can provide an outlet for painful memories or negative emotions. It allows people to express their feelings in an indirect way and can be a form of stress management. At times, displacement can also be motivated by feelings of helplessness. 

“We often unconsciously use displacement. For example, sometimes if we’re angry about something at work, instead of processing it in a healthy way, that lingering anger can sometimes urge us to redirect our feelings and act more irritable at home with a partner, kids, or pet. If you notice you’re struggling with behaviors like this, you can absolutely work on it in therapy.”

– Therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

Studies suggest that people are more likely to engage in displacement when they’re dealing with ego depletion. Ego depletion is the term used to describe when someone uses up all their available willpower. In relation to displacement, if much effort goes into staying calm when someone is being insulted, for example, they may then struggle to maintain an appropriate level of control later on. This could cause them to lash out at the people around them. 

The harmful impacts of displacement 

It’s important to note that displacement isn’t always bad. On the contrary, it can even be a healthy coping strategy to a certain degree — allowing you to manage and deal with anxiety and stress in some instances. 

“We all use displacement as a defense mechanism to some degree, but if it’s to the extent that you’re aware it’s contributing to issues personally or professionally, I would encourage you to explore this with a licensed therapist so you can start to feel better and make decisions that serve you in healthier ways.”

– Therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

That said, displacement can be destructive to your relationships, sense of self-worth, and overall happiness. It can spark a cyclical pattern of behavior that drives wedges between you and others and might begin to interfere with your ability to be successful, both personally and professionally. 

Relationship issues 

When someone regularly displaces negative emotions, they often transfer their feelings to loved ones, such as a spouse or a family member. This can be a major source of relationship conflict. Redirecting emotions like anger and frustration towards loved ones can eventually push them away. 

Cycles of anger 

Displacement can create a cycle of anger and negative emotions. When someone displaces their anger onto one person, that person may then lash out at someone else. The only way to break this cycle is to deal with negative feelings in a healthier way. 

Inappropriate emotional displays

By transferring feelings to another target, it can lead to emotional displays that may be seen as inappropriate. Displaced emotions are often extreme and can eventually lead to intense emotional outbursts. 

Prejudice

Displacement can be a source of prejudice. When someone puts negative emotions onto a group of people, it can lead to prejudices that shape the way they feel about the world. These prejudices can have severe consequences. 

Substance abuse

According to studies, people who struggle with drug and alcohol dependency are more likely to engage in damaging defense mechanisms like displacement. When people feel angry or powerless, and they don’t have a healthy way to express their emotions, it can lead to addictive behaviors. 

How to Work Through Displacement

While it can be difficult to identify displacement defense mechanisms, it’s possible to recognize and change these behaviors. 

“It can be hard to know you’re using displacement in the moment. To ultimately see what you can do differently next time, often it takes reflecting afterwards on why you acted a certain way so you can get clarity on what triggered you and why you took your displaced emotions out on someone or something else — a therapist can really support you here. Alternatively, if you feel that you’re more so the victim of displaced anger, such as in the case of being bullied, we encourage you to get the support that you need.”

– Therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

There are several ways to work through displacement, including:

  • Self-reflection: Analyzing your own behavior and actions can increase your awareness of your behavior. When you catch yourself displacing your emotions, reflect on why you’re using certain negative defense mechanisms. 
  • Cognitive reframing: Negative emotions like frustration and anger are unavoidable, but it is possible to adjust your mindset. Reframing helps you focus on positive emotions or find other outlets for your feelings. 
  • Journaling: It’s not always possible to openly and outwardly express what you’re feeling, but you can work through your emotions in a journal. Journaling for your mental health can be a way to vent your feelings without inappropriately directing them to another person.  
  • Meditation: Meditation can be a simple and effective, yet very powerful way to reduce stress. Over time, it can also give you more control over your emotions and help you stay focused on the present.
  • In-person or online therapy: Recognizing and overcoming displacement isn’t always easy. If you’ve been struggling with displacement, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional. 

Displacement defense mechanisms can have lasting consequences on your well-being and your relationships with others. The good news, though, is you can learn effective coping skills that will allow you to challenge how you implement defense mechanisms in your life. With the help of a skilled, trained therapist, you’ll be able to find new and better ways to cope. 

Sources:

1. Kim E, Zeppenfeld V, Cohen D. Sublimation, culture, and creativity. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2013;105(4):639-666. doi:10.1037/a0033487. https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fa0033487. Accessed September 24, 2022.

2. Nesdale D, Duffy A. Social identity, peer group rejection, and young children’s reactive, displaced, and proactive aggression. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. 2011;29(4):823-841. doi:10.1111/j.2044-835x.2010.02012.x. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21995740/. Accessed September 24, 2022.

3. Mohiyeddini C, Bauer S, Semple S. Displacement Behaviour Is Associated with Reduced Stress Levels among Men but Not Women. PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e56355. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056355. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0056355. Accessed September 24, 2022.

4. Rajchert J. Emotional, Cognitive and Self-Enhancement Processes in Aggressive Behavior After Interpersonal Rejection and Exclusion. Europe’s Journal of Psychology. 2015;11(4):707-721. doi:10.5964/ejop.v11i4.934. https://ejop.psychopen.eu/index.php/ejop/article/view/934. Accessed September 24, 2022.

5. Iwanicka K, Gerhant A, Olajossy M. Psychopathological symptoms, defense mechanisms and time perspectives among subjects with alcohol dependence (AD) presenting different patterns of coping with stress. PeerJ. 2017;5:e3576. doi:10.7717/peerj.3576. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5546178/. Accessed September 24, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

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