Written by Dr. Perry, PhD
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“Turning feelings into words can help us process and overcome adversity.” ~Sheryl Sandberg
Our emotional responses to everyday life events do not always take a linear path from perception to a reaction. Every day we encounter an endless assembly line of external stimuli that we must quickly access, process and classify. Our brains must categorize these happenings and life moments quickly in order to respond appropriately. Often our subconscious will identify some event as potentially threatening to our sense of self and to our place in the world. Our subconscious will respond by redirecting the impulse away from ourselves towards an external object. This object can be a person, animal or inanimate object. We can also redirect our impulse to an activity. This redirecting of our original impulse is known as psychological displacement.
According to Sigmund Freud, “The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.” Freud believed that our personalities are comprised of 3 systems. We can think of this Freudian system as a Matryoshka doll, also known as a Russian nesting doll, comprised of 3 empty forms, each enveloping the other. At the core of this tripartite is the Id, which according to Freud contains all of our primitive and instinctual desires. The Id is much like an unrestrained inner child seeking to satisfy whatever it desires. The Ego according to Freud is the part of the self that has been directly influenced by the external world and acts like the adult part, controlling and keeping in check the child part, the Id. Whereas the Id may be impulsive and unreasonable, the Ego responds to reason and makes up the decision-making component of our personality. The third party to this tripartite is the Superego, which is comprised of the conscience and the ideal self. According to Freud, the conscience will restrain the ego by causing feelings of guilt when we give in to the Id’s impulsive behavior. The ideal self or the ego ideal is the imaginary picture we have of our most perfect self.
Although the Id, Ego and Superego are no longer accepted and are seen as a primitive view of how the brain functions, we cannot deny that Freud was an original thinker. Although his description of the human psyche is now seen by some as simplistic, he was correct in his belief that the brain can be compartmentalized. Today, although some of his views are quite controversial, Freud who passed away in 1939, is regarded as one of the most well-known pioneers to identify the existence of the unconscious mind. His theories laid the groundwork for others to expand on, disprove and continue research of the unconscious.
One of Freud’s concepts still relevant today is that of psychological defense mechanisms. Freud developed the idea of the defense mechanism from his belief in the Id, Ego and Superego. This concept was further developed and expanded by his daughter Anna Freud. Freud believed that humans are driven to avoid tension and feelings of anxiety that arise when there is a conflict between the Id and the Ego. In turn, we seek to diminish these unpleasant feelings through unconscious defense mechanisms that arise when our view of ourselves is threatened.
Displacement is one of the defense mechanisms that we adopt in order to avoid uncomfortable emotions and thoughts which are perceived as threats to our conscious minds. It is the redirection of an impulse (usually aggression) onto a powerless substitute target. In can show up in many ways in our daily lives and can have a profound impact on our relationships.
Here are some ways displacement shows up in our daily lives:
1. Displaced Aggression
Displaced Aggression may manifest itself as verbal attacks and/or physical abuse towards others. This may occur when, for example, your boss has screamed at you all day and as a result of his or her behavior, feelings of aggression and an impulse to physically retaliate are provoked. Frustrated and unable to actually retaliate at work, we suppress our impulse. Once we are at home, we may redirect our suppressed impulse towards an innocent target. We may act out our aggression by scolding our pet or perhaps by engaging in something more serious such as emotionally or physically abuse our spouse or children.
a. Scapegoating behavior
The aggressive behavior may be displaced onto others who have no personal connection to us or to what is causing the anger or frustration. This displacement may occur towards individuals or an entire group of people and may be based on gender, race or other traits. For example, a person may have aggressive impulses towards their mother that they are not able to express. These aggressive tendencies may later find an outlet in their interactions with all women.
One of the most common ways that displaced aggression will be redirected is in our speech and communication styles. In my practice, I find that many of the emotional disconnects that occur between couples have a common source. The displaced aggression may originate from an external source such as an employer or an unpleasant interaction with another person. However, often the spouse or loved one who is the target of the displaced aggression may be the actual spark of initial aggressive impulse. For example, when one spouse exhibits contemptuous verbal or physical behavior towards the other, this may result in the receiving partner experiencing internal aggressive thoughts. Much later, this misdirected aggression may show up as unprovoked angry speech or their own display of contemptuous speech. This will, in turn, perpetuate a chain-reaction of abusive and unhealthy speech that is counterproductive to the overall health of the relationship.
Fear is a strong emotion that may be displaced when we are unable to express the fear we feel towards a person. For example, a child who fears their father will displace the fear onto an animal. Unable to express this fear, the child may develop a phobia towards a specific animal that reminds the child of the parent.
The libido, also known as sex drive is one of the most powerful biological instincts. It is an important factor in the formation and maintenance of intimate relationships. Displaced sexual energy may reveal itself in numerous ways including sexual fetishes, infidelity, dislike of certain groups, artistic creativity or harmful behaviors.
When we displace our initial impulses onto others we begin a chain-reaction of behavior that makes us both perpetrators and victims of displacement. For example, the person who is angry at their boss will express the displaced aggression by yelling at their spouse who in turn may continue the cycle. It is important for us to recognize what we are feeling, the origin of these feelings and our reactions. If you find yourself verbally attacking your loved ones, ask yourself, “What is the true origin of these feelings?”
I hope you found this post helpful and informative. I invite you to reflect on ways that displacement has had an effect on your life. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section so others can learn from your insight. Thank you for reading, sharing and commenting.
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Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology
M.A. in Clinical Psychology
B.A. in Psychology
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