Better Ways to Deal with the Displaced Aggression in Our Lives

E.B. Johnson

The people in your life are tired of being punished by your endless anger and blowups. Believe this — the explosions are growing tired. All the hard words and the stonewalling? It’s transparent. You’re taking out your anger on others through displaced aggression. You’re doing it directly, indirectly. You’re probably putting it everywhere but where it needs to be: squarely in your lap. That’s because you are the only one who can resolve the discomfort of your anger? Want to stop feeling so out of control. Learn to take the reins, self-soothe, and process the aggression that an unfulfilling life has left you with.

What is displaced aggression?

Displaced aggression is rooted in the general behavior of displacement. In the simplest terms, this occurs when we take one intense emotion and discharge it through another situation. Most often, this is a toxic or abrasive emotion which we take out on those around us. Anger is a common choice. We lash out, blow up, and punish the people closest to us. This displaced aggression pushes away the people we love and makes it harder to connect with not only them, but ourselves, too.

We see this displaced aggression and hostility played out in our interpersonal relationships time and time again. Depending on your personality, your experience (and your level of emotional awareness) you might see this as conflict, resentment, and a host of other behaviors that push away the people you want to invest in most.

Displacement comes from a certain detachment from self, and a certain lack of skill and maturity, too. When you don’t have the ability to acknowledge and navigate your really big emotions, you’ll seek to discharge the uncomfortable energy they create. Punishing others, though, is really just an elaborate way of punishing ourselves. That’s because displaced aggression comes at a cost. And that cost is usually our relationships, our careers, and everything else we hold dear.

How it manifests in real life.

Our anger and aggression can manifest in a lot of different ways throughout our lives and relationships. It’s not always as simple as yelling at someone who doesn’t deserve it. And it’s not always negative either. We can find positive outlets for displacing our anger, as equally as we can find bad ones. The key to emotional maturity, though, is being able to realize what we’re doing and adjust to healthier

Direct transfers

Direct transfers of aggression and anger happen when we experience an upsetting event and directly take our emotions to uninvolved parties. Think of it like this. If a friend doesn’t show up for dinner, but they have a valid reason — you get upset. Instead of venting to them (and making them feel bad) however, you might vent to other friends and say some nasty things that “make you feel better”. This is a direct transfer of aggression that can be minor, or verging into the realm of demanding emotional labor.

Aggressive outbursts

Aggressive displacement is one of the scariest ways in which we can find ourselves displacing our anger and upset with others. You see this behavior in people who explode in public and hit their kids. Or those who pick fights for no reason. They are marked by their low emotional maturity, low self-esteem, and even a sense of entitlement. Incredibly toxic, these immature outbursts destroy relationships, careers, and every other opportunity we come to value.

Positive shuffling

Some displacement of anger can border on the positive. But if not carefully managed, it can become a real issue in our personal lives. Known as a positive transfer — this involves taking your anger and putting it into positive distractions which help you feel better (or gain clarity). For example, when your spouse says something mean, you may choose to go on a run or to pain a picture. This is a positive action for you, but it becomes a problem when the root of the anger…your true need…is not addressed.

Unrelated placement

It’s not uncommon for us to displace our anger and aggression in totally random and undeserved ways. These unrelated transfers involve covering up our own mistakes by blaming others (or our circumstances). Maybe you do poorly on a test and blame it on bad questions. You don’t ask the professor to check the questions, though. Instead, you wear yourself out exercising, or emotionally dump onto your friends and family. It creates the idea that goals are flippant. And it also increases our fear of rejection, inability to commit, and general dissatisfaction.

Basic deception

One of the most subtle (and vicious) forms of aggression displacement is known as innocent deception. This is a really passive aggressive form of displacement which acts a lot like a lit firecracker. For a while, it feels good. No one gets hurt. But then it inevitably blows up in the face of intimate relationships. Innocent deception happens when, upset, a person exacts revenge without their partner’s knowledge. Maybe they flirt with someone else because their partner spends too much time at work. It’s a self-declaration of closure and “revenge”.

Personal CBT

Not all displacement is bad. Believe it or not, we can come to use this as a positive tool for transmuting our aggressions and upset. Once you’ve reached a place of total awareness, you can use displacement in a way in which you can prevent yourself from harming others. Instead of lashing out at others, we channel that energy into positive behaviors, like helping others and improving our lives in meaningful ways. All of this is done with a greater sense of awareness, however, and after coming to embrace our anger healthily.

The best ways to deal with displaced aggression in your life.

We can’t afford to move through life throwing our aggressions around with no self-awareness or control. That has to stop. In order for us to advance as a society, as individuals, we have to become more aware of our emotions. And more than that, we have to learn how to both acknowledge them and confront them in ways which allow us to meet our own needs.

1. Learn how to self-soothe

Anger is a powerful emotion. It moves us quickly and it can overwhelm us when we don’t take steps to manage it with kindness and compassion. Before you can get to a deeper level with your anger, though, you must learn how to calm yourself enough to approach it. That’s where self-soothing comes into the picture. It’s no one else’s responsibility to calm you down or make you feel good. All of that comes down to you. How are you going to calm yourself so you can move forward maturely and confidently?

Learn how to self-soothe whenever you are confronted with major emotions. This requires a lot of internal dialogue, but more than that, it requires control. Be able to stop in the moment and question your emotions. Then you have to bring yourself back down to a rational place.

Calm and soothe yourself. Don’t look to lean on others for that sense of calm. In those moments when you’re dealing with a heavy hand of emotions, take a step back and take time to process. Avoid immediately reaching out to anyone when you’re at the height of your initial reaction. Take deep breaths. Question where the emotion is coming from and what it needs to calm itself. You can journal, go for a run, get up and move around the house. There are a million different ways you can calm yourself down over exploding on someone else.

2. Acknowledge your anger

As a society, we put anger in a weird space. Men are encouraged to approach their anger openly, and to act on it without a second thought. Which usually plays out disastrously and disappointingly for both them and their families. Meanwhile, women are discouraged from embracing their anger at all, and are actually encouraged to bury it down deep. Neither technique works, because they fail entirely to acknowledge that anger in a real and effective way.

Instead of running from your anger — or giving it the keys to the kingdom — acknowledge it and sit with it. This is how we come to manage our emotions. We must view them as visitors on a bus. A bus of which we are the driver. They get on the bus; they ride for a while (maybe they chat to us), and then they get off the bus. All of our emotions are temporary, and they come with stories and messages that can inform and entertain. Listen to what your anger has to say rather than acting on it or pretending it doesn’t exist. That’s how displacement gets a foothold in our patterns.

3. Take action to meet needs

Make no mistake, your emotions are tied to your needs. Anger and aggression? They arise because they are tied to our needs and our sense of safety and security. When boundaries are breached, or we feel we aren’t getting what we need and deserve, our anger is sparked like a defense system. It serves a purpose, and when you become better at meeting your own needs, that anger becomes easier to address, manage, and navigate throughout our lives and relationships.

Take action to meet the needs that your emotions are driving you toward. Your anger exists for a reason. If it’s been inflamed, it’s because another need or boundary isn’t being met or protected. It’s your responsibility to find out where this need is being dropped — and fix it.

Are you coming home and lashing out at your family because your boss keeps crossing lines at work? Do you punish your kids with screaming matches and short tempers whenever your partner cannot show up and support you? You must establish boundaries with your boss and start saying no. Tell your partner what you need from your commitment to them (and make sure you get it). When you take action to meet your own needs, you lose the need to make others pay emotionally for your discomfort.

Putting it all together…

Displaced anger and aggression are no small thing. When we take our emotions out on others, we make it hard for them to trust us. But worse than that, we make it even harder to understand who we are and what we need. Part of growing up asks that we look honestly at our emotions and the way they are affecting our lives. Then, we have to take the appropriate actions to meet the needs that are being raised and questioned. The people around you don’t deserve to be punished by the pain that’s plaguing you. Feeling better is your responsibility and your responsibility alone.

  • Bodenmann, G., Meuwly, N., Bradbury, T., Gmelch, S., & Ledermann, T. (2010). Stress, anger, and verbal aggression in intimate relationships: Moderating effects of individual and dyadic coping. Journal Of Social And Personal Relationships, 27(3), 408-424. doi: 10.1177/0265407510361616

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