A Psychological Understanding of Displacement

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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The other day I was listening to the music of topical songwriter and satirist Phil Ochs. The upbeat vitriol of Pretty Smart On My Part, with lyrics that speak of misguided paranoia and hatred, got me thinking about the defense mechanism of displacement.

I can see him coming / He’s walking down the highway / With his big boots on and his big thumb out / He wants to get me / He wants to hurt me / He wants to bring me down / But sometime later when I feel a little straighter / I will come across a stranger who’ll remind me of the danger / And then I’ll run him over / Pretty smart on my part/ Find my way home in the dark.

As Ochs’ song suggests, feelings that are not directed or discharged towards the original source of provocation (the hitchhiker) are redirected and displaced onto an unsuspecting convenient mark (the stranger). This strategy, known as displacement, alleviates psychic discomfort as it provides an outlet for difficult emotions that are seeking release.

Ochs’ song also suggests, when repressed unconscious aggression is displaced it can result in destructive explosive mayhem. This can range from road rage, venomous cyber assaults, self-harm, vandalizing property and even homicide.

Truth be told, none of us are strangers to unwittingly taking out our angst on undeserving targets. Thus, it’s not uncommon to transfer frustration with an overbearing employer onto one’s friends, pet, spouse or children. In fact, a rampant form of displacement and projection that is popular these days involves scapegoating those with dissenting opinions.

Scapegoating is an insidious action in which the ego defense of displacement plays a central role. Challenging aggressive feelings (blame, envy, feeling threatened and unsafe) are transferred onto an individual or a group of people for the purpose of enacting dehumanization and self-righteous persecution.

Fueled by hostility and indignation, opposing sides perceive the opposition as responsible for society’s ails. As the scapegoated person or group is condemned as the cause of displaced grievances, discomfort, shortcomings and failures, the actual reasons for societal woes become obscured. Clearly, this sort of undertaking is not a new phenomenon.

Throughout history feelings evoked by the unfairness of life, by hate, tragedy and the impotence of victimization has beget displacing fault onto others.

This is especially so in the political sphere. For example, exonerating Wall Street and financial elites for systemic fraud then turning around and blaming teachers, firefighters and police officers for local budget deficits is emblematic of displacement. Likewise, a recent example is multimillionaire President Biden blaming surging inflation on corporate greed when he himself is a corporate shill.

Assigning inflation to corporate villains deflects and distracts from personal accountability and prevailing economic policies. Displacing responsibility by simplifying a narrative of mounting unemployment, an inconceivable deficit, vast financialization and U.S. militarism is a classic political maneuver.

Indeed, in the political arena, the displacing of personal responsibility and assigning guilt to a designated culprit is a persuasive standard procedure.

When aggression is displaced, hostility is directed towards those who are either innocent bystanders or those who might have done something to trigger pent up anger. In the latter, although the assault may seem justified the source of provocation is rarely commensurate with the expression of retaliatory rage.

Should displaced aggression be directed towards groups of people over many years, the scapegoated group may “acquire the quality of a stimulus for aggression” (Scapegoat Theory/APA dictionary). This suggests that prejudice can breed prophetic outcomes. Bigoted judgements and a debasing indoctrination can indeed influence the cultivation of identity. In turn, this can lead to a self fulfilling prophecy in which behaviors are enacted that make originally false, inflammatory assessments appear true.

Since having information about others helps us navigate the world and the discomfort of uncertainty and ambiguity, we create categorical perceptions. Referred to as social categorization, sorting out reality into valid arrangements is an effective means of understanding innate differences and proclivities that comprise human socialization. Unfortunately this impulse goes awry when these classifications morph into biased belief systems that stereotype and scapegoat.

Ultimately, as long as we continue to displace uncomfortable feelings such as uncertainty, ambiguity and aggression onto any available target, a vicious loop of recrimination will prevail. This cycle of condemnation can be directed externally and/or inwardly towards the self.

Although temporary satisfaction may be derived from discharging pent up emotional energy on an unsuspecting pawn, clearly an unhealthy reliance on displacement results in the destructive handling of aggression.

Since, as cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead conveyed, “human nature is potentially aggressive and destructive and potentially orderly and constructive,” prioritizing our capacity to responsibly manage this energy is critical.

Maintaining internal homeostasis and well-being depends on the ability to release emotional energy that corresponds with the catalyst. Achieving this end allows us to define limits and boundaries and clarify moral principles. It allows for an honest expression of communication and accountability.

For the most part, when we displace our aggressive impulses we run into trouble. We lose perspective, as our natural, instinctual responses to actual and perceived threats and harm becomes muddled. Consequently, we lose balance. We also risk losing significant relationships.

Naturally, it helps to be discerning as to where, when and how emotions should be expressed. Emotional containment (Wilfred Bion) which ideally begins with the child and mother, allows for the successful holding of cognitive and emotional experiences. One’s containment capacity assists with constructively releasing complex, distressing feelings.

Managing bottled-up emotions so that they are not displaced can be as simple as the parasympathetic function of having a good cry. Crying activates the regulatory and immune systems of the body so that toxic stress hormones are flushed out of the body and relaxation is set in motion. Additionally, studies suggest that crying stimulates the production of oxytocin and endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer. Likewise, hitting a punching bag. creativity, journaling, and even dreaming allow for physical and mental processing of affective energy.

Raising the bar of our emotional functioning means mindfully managing our impulses so that the reliance on ego defenses does not become excessive or rigid. After all, it’s up to us to learn how to regulate our emotional impulses and to the best of our ability have conscious awareness of our reliance on ego defenses. If we shirk that task then we are doomed to distort reality and hinder our capacity to responsibly deal with the world.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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