Displacement psychology. Why we use it and everything you need to know about it.

So, the big guy on the bus made fun of you and everybody laughed. You got humiliated and angry. You want to insult him back but unfortunately, he will get angry and hit you. You want to punch him but he is way stronger than you.

So, you bottle your anger and act cool. But when you reach home, you redirect it to your little sister who is innocently singing out twinkle twinkle little stars. You accuse her of making noise and overreact about it. That is displacement psychology.

Displacement psychology is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism where one redirects his or her anger, heartbreak, loneliness, and other negative emotions from the person that caused them to another less threatening person.

Displacement psychology makes you hurt the wrong people.

It is painful and stressful for the body and mind to keep hold of negative emotions. To do away with them the body either expresses them or finds a defense mechanism to deal with them. Expressing them requires showing the person who has caused them what you feel.

But sometimes it can be very consequential doing that. You can’t tell your boss off, he may fire you. In this case, the mind resorts to a defense mechanism like displacement psychology. A defense mechanism is unconscious strategies that people use to manage feelings and emotions they are not comfortable with.

Examples of displacement psychology

The supervisor at work gets yelled at by the CEO since he cannot yell back, he waits for him to leave and he yells at the workers he is overseeing.

A husband disappoints his wife. Instead of the wife holding him accountable she takes it on the kids by shouting at them and blowing small situations out of proportion.

One bullied kid who can’t confront his bullies tries to kill himself to replace the negative emotions with death.

Russia invaded Ukraine instead of invading USA which was more of a threat to it than Ukraine.

Forms of displacement psychology

Indirect displacement.

So, your boss called you out for not delivering in time. He called you the weak link in the company. Embarrassing, right? Your colleagues are delivering their best and you feel angry about being embarrassed.

You can not confront your boss about it so you decide to misuse company resources as a way of getting back at him. You leave your workstation computer on, you leave the toilet sink tap running, etc. That is indirect displacement psychology.

Direct displacement.

Using the same instance of your boss embarrassing you by calling you a weak link, you this time do not take it on company resources, you go heads on with company workers that are not of any threat to you.

You shout at them and blow small issues out of proportion. It is common for supervisors to take it on their subordinates when the boss annoys them. Parents too sometimes take it on children.

Improvising displacement

‘’I didn’t want to go out with you, I just wanted to help you get some fun’’, says the guy whose feelings are hurt after his proposal to hang out got rejected. This is called improvising displacement psychology.

A person tries to replace negative emotions with some neutral or positive emotions by convincing himself that he wanted something else. One can invest a lot of time and energy in achieving a goal but when they fail and get hurt, they convince themselves that they didn’t want the goal and wanted something else.

Unconscious substitutional displacement.

Sometimes we innocently and unconsciously protect ourselves from negative emotions by looking for plan B to displace what we feel. Without intentions to hurt our loved ones due to fear of consequences, we find ourselves doing something else or finding another person to displace the negative emotions.

Take, for instance, you start sleeping with another man because you miss your husband who is away for two years. Instead of breaking up with him, because you still love him you just find a friend with benefits relationship with someone else to replace your unfed sexual desires.

Your husband finds out and gets heartbroken. Your conscious intention was to quench your sexual thirst not to break his heart. However, your unconscious intention was to break his heart because you could instead talk about it with him and figure out something to do.

Displacement psychology can be consciously or unconsciously done.

 Transmutation or sublimation displacement

The healthiest of the forms of displacement psychology. Here one notices negative emotions and transmutes them into positive activities and practices that result in impactful and worth celebrating achievements.

The worker regarded as least productive or a weak link in the company doubles his effort and becomes the best employee of the year. The fat-shamed girl in high school works out and eats a healthy diet and becomes one of the most good-looking girls in school.

Types of displacement psychology.

Displacement psychology is divided into two types that are negative and positive displacement psychology.

Negative displacement psychology

In negative displacement, one uses a defense mechanism that results in nothing but negative results. Even though displacement psychology is applied to not or less threatening people its impact does not yield anything more than short-term relief.

It imposes consequences like traumas and emotional damage to the victim. It can also create a desire for revenge and in situations where a not threatening person rises to power or strength, he or she will use that for revenge.

Negative displacement makes one accumulate negative emotions which can turn one into a bitter emotionally unhealthy person since displacement psychology most times only numbs negative emotions and never takes them away.

Positive displacement psychology

With positive displacement psychology, the returns from the defense mechanism to displace negative emotions are positive. Both the person with negative emotions and the people involved in the displacement get positively impacted.

Your boss calls you worthless at work. Instead of taking it on your fellow colleagues, you double your effort and become very useful to the team. Your anger emotion is replaced with pride and self-appreciation. Your team becomes very proud of you and your boss is proven wrong.

Factors that influence displacement psychology.

A person’s age.

The older we get, the more inclined to use displacement psychology we get.  Children freely confront any mistreatment or discomfort without pretense or care about how powerful or richer the person causing it is.

They will cry or push off anyone making them uncomfortable but as they grow older and become teenagers, they learn that reacting against some people like their parents, teachers or guardians can cause punishment, they resort to displacement psychology for example by fighting with their younger siblings or destroying things at home when parents are not seeing.

Displacement psychology is very common among adults because of high inhibitions like punishment, job loss, character assassination, judgment, etc.

The intensity of the negative emotions

Some negative emotions like small insults are easy to brash off without deeper emotional pain or damage. Others are too big to ward off because of the deep and intense emotional pain and damage they cause.

Therefore, the depth and intensity of negative emotions determine how much a person is more prone to using displacement psychology.

Frequency of using displacement psychology.

How often one uses displacement psychology also determines how much they will be prone to using it again. One that uses it every now and then even on not intense negative emotions will use displacement psychology on a lot of things.

One who is so good at managing their emotions will rarely use displacement psychology.

The intensity of the negative emotion determines how prone one uses displacement psychology.

Does displacement psychology work?

To a small extent. The positive impact is mostly guaranteed if one uses transmutation displacement psychology as opposed to other forms of displacement psychology. Often times when we push anger to other uninvolved parties it creates a temporary relief from what we feel but later on the negative feelings return.

We also end up hurting other people who in the first place have nothing to do with what we feel. But because they have little or no risk as opposed to those who caused the pain or anger, we use them as a dumping ground for our negative emotions.

It works if it is done in the right form.

Effects of displacement psychology


Because of unexpressed underlying negative emotions, one less threatening person can do something minor which triggers one into blowing the situation out of proportion resulting in severe consequences like violence charges.

Displacement psychology chain.

A chain of displacement psychology happens when one offloads his negative emotions on a less threatening person who also in turn offloads it on another person of no threat. It carries on creating a chain of people spreading negative emotions.

Unstable relationships.

It is hard to build good relationships with people who you often force to carry crosses of other people. They will either be so inhibited around you or avoid you to prevent being scapegoated. displacement psychology can also hinder you from making friends.


In instances where teamwork is involved divisions may be created where some people who are victims of displacement psychology feel victimized by those more powerful creating divisions between the two.

Blame shifting.

Sometimes the negative feelings we feel are a punishment or consequence of the wrong things or mistakes we did that people are calling us out for. For our failure to hold ourselves accountable and blaming others for our mistakes, we use displacement psychology to deal with negative feelings of guilt which often never provide a permanent solution.


Displacement psychology causes traumas to victims who have nothing to do with the negative emotions of their oppressors. Take, for instance, a child who is scolded by his mother because of the father’s mistakes will get traumatized which can cause long-term physical and physiological harm.

Displacement psychology can cause trauma to victims.

How to deal with displacement psychology tendencies.

We often do not realize that we are using displacement psychology when coping with the negative emotions we feel.

However, after we use it, there is a hunch or an instinctual voice that softly tells us that we are imposing our outbursts on the wrong person. Worse still the negative emotions we try to cope with through displacement psychology do not go away or even bring any solutions.

So, what do we do to manage our negative emotions and also properly use displacement psychology for the benefit of us and those around us?

The best option is to see a psychologist or therapist to assess you and help you avoid using or relying on displacement psychology as a defense mechanism. You can also do the following to deal with your reliance on displacement psychology.

1. Assess yourself

It can be challenging to objectively assess yourself as most people mistake self-assessment for defending their personal interests. You have to be able to detach from your emotions, biases, and prejudices and objectively assess the root cause of your reliance on displacement psychology.

What triggers you to use it, and why do you use it? Figure out the impact of your use of displacement psychology on the people around you and what better options can well serve you and those people.

If you can not do a thorough self-assessment, visit a therapist. A therapist will objectively assess you, your body language, your statements, and your reactions to give you an objective assessment.

From this you can derive better and healthy defense mechanisms to help you manage your emotions maturely.

2. Retrospect and reflect.

Often sit down in solemn silence, enter into your head, and think about past events and situations where you used displacement psychology as a defense mechanism. How did it affect you and the parties involved?

You can also share with a therapist who will help reflect your thoughts back at you so you can objectively view their impact. This can help you discover some often hard to realize contributions to your use of displacement psychology.

For example, you may have insecurities about your children not loving you because of the bad relationship you had with your parents. This can help you figure out how to better handle situations where you are inclined to use displacement psychology.

3. Find options

If you often use displacement psychology and want to deal with your proneness to it, find better substitute options to help you channel your negative emotions or deal with them.

Take for instance, if you find that every time you go back home you yell at your spouse for minor things blown out of proportion because of underlying frustrations at work, find out how you can better deal with those situations.

Good options to do that can be writing down what is in your head, exercising, talking to your partner about it, etc. This will help you catch yourself and stop whenever you are about to use displacement psychology.

Conclusion. We all at some point use displacement psychology. However, over-relying on it can be harmful not only to you but also to people around you. How we often use displacement psychology depends on our ability to manage our emotions. To therefore limit our reliance on it, we need to be in better control of our emotions.

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