Oh, the wonders of displaced feelings! Justin Lioi, LCSW, urges us to put those feelings where they belong (and not hold in or displace them anymore).
One of the first things you learn as a therapist is to keep the psychobabble out of the room. Any speciality’s jargon is kind of excruciating for just about everyone else–and sometimes even for those people within the speciality.
I, for one, would like to retire the word “clinical” from therapy circles—it’s one of those words that everyone thinks they know what it means, but everyone’s talking about something different.
But, ironically, in therapy all these words can be used as a way to distance ourselves from each other. Even if we discuss it and label it in order to facilitate growth.
Still one term that I think does not get bandied about anywhere as much as it should is “displacement.”
I like this one because it’s not as easily finger pointed as others. While many an argument can only worsen with a cry of:
- “I’m not angry—you’re projecting!”
- “Stop intellectualizing!”
We haven’t gotten to a place where someone can yell at someone and say, “You’re displacing!”
It’s not really a thing.
So what is displacement?
There’s the classical school example is when your boss pisses you off and you go home and kick your cat—you’re angry at someone whom you don’t feel you can express your anger at so you take it out on someone (or something) else. Your boss can fire you, your cat can only yowl (or sneak into your bedroom in the middle of the night and sit on your face so you can’t breathe, but that’s an urban legend, or so I’m told).
So it’s different from projection (that’s when I’m angry and I’m telling you that you’re angry). This is just as unconscious, but may be easier to locate in yourself.
Often we can sense some of our emotions by physical symptoms. I’ve gotten to notice that If I have a headache I tend to wonder if I’m holding back any sadness. Often if I’m able to shed some tears—not always an easy thing—the headache miraculously goes away. So instead of taking a bunch of ibuprofen and doing damage to my stomach now I can be more attentive to what I really need.
- Displacement: “Justin, you’re not allowing yourself to feel sadness, so I’m going to press with both hands and feet against your forehead and skull.”
- Justin: “Thank you, self, for telling me to find a quiet space and let go.”
There are other ways to notice this. There are days that I want burst out the Incredible Hulk in the middle of Times Square because nobody is moving. There are days when I enjoy the hustle and bustle. On Day A, I’ve gotten myself to move the focus of my feelings from what are all these damn tourists doing to looking at what the irritation is telling me about my state of mind.
Am I getting irritated at everyone because of something else going on with me? Maybe it’s because I’m hungry or maybe I’m not paying attention to how upset I am about a friend who’s in the hospital. I can’t get mad at him so I’m going to displace that anger on all the fine people who visit our city (and don’t know how to walk) instead of taking care of myself.
Why it’s Important
Getting to know when you’re displacing actually does what so many other people try to do by holding feelings in: it gives you a bit more control. Many people who are so focused on being in control hold in all their “negative” feelings in until their body just can’t stand it anymore. They then explode in a rage, engage in risky behaviors, or say things they really, really don’t mean, but can’t take back.
Or wreak havoc on their insides.
Maybe you have a Greatest Generation father who held in all the feelings for the good of the family because that’s what men do. And those same men maybe ended up suffering from heart issues as well. There’s more and more evidence that a lifetime of holding in powerful emotions can contribute to disease (the Greatest Generation American Meal Plan didn’t help either.)
The control that you get back is in the greater understanding of yourself and the expression of your feelings toward whoever they are actually meant for, but in a non-destructive way.
- If you are angry at your boss you can learn how to express this in a way that’s assertive and may even win you some more respect.
- If you are sad at a funeral–a perfectly appropriate place to show sadness—you can learn how to express that grief.
Or at the very least you can choose to hold in that feeling until you are somewhere it can be expressed. If you’re sick and tired of your senator you can find ways to put that feeling into action instead of just getting a bunch of drinks every time he or she says something that makes you cringe. You can channel that energy into electing the new candidate. You can learn meditation, work out, and find what works for you because now you’re not yelling at your kids, picking a fight with the neighbor, or letting “little things” mean so much more than you rationally know that they do.
What you need to begin to note is that it’s not the feeling that’s the problem. I think that’s what people hear when they want to send someone to “Anger Management.”
It’s not the anger that’s the problem, it’s how (and sometimes where) it’s expressed. Anger management doesn’t teach you to be less angry, it teaches you to take care of your anger. You’ll still have it, but it won’t have you.
Where should we direct it, then?
So displacement is a real thing and I want people to be more aware of it. Are you allowing yourself to direct your feelings toward the person who stirred them up? If not, you can end up like the bully who picks on the littler kid because he doesn’t like that when he goes home his older brother or parent picks on him.
Find a way to be assertive to your boss. Or find a place to express that anger in a constructive way.
Just don’t kick the cat. That’s just mean.
Photo: JD Hancock/Flickr