In psychoanalysis, what is displacement?
Displacement occurs when a person unconsciously replaces an idea or object with another. The replacement involves a shift from a threatening or unacceptable goal (idea or object) to one less threatening and more acceptable. A typical example of displacement: A husband has a bad day at work. Particularly, his boss is being too demanding. Since the husband fears losing his job, he avoids confronting his boss. So, he takes out his frustration on his wife, unconsciously concluding that she is less threatening. He has thus displaced his anger towards his boss to his wife.
Theorists and psychoanalysts, subsequent to Feud, have had differing theories on just how displacement functions. Jacques Lacan was a psychoanalyst interested in linguistics. He proposed that displacement was much like the poetic use of metonymy. In metonymy, a concept is referred to by something else with which it is associated. For example, to "give someone a hand" could mean to applaud or to help with some work; it does not literally mean to give them an actual hand. We say "hand" because hands are used to applaud or to do work.
In metonymy, the shift is from one word to another but the meaning is the same. In displacement, the shift is from one idea or thing to another (from boss to wife) but the emotion (in our above example) of anger is the same. Here metonymy and displacement are similar, but the applications are different. Metonymy is a poetic figure of speech. Displacement is a usually unconscious self-defense mechanism. The husband displaces his anger for his boss towards his wife because he feels that it is safer (in terms of keeping his job) to take it out on her than it would be to take it out on his boss.
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