What is the relevance of the displacement defense mechanism to pastoral counseling?

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Jessica Pope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A good counselor doesn't explain a lot or offer a lot of solutions. Instead, she helps a person work through their own problems and come to their own conclusions. The client is the one engaged in the critical work of self-development. The counselor is there to guide, support, structure, and facilitate the process. To be effective, a counselor needs to have a very broad and deep understanding of human behavior and psychology. 

Displacement is a common defense mechanism (i.e. behavior humans use to cope with negative feelings). It occurs when a person has a goal or a desire that they believe to be either impossible to achieve, or unacceptable in the first place. In displacement, a person acts out their perceived impossible goal on an individual that has nothing to do with their true goal. Here's one example:

Imagine a person who is subject to verbal abuse, beratement, and constant mistreatment by his boss at work. He wants to defend himself, but he doesn't know how to stand up for himself. Perhaps he fears being fired, or maybe he is ashamed. He wishes he could change the situation, but he doesn't honestly believe he can. Deep down, he knows he'll never stand up to his boss. Yet at home, the man acts out his goal by being verbally abusive toward his children. Though his children have nothing to do with his real goal (to stand up to his boss), he displaces his anger and aggressiveness onto them. This is an example of displacement. In most cases, it is a maladaptive behavior with negative consequences.

A competent counselor will be able to recognize when a person is using the displacement defense mechanism, and will have tools at her disposal to help the client learn better, more adaptive coping mechanisms. In the case of man who is subject to abuse at work, the counselor may begin to work with him on assertiveness strategies. At the same time, she may explore with her client the possibility that the anger he displays toward his children at home is displaced. Exploring this possibility provides space for the man to begin to heal his relationship with his children, and with other folks in his life.