Understanding Displacement While Grieving

Grief is complex. I think we all can agree on this. Grief twists, turns, changes, and evolves. A number of factors influence how a person experiences and copes with grief: interpersonal, psychological, logistical, physical, spiritual, behavioral and many other facets of a person’s life.

Needless to say, it takes a lot of effort to try and understand the many different experiences related to grief. However, whether you are a professional working with someone grieving, a person supporting a friend or family member in grief, or if you are grieving yourself, learning more about grief is really important. Sometimes it is enough to be compassionate (and self-compassionate) but, there are so many misconceptions about grief, often that isn’t enough.

What is displacement?

Displacement is what Sigmund Freud (yeah, we’re travellin’ back a ways) described as a ‘defense mechanism‘. Defense mechanisms are behaviors that people use to protect themselves from unpleasant internal conflicts, thoughts, and emotions.

Defense mechanisms are tricky because they happen on an unconscious level, so people usually don’t know they’re using them. By doing so, they protect themselves from having to acknowledge, experience, admit, or cope with the emotion that is causing them unconscious anxiety. Displacement is just one of many defense mechanisms. Other defense mechanisms like denial, repression, and projection can impact grief, but today we want to focus specifically on displacement.

Displacement is when a person has unpleasant thoughts or emotions towards someone, but instead of taking these emotions out on the original source, they take them out on another person or object. Displacement can happen when a person is unable to express their emotions towards the source that is causing that emotion. This could be because it would have negative consequences. It could be because they don’t actually know what is causing emotion (sometimes it is harder to know what is bringing up feelings than you’d imagine!). And sometimes it is because the source isn’t an actual person (like, say, cancer, drugs, God, the universe, etc).

Here’s an example of displacement…

Mary’s boss has been yelling at her all day. She thinks her boss is being unfair and overly harsh, which makes her feel angry and frustrated. Unfortunately, Mary’s boss is a hot-head and she knows if she responds or confronts him that he will fire her.  Mary is relieved when quitting time comes but continues to feel a little on edge. 

When Mary walks through the front door at home she finds the house is a little untidy. Normally Mary wouldn’t mind the mess, but on this day she calls her son downstairs and lays into him. Afterward, Mary feels ashamed at how hard she was on her son. Since Mary is an enlightened soul, she spends some time in self-reflection. She eventually realizes she displaced the anger she felt towards her boss onto her son. 

How does one experience displacement while grieving?

After a loved one dies, grieving people feel a number of intense and complicated emotions (duh). Sometimes you feel these things towards things like faith, illness, the world, or the person who died. For example, you may feel let down by God for allowing your loved one to die. In many of these instances, it’s impossible to express your emotions towards the actual source (i.e. the person who has died, faith, grief, etc). So, instead, you displace your emotions onto someone or something else. 

Sometimes the displacement is obvious – you know exactly when and why it is happening. Other times you just find yourself being more irritable, annoyed, or angry at the people around you, even when they have done nothing wrong. It can be complicated because often your rational-brain knows that they haven’t done anything, while your emotional-brain can’t help but lash out. 

Who do we displace on to? 

Though there is no way to say who the object of displacement might be, there are some people who often take the brunt of displacement:

  • People who are telling us news we don’t want to hear. We’re upset about the news, but we take it out on the person. If you lashed out at doctors or nurses at the hospital or hospice when your loved one died, you wouldn’t be the first and you won’t be the last. 
  • Someone in proximity but who is of a lower consequence to lash-out at. Your boss isn’t being sympathetic to how hard it is to come back to work after a loss, but because you fear expressing that frustration to your boss, you take it out on a colleague or someone you manage.  
  • The people you love and trust most. Weird, I know!  But when you’re angry at the universe for taking your loved one, you may find yourself repeatedly lashing out at a parent, partner, or best friend because you know they will still love you.  
Tips for Coping with Displacement

Immediately following a death, you may find your coping resources taxed by high emotion, stress, and exhaustion. You may take your anger at the situation out on the nearest person or object. So whether your grieving or supporting someone grieving, a couple of quick tips for coping:

Don’t take it personally if someone is experiencing displacement while grieving

If you’re supporting someone grieving, I’m sure you’re a pro at staying calm and not taking things personally, it still feels bad to think you’ve upset, angered, or disappointed the very person you wanted to help and support.  We certainly can’t say that displacement accounts for any and all negative interactions.  However, if a person’s anger seems out of proportion or misdirected, it may help to remind yourself of the many different invisible factors, including displacement, that could be influencing the situation.

If you’re grieving, cut yourself some slack. Recognizing that you’ve lashed out at someone who wasn’t the actual object of your anger doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. It means grief is complicated and you did something that is very common. Being aware of it is the first step to managing it, so be kind to yourself.

Be open to apologies

If you’re supporting someone grieving, there is a a chance they will catch themselves after one of these displacement moments. They’ll come to you and apologize and, depending on how you’re feeling or how much they’ve put you through, it might feel hard to accept the apology. Try to have some empathy for why this displacement event might have happened. And then try to forgive. That said, if it becomes a chronic issue it is important to have a conversation to address it.

If you’re grieving, there is a good chance you’ve recognized at least a couple of moments of displacement while grieving. Whether it was recent or in the past, taking a few minutes to acknowledge and apologize can go a long way.

Keep an eye out in the future

If you’re grieving, knowing about displacement can go a long way in anticipating and recognizing it. On especially tough grief days (holidays, anniversaries, or even just days when you know grief emotions are high) be on the lookout for moments when you might feel yourself displacing those general grief feelings onto those around you. Try to give yourself a few extra pauses before reacting and build some extra self-care in on the hardest grief days.

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