-“Doctor…when I arrive home, I can’t help lashing out at the kids—feel so guilty.”
Verschiebung. This German term can be translated as “Shift” or “move.” It was used by Sigmund Freud to describe a particular psychological defense mechanism; it entails the shifting or displacement of an aggressive and potentially dangerous emotion from an important person or object into other ones that are less relevant and often lame. [i] Our patient had many situations of emotional frustration in her blue- collar job with her despotic boss and his unreasonable demands at work but she hid her anger towards him and the system, fearful of losing her job in tough times. On many occasions, she scolded her children a little bit too much for not completing their homework or for just some obnoxious but inconsequential pranks.
This unconscious defense mechanism is an expression of what Freud had dubbed as the mortido—our basic aggressive drive. There are three basic mechanisms:
- Displacement of object
- Displacement of attribution
- Bodily displacements
A – Displacement of object
Some acrid emotions are displaced from one person into another one. Our patient’s anger toward her boss—who has authority and power to decide on her economic survival—had indeed been transferred into her children—who are totally innocent and incapable of posing a threat to her as they are dependent on her. This situation will sadly become much more common in our modern societies because the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has furloughed millions of workers worldwide and many of them will not be able to return to their old jobs due to inevitable closure of businesses. In the much more genteel days of Freud’s practice in nineteenth century Vienna, he put the example of children’s animal phobias; in order “to sanitize” their fears towards their parents, some children develop aversion to certain animals: dogs, cats, spiders.
B – Displacement of attribution
A personality trait that we might see in ourselves but that we consider as socially unacceptable or even reprehensible will be transferred to another person or entity. The typical example is a closeted homosexual who engages in continuous joking about gays or other LGBTQ individuals to perform a psychological projection. We can also find extreme examples in History like the horrific persecution of gays in Nazi Germany conducted by Ernst Röhm, co-founder with Adolf Hitler of the Sturmabteilung (SA); he was a barely disguised homosexual that was executed in the middle of an orgy by the German Army—fearful that his formations were gaining too much strength in the street—during the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. [ii]
C – Bodily Displacements
It consists of the attribution of a sensation experienced by one part of the body to another distant one; one of the commonest instances is when an oral sensation “is experienced” as coming from the vagina. John Cleland wrote a book in 1748 titled Fanny Hill or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure [iii]where he used funny euphemisms in order to refer to body parts that were not openly mentioned in prudish Albion; he dubbed the vagina as the nethermouth. He was a rebellious writer and some sources claimed that he finished it when he was serving a prison sentence for a bad debt. He printed it in two installments in November 1748 and February 1749; he was released from prison in March 1748 (he graduated from the University of Life…I like him)
“I picked two fights at work. One with a customer and one in a Slack [iv] queue with my colleagues, and I regret both terribly. They are possibly the first two fights I have ever instigated in my life. Wish I could have hashtagged those. #furstfightbearwithme.”
Ms. Chrissie, a lovely, clever, funny fellow writer and blogger [v], honestly shared her unfortunate event in a recent blog, which triggered this reaction from yours truly:
“The little anger that you inadvertently vented against two individuals is part of the humongous one building up in the street. It happened to almost all of us lately.”
Unfortunately as we slowly come out of our forced Social Distancing and we interact more with our fellow human beings, we will discover that not only they, but us as well, are displaying a shorter fuse and we might snap at the slightest incident. We might be able to contain ourselves outside our homes, with an occasional “mea culpa” if we allow our emotions to get the best of ourselves in the survival frenzy. What we have to keep clearly in mind that we cannot—absolutely cannot—bring that heightened state of alertness and potential aggressiveness to our dear families. Maybe we should go back to the old ways from our ancestors to vent off that stress.
Get the punching bag from the attic. Paste the image of your boss right up.
Go. And do not pull any punches. Sweet.
(This article was based on our upcoming new book Emotional Frustration- the hushed plague)
[i] Sigmund Freud, New Introductory letters on Psychoanalysis, George Allen and Unwin, London, January 1940,
[iii] John Cleland, Fanny Hill, Gray Rabbit Publishing, London, 2018.
Stay distant. Stay safe. Stay beautiful.
What do you think? Please tell us.
Don’t leave me alone.