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Displacement

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Sigmund Freud diskutiert am 18. Juli 1929 mit ...

Sigmund Freud on 18 July 1929 by Gustav Klimt at Café Landtmann – The opposition between Eros and death instinct, cultural and instinctual impulse | Oil on canvas, 2000 (Photo credit: Christiaan Tonnis)

In Freudian psychoanalysis displacement is an unconscious defense mechanism where an idea, object (Freudian term that includes other people) or behavior is substituted for another.

Like sublimation, this involves a redirection of mental energy but with displacement the original impulse may be socially acceptable, whereas with sublimation the original impulse is socially unacceptable.

Displacement may occur in dreams when one image stands for another. Or it may occur in a simple substitution of one activity or person for another. When it’s linked with sublimation, displacement might result in humor where the unspeakable is spoken, if in a veiled manner.

Although displacement is usually described as a primary process (the primitive, unconscious part of the psyche that doesn’t follow strict rules about space and time), when it merges with conscious activity it also becomes a secondary process (the newer part of the mind concerned with logic, order and daytime reality). Examples of displacement as a primary and secondary process would be daydreaming, creative acts, and emotional thoughts.¹

¹ Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. Penguin, 1972, pp. 35, 124-125. It should be noted that not everyone accepts Freud’s view of primary and secondary processes and, moreover, that the two are essentially at odds with one another.

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