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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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Sigmund Freud Quote

Sigmund Freud Quote (Photo credit: Psychology Pictures)

Denial is a Freudian defense mechanism in which a harmful or painful aspect of the self (or the subjective content of a distressing experience) is denied. A very broad concept, denial can involve feelings of depression, worthlessness, crankiness and anxiety. According to Melanie Klein, denial can be followed by splitting and projection.

The concept is valuable in helping others overcome traumatic experiences, such as child abuse or, for that matter, in redirecting individuals away from damaging addictions. But the idea can be egregiously misused by non-specialists.

In everyday usage we often hear people saying that someone else is “in denial.” The criticism could refer to some problem that the denying person apparently is not addressing. But those making that judgement often don’t know the whole story behind the (allegedly) denying person’s attitudinal and behavioral choices. So a deeply spiritual person, for instance, might be accused of “being in denial” by a materialistic person who cannot understand why the spiritual person believes and behaves in a certain way.

A word of caution then. Those who say others are in denial might in some instances be telling us more about their own ignorance of the spiritual life than of the slighted person’s avoidance of things they supposedly don’t want to deal with.

Freud himself would not have seen it this way because he was a materialist who didn’t believe in God. And this was, despite all of Freud’s pioneering genius, his greatest flaw and limitation. For any psychological theory that omits the healing power of God’s love is bound to fall short, somewhere along the line.


Defense Mechanism

English: Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud N...

English: Sigmund and his daughter Anna Freud Nederlands: Foto van Sigmund en Anna Freud, op vakantie in de Italiaanse Dolomieten (1913) Česky: Sigmund Freud se svou dcerou Annou (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1922 the pioneering psychologist Sigmund Freud wrote that the defense mechanism is “a general designation for all the techniques which the ego makes use of in conflicts which may lead to neurosis.”¹

The defense mechanism may be useful and adaptive but when inappropriate or out of balance it is regarded as neurotic and potentially destructive.

A defense mechanism arises from anxiety that poses a threat to the psyche. Anxiety may be generated by instinctual tensions, guilt (threats of bad conscience from the superego) or by actual danger.

Freud was close to his daughter, Anna, who became a psychoanalyst in her own right. Anna Freud lists the defense mechanisms as

  1. regression
  2. repression
  3. reaction formation
  4. isolation
  5. undoing
  6. projection
  7. introjection
  8. turning against the self
  9. reversal
  10. sublimation

Of the ten, sublimation always refers to positive, so-called normal behavior and is never deemed neurotic or negative. Additionally, the psychological processes of splitting and denial are usually regarded as defense mechanisms.

It’s interesting to note that the idea of the defense mechanism is worded in such a way so as to make the world seem like a hostile, attacking place. While it’s true that much of human life is about psychological assault and being assaulted, children with a good, loving upbringing have parents (or primary caregivers), family and friends who shield them from many of life’s attacks. Good parenting also knows how to guide the child toward a healthy kind of mastery that includes genuine consideration for the rights of others. From this, kids and adults can experience all the joy and satisfaction that accompanies a mature balance of mastery and considerateness.

Having said this, one might wonder why Freud didn’t take a more positive approach and call these psychological dynamics coping or, perhaps, living mechanisms instead of defense mechanisms. Perhaps Freud’s choice was partly due to the fact that he developed his theories from working with neurotic patients. Also, Freud had a pessimistic, atheistic vision in which his patients, at best, progressed from neurotic anxiety to an apparently normal state of human unhappiness.

By forwarding a psychology which omitted God’s love from the healing process, one could say that, for all his smarts, Freud missed the main point.

¹ Cited in Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1977, p. 28.