What Is Displaced Aggression?

Anger is a normal and common emotion, often an automatic reaction to an undesirable situation. Sometimes, though, we let our anger control our actions and take it out on someone unrelated to the situation that angered us. This is called displaced anger. Whether you've taken your anger out on your partner, children, or the barista at your local coffee shop, you've likely displaced your anger at some point in your life.

This article defines displaced aggression, discusses its cause, provides examples of displaced aggression, and offers tips on when and how to seek help.

A woman yells into the phone, displacing aggression.

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What Is Displaced Aggression?

Aggression is commonly defined as behavior intended to harm another person. Displaced aggression occurs when we direct our anger toward someone completely innocent and uninvolved in the situation that made us angry.

Similarly, triggered displaced aggression occurs when someone does something to cause a minor annoyance and receives a disproportionately aggressive response. For example, your boss may have done something that makes you slightly angry or frustrated, but instead of resolving it directly with them, you go home and yell at your kids for not picking up their toys.

Displaced Aggression Is a Cycle

Often, displaced aggression continues as a cycle. For example, you may come home yelling at your spouse after an incident at work, who may then yell at their friend the next day, who might then displace their anger and yell at their kids.

What Causes Displaced Aggression?

There are two main reasons why we might displace our anger:

  1. Expressing anger toward the person who caused the feeling could bring consequences, such as in the case of a boss or person in power.
  2. The person or thing that caused the anger is not there or is intangible, like having rotten weather or losing an item.

When we let anger build and don't give ourselves time to process the feeling or think about how we'd like to react, the less control we have and the more likely it is to come out as aggression. This may also lead to expressing anger toward someone or something unrelated to the source of the feeling.

Anger As a Trait

Some people more prone to aggression have "trait anger" and are characteristically more prone to become angry or aggressive in certain situations. People with trait anger might need to be more aware of their anger to avoid displaced aggression.

Examples of Displaced Aggression

Displaced aggression occurs when a person or thing that was not the main source of our anger gets the brunt of our reaction. Here are some examples:

  • You find out via email that you didn't get a deserved promotion. Your spouse walks into the room to ask you a question, and you respond angrily and tell them to leave you alone.
  • You're feeling hungry and haven't eaten in a while. Your son then asks if he can hang out with his friends after you've already said no. You respond by yelling at him and sending him to his room.
  • The school principal tells you that you need to serve detention for a minor offense. Given their position of power, you accept the punishment. On your way back to class, your friend asks if you'll be at soccer practice later. You respond by yelling at them to mind their own business.

How to Deal With Displaced Aggression

Anger leads us to have less agency, or control, over our body and reactions. This refers to paying attention to a situation while it's happening and monitoring your reaction to prevent responding uncontrollably. Here are some ways to do this:

  • Start to notice what anger feels like in your body and use these as cues or signs to gain control before things progress.
  • When you notice anger, walk away or focus on another activity before responding.
  • Do something physically active to move away from the energy that anger creates. Exercise, tear up an old magazine, or lift weights.
  • If your mind is racing, try a calming or grounding exercise. Look around you and name all the objects that are the same color.

Once you are calmer, plan your response. If you're angry with someone's words or actions, think about how to clearly and fairly express your concerns. If you're mad about a situation, write down what you can and cannot control, and make an action plan for what you can manage.

When to Seek Help

For some people, controlling anger before it becomes aggression toward others can be difficult. Whether aggression is displaced or intended, it's important to have the self-control to avoid becoming harmful or violent. If anger-prevention tools aren't working or you often feel angry, it's a good idea to seek out a mental health provider for help with anger management and/or find a local support group.


Displaced aggression occurs when we take our anger out on someone or something that did not play a role in initiating the feeling. It most often occurs because the person or thing causing the anger is not there or is intangible (e.g., inclement weather or missing a train). It may also happen if the person causing the anger is in a position of power and negative consequences could result from taking action against them.

Utilizing anger management techniques may help, such as walking away from the situation, exercising, using grounding or relaxation tools, and focusing on the things you can control in a situation. However, if you often feel angry or struggle to control your aggression, talk to a mental health provider or look for an anger-management support group.

A Word From Verywell

Feeling out of control can be scary, and taking your anger out on an innocent person can bring about guilt, sadness, and frustration. It can be beneficial to learn how to express your anger in healthier, safer ways instead of letting it build and taking it out on others.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the different types of aggression?

    There are many types of aggression, including hostile or instrumental, direct or indirect, active or passive, overt or covert, legitimate or illegitimate, displaced or triggered displaced, and personological or situational.

  • What is displaced behavior theory?

    Developed by Sigmund Freud, displaced behavior theory is the idea that people behave in ways irrelevant to the situation they are in due to the discomfort of that particular situation. This usually happens if someone is conflicted between two desires and puts their energy into a more comfortable behavior than the alternative. For example, playing with your hair, biting your nails, or touching your face instead of approaching a person you are nervous to talk to.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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