Mirror Mirror on the Wall: Displacement Psychodynamic Therapy


Case Study: Displacement Psychodynamics in Psychology

By Elyce Kiperman-Gordon, MS, LCMHC, NCC, owner of The Feeling Expert®, an evidence-based and holistic psychotherapy practice, located in Boca Raton. She is a Board Certified, licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor, offering a range of therapeutic approaches to treat anxiety, depression, trauma, and relationship issues. Elyce is an Internal Family Systems Specialist (IFS) and a Certified International Integral Sound Healing Therapist. She can be reached at (844) CAN-HEAL or Elyce@TheFeelingExpert.com.

The Patient: Louise, a 43-year-old, divorced woman came to me with the goal of improving her tense relationship with her mother. Throughout her life, Louise felt her mother was always in her business and trying to make all of her decisions for her. Louise noted that her mother expects to know everything that is going on with her, her kids, and her finances, and wants to go everywhere with her, even on vacation. She indicated that ever since her divorce five years ago, her mother feels scared to let Louise do anything on her own, and as a result, things have gotten more stressful. Though she is extremely close to her mother, she feels her mother is overbearing and tries to control every bit of her daily life which has negatively impacted their relationship. She wished to be more independent, but if she brought up any issue to her mother, the conflict would begin.

The Diagnosis: 

After our initial session, we were able to determine that this is a relational problem. Louise showed a pattern of angry responses toward her mother, which appeared to be a displacement of the primary relational conflict. Displacement is an unconscious defense mechanism. It is the involuntary transfer of emotions from one individual over to another person or occurrence that the mind then perceives as a more acceptable and less threatening situation.

During our conversations, Louise recognized she frequently leaned on her mother to assist in making important decisions for her and her family. But then afterward, she would feel annoyed and guilty for allowing her mother to take over once more, and she would become angry towards her mother and blame her for meddling in her personal life. She was also frustrated that she was lacking self-confidence in her own capacity to make decisions and that she realized that her insecurity had only increased following her divorce. She stressed that it was difficult for her to express her real desires or to ever disagree with her mother’s opinions, because of the fear of losing her support or disappointing her.

Instead of facing her underlying problems and insecurities, she was displacing her emotions of fear and frustration onto her mother through anger. It was easier to point out her mother’s behaviors and motives as meddling and taking over her life since it seemed more manageable than to look at her feelings of inadequacy. Displacing emotions onto a family member can often lead to conflict in the relationship. Not only does it not fix the situation, but it can push people away.

The Treatment: 

We used a technique called interpretation that is used in psychodynamic therapy. The main goal of our counseling sessions concentrated on gaining a deeper understanding of the unconscious influences or repressed emotions that might be shaping Louise’s interactions with her mother. We worked to help her become more conscious of her motivations, beliefs, and actions. She was then able to identify the current patterns and behaviors that were connected to her anger. Once she had a better understanding of what was happening, she was able to alleviate the inner tension she was experiencing. People often develop certain ways of responding to problems without even being aware of those tendencies or habits. Psychodynamic therapy helps individuals recognize unconscious behavioral patterns, how they can cause conflict in relationships, and how to express emotions in a healthier way. Feelings, motives, and decisions can be influenced by our past experiences as they get stored in the unconscious, so they can affect how we react in future relationships.

As we progressed in our sessions together, Louise became aware of some of the difficulties she has faced since her divorce. She often felt overwhelmed by the pressure of having to handle everything alone and make decisions for herself as a single mother, leading to self-doubt and insecurity. When she felt unsure, she would reach out to her mother for advice. That’s when she realized she would become angry at her mother for giving her the advice she requested because she felt like a child again. As she became more aware of that pattern, she was able to gain a greater perspective, rethink her narratives, and discover emotions she had been neglecting. Louise realized that she was blaming her mother by displacing her feelings of anger, insecurity, and lack of confidence in herself onto her mother. She noticed she was extremely upset at herself for allowing others to make her decisions because she did not feel confident enough to trust and feel safe enough to make them on her own. We were able to brainstorm strategies to help her deal more effectively with the original source of frustration and learn new habits to replace her reactions with authentic emotions. We also introduced the use of “I” statements and strengthened her skills with boundary setting to help encourage Louise to communicate her feelings more effectively and trust her own decisions.


Understanding displacement through the use of the psychodynamic therapeutic approach, Louise was able to gain insight into the relationship with her mother and safely explore her feelings of anger. The therapy helped her to discover how her past was influencing her present-day relationships and understand the beliefs she had formed based on those experiences. Louise was able to clearly see how she had been carrying around old beliefs about her self-worth and how it impacted her interactions with others, particularly her mother. She was also able to recognize how she was avoiding dealing with hurtful emotions and turning to the displacement of her anger as a defense mechanism to alleviate the anger she felt towards herself for not being capable of making her own decisions.


Disclaimer: Names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.