Stop kicking the cat; displaced aggression will not solve your problems


Displaced aggression is direction of anger towards someone completely innocent and uninvolved in the situation that made us angry.

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The two men in my house, father and son, got a stomach bug.

“What did you guys eat?” I asked, as they groaned and ran fevers, and I bought more toilet paper. For the five or so days that they battled the illness, we, the ladies, displayed no symptom, so I knew that it was not food poisoning from my kitchen.

They could not recall eating anything together from outside either.

“It must be something from the house. Maybe the water!” Hubby said.

“But we also drink the same water,” I pointed out, then added, “or did you guys use this dish cloth to wipe a cup or something?” I had a dish cloth that was not drying the dishes as well as the pure cotton ones, so had relegated it to hand drying.

“We now use this to wipe hands after doing the dishes, not to dry the dishes,” I explained.

He did not seem to understand my explanation, but come evening when I came home from work, the dish cloth was in trouble.

“That dish cloth should be thrown away!” declared Hubby.

“What did it do?” I asked.

“It made us sick,” our son piped, echoing what he had heard his dad repeat the entire day. They both ganged up on that cloth until I put it away. They eventually got well. It has been a month since the cloth resumed its job at the sink area and no one is complaining. When I asked my son about it, he said, “Well, I think it was not the cloth because we were all using it and you guys did not get sick.”

My dish cloth was merely a victim of displaced aggression.

Very Well Health, a health e-zine, defines displaced aggression as direction of anger towards someone completely innocent and uninvolved in the situation that made us angry. Displaced aggression also extends to instances where a reaction to a slightly annoying situation is extreme. For example, while Hubby is driving and I point out a better way to approach a speed bump than he did, instead of taking my advice, he stops the car, gets out and asks me to take over the driving. This leads to an animated exchange of words, and then we get home and find a toy on the floor near the door, “Can you tidy up the house, now!” I shout at the kids as a way of greeting and our daughter, feelings hurt, kicks the sleeping cat off the carpet. Remember the idiom, ‘Kick the Cat’? This was it. Old English expression was, ‘Kick the Wife’, to refer to the case of a husband who came home from a toxic work environment and directed his frustrations at his wife. The wife, cat and child in these stories are easier targets to redirect aggression, rather than to face the big burly real issue.

Instead of father and son looking inward to find their cause of the illness - which I suspect was eating some fruits before washing their hands - they sacrificed my cloth. The consequences of displaced aggression are dire and include the fact that the deeper issues remain unaddressed, making things worse.

A friend of a friend shared John’s woes with me. His wife had left him after a heated fight when he was diagnosed with fatty liver disease. Without pausing to consider all the possible causes of the diseases, John had, in anger, called his wife from the hospital parking lot.

“The doctor says my liver is fat. You are the reason for this disease!”

“How?” she had asked, incredulous that of all the blaming she could possibly accept, his fatty liver could be on the list.

“Your cooking!”

“What about it?”

“Too much oil…” They had a back and forth, and by the time he got home, she was livid.

“Your fat is from beer and women!” she retorted at one point.

John had stewed himself into an argument, which, at the end of it, he realised, too late that fatty liver was the least of their problems. How many times have we kicked the cat instead of seeking to look inward and heal from our wounds? I sound like a pastor, but let us help John out here. He is now trying to convince his wife that her cooking had nothing to do with his sick liver, that panic made him lash out. That his lifestyle choices are to blame, and that - this is most important – there are no women involved.

Karimi is a wife and mother who believes marriage is worth it.