Facets of Displacement

We have probably all heard criticisms of people who quit alcohol or other drugs, only to become “fitness freaks.” Now they channel their mental energies into physical manifestation with tough fitness regimens and customized diets and so forth. Sometimes, such people are disparaged by remarks like, “Big deal, he just traded in his alcohol addiction for a workout addiction.”

First of all, any person who never fought addiction might not have the credentials to voice an opinion about it. And second, is there really anything so wrong about swapping a harmful, destructive lifestyle for a productive, health-giving lifestyle, even if on the surface it looks like just a new addiction?

A thought experiment

A case could be made that anyone who devotes her or his life to serving humanity must be some species of an addict. Consider, for instance, a doctor who leaves a lucrative Hollywood-based reconstructive surgery practice and goes to some remote foreign location with no electricity, to repair the faces of babies born with cleft lips and palates.

That behavior could certainly be branded by concerned others as out of context, and even self-destructive. The successful specialist foregoes a huge chunk of income, and abandons kith and kin, to go far away and risk being caught in the middle of a war or catching some tropical disease. Wouldn’t any reasonable person categorize that as damaging behavior? Perhaps even as self-destructive as being a junkie!

Factually speaking, that doctor is losing money, leaving his spouse and children, and endangering himself. These are classic red flags of addiction. Would his mother-in-law be justified in organizing an intervention, and recruiting other relatives and friends to try and stop such unacceptable behavior?

Variety in facets

It seems like some human situations involve a lot of fuzzy edges, not to mention eliciting strong convictions that can seem like judgment in disguise. Dr. Pretlow has written that displacement mechanisms,

[…] if excessively expressed by the animal, from recurring untenable situations […] may go rogue and become destructive.

Which is exactly what some people believe has happened when a relative or friend decides to follow their heart. They’ve gone rogue and need to be set straight. Take creative individuals, for example. Many artists and musicians are looked at askance by other people in their lives. These fools give up potentially lucrative careers, and ruin their own chances to go on fancy vacations, wear designer clothes, have expensive cars, or even start a family — and for what? To paint pictures or fool around with a guitar.

Pursuing a passion can look an awful lot like an addiction, and can certainly have the same negative effects on a practical level. And sadly, quite a few people feel that creative aspirations ought to be squelched as firmly as alcoholism.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Image by Jonas Bengtsson

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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