Kick the cat (or kick the dog) is a metaphor used to describe how a relatively high-ranking person in an organisation or family displaces (see below) their frustrations by abusing a lower-ranking person, who may in turn take it out on their own subordinate.
In psychology, displacement is an unconscious defence mechanism whereby the mind substitutes either a new aim or a new object for goals felt in their original form to be dangerous or unacceptable.
Origin of the Idiom
The term has been used at least since the 19th century. According to author John Bradshaw, humans were far more cruel to cats at that time, to the extent that kicking one was not perceived to be unusual and hence entered the language as a popular idiom.
The concept was reinforced in British culture by a scene in the Blackadder episode Nob and Nobility in which Edmund Blackadder kicks the cat when annoyed, and the cat bites the mouse, and the mouse bites Baldrick.
In current usage, the name envisions a scenario where an angry or frustrated employee comes home from work looking for some way to take out his anger, but the only thing present is the cat. He physically abuses it as a means of relieving his frustration, despite the cat playing no part in causing it.
Workplace or Family Dynamics
Kicking the cat is commonly used to describe the behaviour of staff abusing co-workers or subordinates as a mechanism to relieve stress. This behaviour can result in a chain reaction, where a higher-ranking member of the company abuses their subordinate, who takes it out on their own subordinate, and so on down the line. This domino effect can also be seen in family dynamics, where the father yells at the mother who yells at the older child who yells at the younger child who yells at the pet.
Blaming others can lead to kicking the dog where individuals in a hierarchy blame their immediate subordinate, and this propagates down a hierarchy until the lowest rung (the “dog”). A 2009 experimental study has shown that blaming can be contagious even for uninvolved onlookers.
According to Psychology Today, “Anger and frustration in one part of life can lead us to lash out at innocent people (or pets) in another.” The technical term for this kind of behaviour is “displaced aggression”.
Kicking the cat is looked upon unfavourably and viewed as a sign of poor anger management. According to author Steve Sonderman, “Men funnel 90 percent of their emotions through anger” and may “kick the cat” as a substitute for grief, anxiety or other emotions. Psychology author Raj Persaud suggests that people “kick the cat” as a means of catharsis because they fear expressing their full emotions to the peers and colleagues.