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Reaction Formation: A Comprehensive Guide

What is Reaction Formation Psychology?

Reaction formation is a term used in psychology to describe a defense mechanism people may use to reject how, unconsciously, they or their ego really feel. Instead, someone behaves in a way that is exactly the opposite and often at the extreme in an amplified or exaggerated way.

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Defense mechanisms in themselves are not necessarily a bad thing. Many people use defense mechanisms unconsciously as coping strategies from time to time, particularly as a means of addressing anxiety or if they feel threatened. Defense mechanisms are often an unconscious way to protect and buy time to deal with a situation in a healthy way but they can affect a person’s wellbeing, and other people around them, particularly if left unchecked.

Reaction Formation Definition

The concept of reaction formation was originally developed by Sigmund Freud in the early 1900s with regard to sexuality. Other social scientists have further expanded on the theory since then within different contexts. In definitions, the Freudian concept of ‘ego’ is often referenced as the part of the self that constructs the defense. The American Heritage Science Dictionary defines reaction formation as, “A defense mechanism by which an objectionable impulse is expressed in an opposite or contrasting attitude or behavior.” (Retrieved April 5, 2018)

What this means is the person not only acts in the direct opposite way to their feelings, impulses, or desires, but they may overcompensate in order to convince themselves, and others, that they are not who, or what, they feel compelled to reject. It is more than a fake it until you make it internal drive. The original impulse or feeling of the ego isn’t replaced but is instead only covered over by engaging in the opposite attitudes and behavior.

Social and cultural influences can play a large part in the use of reaction formation as a coping mechanism. An individual who may not have the same shared values expected of their immediate or wider family, community or society may unconsciously reject their own feelings in order to continue to feel like they belong or risk rejection. Equally, if an individual’s true feelings are morally or legally unacceptable within society the person’s drive to deny these and overcorrection may occur.

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Reaction formation is often characterized by polarized thinking or pairs of opposites. Something is either this or that, whether it is good or bad, black or white, love or hate, right or wrong – finding a middle ground or a happy medium is not part of the equation. It is usually behavior or attitudes seen or perceived as bad that is reacted to. The result is overboard behavior and attitudes that are perceived as good so the person feels protected from any risk of seeming to be outside the norm.

This type of behavior is usually compulsive; it is difficult for a person to control. The intrinsic need of the ego to protect itself and prevent others from seeing and experiencing what they are really feeling comes from a place of self-preservation rather than one of dishonesty. The reaction formation behavior can become obsessive, with the individual becoming argumentative and defensive if challenged or questioned.

Reaction formation as a defense mechanism is an unconscious reaction as opposed to a conscious response. An impulsive reaction can be hard to control as compared to a measured and considered response at the best of times. There are many factors at play – a person’s identity or their sense of self, their feelings of acceptance within their community, and their overall self-esteem.

Reaction Formation Examples

Some examples of situations where reaction formation may manifest as an ego-defense mechanism include the following:

  • Sexuality: A person who has been socialized to believe that intimate same-sex relationships are wrong or sinful, but is attracted to members of their same-sex. They may be overtly public or promiscuous with heterosexuality or marry someone of the opposite sex to prove they are not gay. They may be very vocal about being anti-gay or homophobic in order to fit in as one of the boys, or not be seen to go against the spiritual belief system they have been raised in.
  • Family/Parenting: An absent parent or a parent who does not feel they have bonded or have any affection for a child or other family members, including in-laws, may overcompensate with gifts and gestures. On the other hand, a parent not wishing to spoil their children may be an overly critical parent. The idealization of what constitutes a perfect family can result in reaction formation if an individual is not able to come to terms with the reality.
  • Addictions: A person with an addiction, whether alcohol or other drugs may be a proponent of abstinence, harsh reforms, or penalties for substance abuse, but not be able to see or acknowledge their own dependence and addiction.
  • Culture/Ethnicity: A person with beliefs that people of other ethnicities, cultures, or races are inferior to their own may go out of their way to support and publically advocate for minority groups.  Alternatively, someone who feels shame for their own culture may seek acceptance from another culture by adopting their beliefs and values.
  • Conflict: Rather than confront any actual or potential conflict with another individual or address any feelings of dislike a person may go out of their way to be overly kind and nice to people they do not naturally gel with.

Other Defense Mechanisms

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There are many types of ego-defenses people commonly use to distance themselves from perceived harm and keep safe. Some of these include:

  • Denial: If something is just too much to cope with or too big to handle, a person may refuse to accept what has happened, or is happening in their lives. They may simply refuse to believe it is true and act as if nothing has happened. For example, an alcoholic who denies the effect their drinking has on themselves and those around them. Or someone who only smokes on social occasions may not consider themselves a smoker.
  • Projection: If a person doesn’t have insight or awareness of their own behavior and attitudes, they may attribute and project what they are unable to acknowledge about themselves, and lay blame on others for their own actions. For example, a person that does not like their boss may convince themselves that their boss does not like them even though there are no indicators that say they do.
  • Displacement: Displacement is when somebody redirects their feelings about someone or something onto another person or object. In other words, they act out on impulse when they have not felt like they have managed a situation well, or got their own way but focus elsewhere. For example, lashing out physically or verbally at family members instead of working through conflict with work colleagues.
  • Sublimation: Sublimation is also redirecting feelings to another source, but this time in a more positive or constructive way. For example, using music or art as a medium to relieve stress and express emotions that are not socially acceptable to display, or playing an aggressive sport.
  • Repression: With repression, a person unconsciously blocks a painful event, situation, thought, or condition completely. The memory is buried by the ego, but not gone forever. If asked, they will say they have no recollection of the disturbing memory.  People may also experience a form of repression when they forget to go to an appointment or a meeting they were previously dreading.
  • Regression: When a person uses regression as a defense mechanism, they revert back to behavior or an attitude from a previous developmental stage as a means. For example, an older child starting to re-wet their bed, a newly independent teenager becoming overly dependent and childlike again, or an adult throwing a toddler-like tantrum.
  • Disassociation: Dissociation involves a person detaching themselves emotionally and mentally from a person or situation. At one end of the scale, daydreaming is a form of disassociation as a way of coping with boredom. On the other end, disassociation can be a reaction to abuse and trauma. A person may fantasize about how the problem can be solved but unable to take steps to remedy it. Or a person may disengage with their surroundings and people in their lives.

All ego-defense mechanisms can play a role in protecting a person from what they may feel is overwhelming. However, they may not be effective and can become habitual ways of managing stress that may not be the most beneficial in the long term.

Closing Thoughts on Reaction Formation

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Reaction formation is one of the more complex defense mechanisms. A clinician or mental health professional will take into consideration whether a person’s attitudes and behavior are blatant, overly exaggerated, inflexible, compulsive, and hard for them to control. Whether a person tends to view life in a strictly delineated or binary way can also be a factor in whether they are masking their true feelings. Reaction formation is a defensive mechanism to cope with feelings, impulses, and desires – the key may be to find a way to understand self-acceptance and/or how to meet in the middle.

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