What is reaction formation?

Reaction formation is a type of defense mechanism in which someone unconsciously redirects the energies of identification to hide true feelings, with the goal of overcoming or suppressing those feelings so that they cannot manifest. Like other defense mechanisms, reaction formation is not a conscious choice, as the person chooses to try to suppress wishes, desires, or beliefs. Instead, it is the mind's attempt at self-protection, and it is done without conscious action. It can also backfire dramatically in some cases.

In reaction formation, someone experiences a wish or desire and behaves in a way contrary to that. This may be because the person is afraid of the desire, feels it is socially unacceptable, or is worried about the consequences of acting on it. Sometimes the reasons for the formation of the reaction are not entirely clear and can be extremely complex. Intense emotions such as love, hate, greed, anger, jealousy, and bitterness may be involved in forming the reaction.

A simple example of reaction formation can be seen on many school grounds. A child who likes a child of a different gender might behave meaningfully toward the object of interest, expressing hate when the child actually experiences the opposite feeling. This also occurs among adults, and is often characterized by the same exaggerated or excessive behavior. Many people have been around people who are overly nice to hide disgust, for example, or who behave in a seemingly altruistic way to mask greed.

The emotions behind reaction formation can be extremely intense and can grow stronger over time. People may become assertive in their emotional responses because persistent denial of their feelings becomes more difficult to maintain. This is something to keep in mind when interacting with someone who seems unusually emotional about something; someone who vociferously and vehemently criticizes homosexuality, for example, might be experiencing reaction formation.

It is possible to undo the work of reaction formation, usually through therapy sessions. The therapist can help the patient explore the reasons behind the intensity of the feeling and the reaction, and help the patient confront the deep inner feelings that are driving the formation of the reaction. People may find this process intense and uncomfortable, but the end result can be better emotional health and the ability to enjoy life more by exploring or at least acknowledging inner desires rather than trying to subvert them.

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