Reaction Formation: The Origin, Good, & Bad Aspects

Our lives are interwoven with different experiences, each unique and special in its own right. Every scenario evokes different emotions, builds up memories, and forms our thoughts and behavioral patterns. Some we can view as inherently good. Others, not so much.

Still, dealing with negative feelings and uncomfortable circumstances is all a part of the human experience. An integral part of life, through which we grow as individuals. However, some of these situations can be so stressful as to far surpass our ability to cope.

When that happens, our subconscious mind will don the cape of the “defender of the conscious”, creating various barriers known as “defense mechanisms” to help our psyche deal with the negative implications of said situations. One of these mechanisms is reaction formation.

Like any other form of defense, physical or mental, reaction formation has its strengths and weaknesses. While it can be difficult learning how to identify formation reactions and what reactions are formation reactions, knowing what they are is essential for our overall well-being. It can help us better understand our own thoughts and behaviors, as well as how to use this strategy favorably, to our ultimate benefit.

Who Discovered Reaction Formation?

The concept of reaction formation is more than a century old. It was first introduced in 1894 by Sigmund Freud, a famous Austrian neurologist and the father of psychoanalysis as we know it today. In his book “The Neuro-Psychoses of Defense”, Freud observed that individuals who experience anxiety, guilt, and shame often repress these emotions, as well as thoughts and desires that led to them forming. 

However, he also noticed that, in some cases, said individuals express thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and behaviors that are in exact contradiction with their real feelings, thoughts, or values. In psychology, this pattern of behavior became known as “reaction formation”, and can be summed up in the following definition:

  • Reaction formation is a defense mechanism that involves repression of a person’s true feelings or desires and expression of the opposite behavior or attitude.

Since Freud’s initial discovery, other psychologists and researchers, including his own daughter Anna, studied and expanded upon this concept. Today, reaction formation is widely recognized as one of the most common defense mechanisms that can manifest in various ways and impact virtually every aspect of a person’s life.

The Theory Behind Reaction Formation

Freud believed that reaction formation was a way for the ego (the conscious, rational part of the mind) to protect itself from unacceptable impulses of the id (the unconscious part of the psyche that governs our instincts and desires).

Freud theorized that, by creating an opposite (and, often, exaggerated) response, an individual can distance themselves psychologically from the unacceptable emotions or thoughts they’re experiencing. 

In simple terms, he believed that reaction formation is a way for a person to shield their ego and alleviate the feelings of guilt, shame, or anxiety brought on by said impulses.

What Are The Negative Effects Of Reaction Formation

Are There Any Benefits Of Reaction Formation?

Reaction formation is mostly associated with negative consequences and, therefore, viewed in poor light. However, there is a positive side to it. Unlike repression, which is a wholly primitive defense mechanism, reaction formation has a conscious component. This means that it can have some benefits, especially in social situations, where people are expected to act in certain ways, according to the established rules and norms.

Here are some examples of situations where reaction formation can prove beneficial:

  • Coping with stress and anxiety: Let’s say that a person has a fear of public speaking, yet has to give a speech in front of a large audience. Instead of letting anxiety cripple them, they can employ reaction formation to appear self-assured and confident.
  • Impulse control: In this scenario, we’ll assume that a person is in the middle of a heated argument that severely agitates them and spikes their stress levels. Rather than lashing out verbally or physically, they can use reaction formation to approach the conversation in a calm, controlled, and constructive manner.
  • Conforming to social norms: Lastly, let’s observe a person who is uncomfortable with public displays of affection, but has to attend a dinner party hosted by their partner’s parents. In this case, reaction formation can make them show exaggerated feelings of affection toward their partner, which is in line with their parent’s expectations. 

As evident from the examples, reaction formation can have some benefits. However, it has its limitations and the potential to cause an array of problems. As such, it needs to be used sparingly and, more importantly, mindfully.

What Are The Negative Effects Of Reaction Formation?

Relying on reaction formation as a default coping strategy can be detrimental to virtually every aspect of a person’s existence, including their mental and physical health, as well as social well-being.

  • Disconnection: Overusing reaction formation means that a person is distancing themselves from their true emotions and values. In time, this can lead to a fully-blown disconnection which can cause inner conflict and lack of authenticity;
  • Increased (psychological) distress: By masking their genuine emotions, an individual is avoiding addressing their true, root cause, which only prevents them from resolving the issues and moving forward.
  • Emotion suppression: Exhibiting behaviors that are in direct confrontation with a person’s true feelings and beliefs, means that they are failing to acknowledge an integral part of their being. Doing so can lead to an emotional detachment or built-up tension resulting in emotional outbursts.
  • Hindering personal growth: Using reaction formation not only means that a person is avoiding their feelings and thoughts but that they’re also avoiding self-reflection, which is a key component of personal development and fulfillment.

With the above factors in mind, it is easy to conclude how the negative sides of using reaction formation far outweigh the potential benefits. Therefore, it is best to avoid this defense mechanism altogether. Instead, a much better option is to adopt a fully mature coping strategy, such as humor or affiliation. Doing so does involve a lot of hard work and dedication, however, the end result is more than worth it.

Are There Any Benefits Of Reaction Formation

PIVOT Helps You Achieve Emotional Honesty That Will Lead You To A Fulfilled Life

Finding a healthy way to cope with distressing thoughts and emotions can be difficult. Fortunately, nobody said that you have to do it alone. At PIVOT, you can find all the support and guidance you need to overcome an unhealthy reliance on reaction formation and other defense mechanisms that are preventing you from spreading your wings. Our Glass House retreat offers a serene and inspiring environment where you can reflect on your emotions and values in a constructive, healthy way. Rely on our experienced and mindful coaching team to help you explore the underlying causes that may be forcing you to use this coping strategy and to give you the knowledge necessary to reform them into the tools of personal growth.

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