Reaction Formation: How To Detect It

This post was updated on Mar 5, 2023

Human beings possess the vast ability to form emotions and thoughts that “complex” doesn’t even begin to describe, let alone explain. Still, along with our incredible ability to think and feel, another trait that defines us as “human” is our inclination or, rather, existential need, to be accepted. To receive approval, affection, and recognition from those that surround us.

To belong.

However, that also means that, at times, we conform our thought, belief, and behavioral patterns to socially established norms deemed acceptable by people around us. Needless to say, that is easier said than done, since each person possesses a unique set of worldviews, resulting from their past experiences.

While some manage to fit in in a constructive and healthy way, others may struggle. This may lead them to develop coping and defense mechanisms that, while allowing them to fit in, tear them apart from the inside as it is in direct confrontation with what they believe in. One of those mechanisms is reaction formation.

By definition in psychology, reaction formation is a defense mechanism that causes individuals to behave in a way that is opposite to their true feelings or beliefs. This can lead to confusing and sometimes harmful interactions with others, especially when the behavior is not in line with the person’s true thoughts and feelings.

What Type Of Defense Mechanism Is Reaction Formation?

To understand reaction formation, first, we have to understand the concept of “defense mechanism”. The term was coined back in the late 1890s by Sigmund Freud and further crystalized by his daughter, Anna Freud during the late 1930s, to describe patterns we develop to protect or “defend” ourselves from distressing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. 

They separated these defense mechanisms into 3 distinct categories which are widely accepted in modern psychology:

  • Primitive Defense Mechanisms;
  • (Intermediate) Less Primitive, More Mature Defense Mechanisms;
  • Mature Defense Mechanisms.

Primitive Defense Mechanisms (PDMs)

PDMs are mostly used by children or emotionally immature individuals. This form of defense is unconscious and automatic, as it stems from the behaviors people learn very early in their lives. PDMs are incredibly effective short-term. However, in the long term, they become increasingly detrimental to a person’s psychological, emotional, and social well-being. 

Some examples of primitive defense mechanisms include:

  • Denial;
  • Regression;
  • Acting out.

Less Primitive, More Mature (Intermediate) Defense Mechanisms

Intermediate defense mechanisms are typically used by individuals who possess a better sense of self-awareness and are more emotionally mature. These strategies involve a certain degree of conscious effort and self-awareness and are, therefore, a much healthier way to cope with stress and anxiety.

Some examples of Less Primitive, More Mature defense mechanisms include:

  • Humor;
  • Rationalization;
  • Suppression.

Since it involves a conscious effort and self-awareness in dealing with disconcerting emotions, Reaction formation falls under this category. Still, it is important to note that, while Intermediate defense mechanisms are much healthier than their Primitive counterparts, they are still not an ideal way to deal with difficult thoughts and emotions.

Mature Defense Mechanisms (MDMs)

MDMs are the healthiest and most effective ways to deal with stressful and difficult emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. They are also the most constructive and helpful to the vast majority of adults, as they help address the underlying cause of the problem. As such, they provide a long-term, healthy coping solution rather than a temporary fix.

MDMs are also the most difficult defense mechanism to adopt since they require a conscious effort and a lot of self-reflection to take root. However, once they do take root, they promote personal growth and development, as well as help individuals become more resilient in the face of adversity.

Examples of Mature Defense Mechanisms include:

  • Acceptance;
  • Forgiveness;
  • Empathy.
reaction formation defense mechanism

Is Reaction Formation A Good Defense Mechanism?

When it comes to defense mechanisms, the situation is rarely fully black or white. Reaction formation is no exception. Granted, this strategy can prove (somewhat) effective and (somewhat) beneficial in some situations, if applied properly and at the right time, which is hardly ever the case.

However, its limitations, particularly the potential to provoke adversity in others and oneself, make it an ill-suitable tool for prolonged or continuous use. While more advanced than primitive ones, reaction formation is still a far cry from mature coping strategies such as empathy or forgiveness.

Therefore, it is much better to work toward developing or adopting mature defense mechanisms over time. Especially so because advanced coping strategies can be learned, improved, and mastered over time, given enough practice and dedication, as well as professional help. At PIVOT, this would require what we call your Healthy Adult taking action from a higher level of consciousness. 

How Do You Identify Reaction Formation?

Identifying reaction formation can be challenging, both in others and oneself. This is due to the conflicting and opposing nature of this mechanism, as well as (falsely) passionate projection of strong beliefs and standpoints that all but bury true beliefs in the subconscious.

Still, there are some indicators that can point toward the usage of this coping strategy:

  • Opposite behavior: Exhibiting behavior that is contradictory to what they think or feel. 
  • Exaggerated behavior: Acting out of proportion in regard to the current situation. 
  • Repetitive behavior: Forming habits that distract a person from their true thoughts or feelings.
  • Discomfort: Becoming defensive, fazed, or upset about specific conversational topics or situations.
  • Inconsistency: Changing one’s behavior in a sudden way whenever an uncomfortable situation arises.

Examples Of Reaction Formation

To better explain reaction formation we’ll provide an example that resembles a widespread real-life scenario. Let’s say that an individual falls in love with their best friend’s spouse. Based on existing societal norms, community guidelines, and an innate moral compass, said individual realizes that their feelings are wrong and possibly even distasteful.

However, since the individual struggles with these “unwanted” feelings (namely guilt and shame), they resort to reaction formation, in one of several ways: 

  • Opposite behavior: An individual starts showing signs of indifference or even hostility towards the person they’re in love with.
  • Exaggerated behavior: They start showering the person they’re attracted to with compliments and seeking their attention and approval.
  • Repetitive behavior: They believe the other person doesn’t like them physically, so they start to obsessively exercise or spend excessive amounts of time grooming.
  • Discomfort: They become defensive, fazed, or upset whenever the topic of the other person is brought up.
  • Inconsistency: They start acting like a completely different, unrecognizable person when the object of their attraction is around.
reaction formation psychology

What’s The Difference Between Reaction Formation, Projection, And Sublimation?

Projection and Sublimation share some similarities with reaction formation. However, they are entirely different coping mechanisms, which can easily be seen from their respective definitions:

  • Projection is a primitive defense mechanism in which a person unconsciously attributes (or “projects”) their own unwanted feelings, thoughts, or impulses onto someone else;
  • Sublimation is a mature coping strategy, in which a person channels their unwanted impulses into socially acceptable activities or behaviors.

As it stands, both projection and sublimation have a degree of self-deception or redirection of unwanted thoughts or emotions. However, what makes them different from reaction formation is the lack of behavior that is in direct opposition to what they truly think, feel, or believe.

Start A Chain Reaction That Will Help You Overcome Reaction Formation

Dealing with the effects of reaction formation can be challenging and emotionally exhausting. Whether you’ve been struggling with patterns of exaggerated or repetitive behavior, or you’re feeling so conflicted that no one, including yourself, cannot understand your actions anymore, it is time to seek support and guidance.

At PIVOT, you can find personalized and compassionate coaching that you need to break free from chains of reaction formation. Our Glass House retreat offers a safe, supportive environment where you can work through your feelings, identify harmful behaviors, and develop new, healthy coping strategies that will allow you to move on to a better life with clarity and confidence.

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