This post was updated on Apr 2, 2023
As one of the most common defense mechanisms, reaction formation helps us avoid anxiety-inducing, painful, or simply negative emotions and impulses. It involves replacing these negative or maladaptive impulses with other behaviors, which are often expressed in an exaggerated manner.
Why do we use reaction formation and similar defense mechanisms? How do we stop them from harming our romantic relationship, our mental health, and our overall well-being? There are numerous ways to go about this: one of the best ways to understand why you do what you do is to attend a specialized individual or couples workshop and learn as much as you can about this defense mechanism and other maladaptive mechanisms that cause anxiety and unhealthy relationships.
What Is Reaction Formation?
Reaction formation is a common defense mechanism in which you may unconsciously attempt to master difficult or controversial impulses by exaggerating an opposing tendency. In other words, you may experience a thought or negative feelings that can be difficult to tolerate, threatening, or anxiety-provoking, and in response, you then unconsciously produce an opposite reaction to reduce the anxiety or discomfort associated with the original feeling or idea. Read that again!
In psychoanalytic theory, the reaction formation concept was introduced by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century. The concept was further developed by Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, in the early 20th century.
Essentially, it involves trying to defend yourself against thoughts and feelings deemed unacceptable by your society, family, or your own sense of ethics. To do this, you may take the completely opposite route to the one you fear, consciously or unconsciously.
How Reaction Formation Differs From Other Defense Mechanisms
While reaction formation is a type of psychological defense mechanism, it differs from other defense mechanisms in several ways.
First, reaction formation involves expressing the opposite or contrasting feelings or behaviors to one’s actual impulses or desires, whereas other defense mechanisms involve more direct or indirect ways of avoiding or reducing anxiety or distress.
For example, repression involves pushing unwanted thoughts, ideas, or emotions into the unconscious mind, while denial involves refusing to acknowledge the existence of a particular belief, problem or reality. Projection involves attributing one’s own thoughts or feelings onto another person, while displacement involves redirecting one’s emotions from the original target to a less threatening one.
Another key difference is that reaction formation often involves behaviors that are more socially acceptable or desirable, whereas other defense mechanisms may involve behaviors that are maladaptive or harmful.
For example, a person using reaction formation may exhibit exaggerated kindness or friendliness toward others, while a person using aggression as a defense mechanism against stress may lash out or become violent toward others.
What Are Some Examples Of Reaction Formation?
You may use this defense mechanism in a variety of ways. Examples may include:
- Being overly friendly to someone you don’t like
- Preaching about abstinence while being an alcoholic
- Giving too many gifts and not feeling any affection for the person
- Expressing contempt for someone to avoid acknowledging the feeling of affection or love
- Acting in a calm and collected manner while not being able to accept your anger
- Being mean to someone because you are attracted to them
Consider a person who feels attracted to someone who is unavailable but also experiences guilt and anxiety about these feelings. Instead of acknowledging and confronting these feelings, the person may develop an opposite reaction and behave rudely or coldly toward the person they are attracted to. By expressing a negative attitude or behavior towards this person, the individual can create a sense of distance and avoid acting on their attraction.
Similarly, consider a person who has repressed feelings of anger or hostility. Instead of expressing these feelings directly, the person may behave in an exaggeratedly friendly or helpful way toward others. By expressing kindness and positivity, the individual can avoid dealing with their uncomfortable feelings of anger, fear, or hostility.
In both cases, the person’s behavior is not in line with their true feelings, desires, or emotions but rather serves to reduce anxiety or distress. However, the use of reaction formation can be maladaptive in some cases, as it can result in behaviors that are dishonest, inauthentic, or harmful to oneself or others.
As you can see, reaction formation psychology is somewhat similar to the process of projection. When using both of these defense mechanisms, you are trying to avoid unwanted thoughts and feelings and compensate for them. You may do this by either displacing the thoughts and feelings of others or going in a completely opposite direction of what you actually think and feel.
Benefits and Drawbacks of Reaction Formation
Reaction formation, like other defense mechanisms, can have both benefits and drawbacks.
Here are some of the potential benefits and drawbacks of using reaction formation:
- Reduction of anxiety: By producing behaviors or feelings that are opposite to their true desires or impulses, individuals can reduce the anxiety or discomfort associated with their thoughts or feelings.
- Social acceptance: In some cases, the behaviors produced by reaction formation may be more socially acceptable or desirable than the individual’s true desires or impulses. For example, an individual who represses feelings of anger or hostility may be more accepted by others if they express exaggerated kindness or friendliness.
- Avoidance of negative consequences: In some situations, the use of reaction formation may help individuals avoid greater negative consequences associated with their true desires or impulses. For example, an individual who is attracted to someone who is unavailable may avoid negative consequences, such as rejection or disapproval, by expressing a negative attitude towards the person they are attracted to.
- Dishonesty: The use of reaction formation typically results in behaviors that are dishonest or inauthentic, as they are not in line with the individual’s true desires or emotions.
- Ineffectiveness: While the use of reaction formation may reduce anxiety or distress in the short term, it may not address underlying issues or contribute to long-term mental health and well-being.
- Harmful behaviors: In some cases, the behaviors produced by reaction formation may be harmful to oneself or others. For example, an individual who expresses overtly homophobic views may harm members of the LGBTQ+ community and contribute to social stigma and discrimination. This leads to great harm.
As you can see, while the use of reaction formation may have some benefits in reducing anxiety or distress, it can also have drawbacks in terms of honesty, effectiveness, and potential for harm.
When Reaction Formation May Be Helpful
Reaction formation may be helpful in some situations where individuals experience thoughts or feelings that are deemed unacceptable, threatening, or anxiety-provoking.
Here are some examples of when this defense mechanism may be helpful:
- Coping with social anxiety: Individuals who experience social anxiety may use reaction formation to reduce their anxiety by behaving in an overly friendly or outgoing manner and practice showing up. By expressing exaggerated positivity and friendliness, the individual can create a sense of social ease and avoid confronting their underlying anxiety.
- Managing obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): Individuals with OCD may use reaction formation to manage their compulsive behaviors. For example, an individual who experiences obsessive thoughts about cleanliness may use reaction formation to maintain a sense of control and order in their environment by becoming overly focused on cleanliness and organization.
- Avoiding harmful behavior: Reaction formation may be helpful in preventing individuals from acting on their harmful desires or impulses. For example, an individual who experiences violent urges may use reaction formation to express a strong aversion to violence and aggression, and may thereby avoid acting on their violent impulses.
While reaction formation may be helpful in these and other situations, it is important to recognize that it is a defense mechanism that does not address underlying issues or contribute to long-term mental health and well-being.
Why Does Reaction Formation Happen?
The feelings and thoughts that you or your environment deems unacceptable can be difficult to accept and deal with. To defend yourself and your self-esteem against them, you may resort to reaction formation. While it may help protect your self-esteem at a specific moment, it may become harmful and problematic over time. It can suppress your genuine self and affect your overall well-being.
When you rely on reaction formation, you may be extremely passionate about your outwardly expressed preferences and beliefs, while burying your true feelings and thoughts in your subconscious. This tendency is why it’s useful to learn more about reaction formation and other defense mechanisms such as sublimation or the process of rationalization. Examining your thoughts and behaviors can help you gain a more objective perspective on your actions and help you keep maladaptive behavior and defense mechanisms in check.
Defense mechanisms are often a reflection of your attachment style. More precisely, you may use reaction formation as a defense of projection or denial. It is a defensive structure that can be ingrained during childhood, when there is a lack of a stable attachment figure for protection and comfort. Our defense mechanisms work as our survival patterns, shielding us from pain, guilt, shame, and discomfort.
How Does Reaction Formation Affect Relationships?
Relying on any defense mechanism constantly can lead to an array of relationship difficulties. Reaction formation, in particular, often leads to suppression of genuine thoughts and feelings, and in turn damages your chances of nurturing healthy intimacy. Whether it’s you or your partner who relies on reaction formation, you may also experience trust issues, relationship anxiety, stress, and distancing.
Overall, excessively relying on reaction formation can damage your relationship by hiding your authentic self from your partner. And if they are the ones doing it, you may find it hard to understand your partner’s true feelings and thoughts. You may feel like they’re not expressing their genuine self, putting up a front, or acting irrationally to protect their self-image from harm.
How Do You Fix A Reaction Formation?
Working to identify your defense mechanisms, whether on your own or with a relationship coach, can help you overcome intimacy issues and stabilize your self-esteem. It’s not an easy process. You’ll most likely have to deal with feelings and thoughts that you find uncomfortable or painful. This may involve examining any underlying impulses that may have caused you to rely on reaction formation in the first place.
In addition to speaking with a professional relationship coach, you can also try the following steps to detect and overcome reaction formation:
- Learn more about defense mechanisms and reaction formation and look for symptoms in your own behavior.
- Analyze when and why you use this mechanism. What activates it? Where does it take you emotionally?
- Set aside more time to spend on your own and reflect on your thoughts and actions.
- Speak with your partner openly and honestly about your feelings and allow yourself to be vulnerable.
- Work on setting healthy boundaries and give yourself time to overcome maladaptive tendencies.
- Try yoga and mindfulness to learn how to stay present in the moment and free yourself from your past.
Visit a PIVOT Couple Workshop For Deepening Your Relationship
Are you worried that your survival patterns may be damaging your relationship? PIVOT is here to help you through compassion and insight. Over the years, we have worked with a great many clients like you to help them develop psychological strategies, identify and heal their childhood wounds, and create healthier boundaries. We offer you in-depth relationship coaching sessions for singles and couples, as well as a range of workshops tailored to your needs, all designed to help you build better relationships and encourage positive behavioral change.
Ready to take the first step towards a happier and healthier you? Reach out to us and begin your journey with us today.