Reaction Formation: All You Need to Know

As one of the most common defense mechanisms, reaction formation helps us avoid anxiety-inducing, painful, or simply unwanted emotions and impulses. It entails replacing these negative or maladaptive impulses with their opposite, which is 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 building skills and our overall well being? There are numerous ways to go about this: you might attend a specialized couples workshop, take up mindfulness or yoga, and learn as much as you can about regression formation and other maladaptive mechanisms. 

What Is Reaction Formation? 

What Are Some Examples Of 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. The concept was introduced by Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century and further developed by his daughter in the early 20th century.  

Although common, reaction formation may be difficult to understand and identify, especially if you’re trying to detect it in yourself. 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. 

What Are Some Examples Of Reaction Formation?

You may use reaction formation as a defense mechanism in a variety of ways. Some 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 to 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 

As you can see, reaction formation 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 on others or going in a completely opposite direction of what you actually think and feel.   

Why Does Reaction Formation Happen?

The feelings and thoughts that you or your environment deems unacceptable can be difficult to deal with. To defend yourself and your self-esteem against them, you may resort to reaction formation. While reaction formation 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 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 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?

Why Does Reaction Formation Happen

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 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.

© 2021 Lori Jean Glass, LLC | PIVOT