What Lies Beneath Your Emotions

Written by Dr. Perry, PhD
Image Credit: Pixabay

“People have motives and thoughts of which they are unaware.” ~Albert Ellis

What if you hated someone who you were socially and morally expected to love? For instance, what if you felt hate for your sibling, child or spouse? These feelings, if openly expressed and acknowledged, would be reprehensible to you. According to the theory of reaction formation, these feelings that we fear and deny will cause our unconscious to exaggerate the opposite of what we are feeling in order to avoid feeling anxiety.

Reaction formation is an ego defense mechanism. One of Sigmund Freud’s concepts, which is still relevant today, is that of psychological defense mechanisms. Freud developed the idea of the defense mechanism from his belief in the Id, Ego and Superego. Freud believed that humans are driven to avoid tension and feelings of anxiety that arise when there is a conflict between the Id and the Ego. As a result of the conflict that threatens how we view ourselves, we seek to diminish unpleasant feelings through unconscious defense mechanisms.

In the case of reaction formation, the thought of hating one’s sibling, child or spouse would cause one much anxiety and internal conflict. The reaction (impulses and emotions), in this case, hate, is not acceptable and will cause our ego to have anxiety. In order to prevent this, we will try to avoid the feared emotion by engaging in its opposite. Essentially, the true feeling is masked in the exaggerated opposite feeling in order to avoid internal conflict and anxiety. The idea is that the rejected impulse (hate) will exist undeveloped in our subconscious and the resulting emotion does not substitute the hate, it merely masks it.

Freud postulated that our instincts are arranged in pairs. For example, life vs death, action vs passivity, love vs hate and construction vs destruction. In the case of hate, in order to avoid feeling anxiety over how we truly feel,  we respond by engaging in an overflow of love to conceal the hostility.  Love, in this case, will become an exaggerated performance. An example of this is the mother who bears an unwanted child. The mother will become extremely solicitous and overprotective to convince both herself and the child that she is a good mom and does indeed love her child.

The love that arises from the defense mechanism of reaction formation is not based on real emotion. It is love that sprouts as a reaction to our initial feelings of hate. As such, it is a love that is exaggerated, showy, inflexible and compulsive. It is a love that cannot adapt to changing circumstances as genuine emotions. It is a love that must be constantly on display as if any lapse in the performance will cause the real and contrary emotion to display itself.

Some other examples of reaction formation are as follows:

1. Displaying high ideals of virtue and goodness may be reaction formation against primitive urges

2. Altruism may mask selfishness

3. Piety may mask sinfulness

4. A phobia may mask a person’s desires

5. Stockholm syndrome is an example of  hate masking as love

The concept of reaction formation may be difficult to grasp or identify completely. It is an effective defense mechanism that can be disguised in many ways. Essentially, the defense mechanism of reaction formation causes you to express the opposite of your inner feelings through your outward behavior. Your subconscious will choose to express emotions that it deems safe in order to avoid anxiety. Many of us engage in this behavior without being aware of why we act in a certain way. Please note, this is a psychoanalytic theory and is not meant to apply to all situations. I would love to hear about your thoughts and/or experiences with this defense mechanism known as reaction formation.

The thoughts expressed in this blog post are my own and are not meant to create a therapeutic relationship with the reader nor are they meant to be used for self-diagnosis. This write up is not all-inclusive and is meant to provoke curiosity on the subject. This blog does not replace or substitute the help of a mental health professional.

Please note, I am unable to answer your specific mental health or psychology related questions as I am not fully aware of all of the circumstances. If you would like to schedule a free 20-minute consultation with me to see if we would be a good fit to work together please click here to email my assistant, Isabel.

Dr. Perry

Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology
M.A. in Clinical Psychology
B.A. in Psychology

“I specialize in a solution-focused and results-driven approach to treating depression, anxiety, relationship issues, and narcissistic abuse.”
Verified by Psychology Today

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70 responses to What Lies Beneath Your Emotions

  1. Nice article, in the context of religious organizations I have witnessed ”Piety may mask sinfulness” my observations span decades and I am convinced, the holly and more ” piety, ” expressed the greater the issue..

    Liked by 6 people

  2. What do you think about reaction formation vs. the Dialectical Behavior Therapy technique of acting opposite of your emotion? One occurs in the subconscious and one is consciously enacted. Do you feel that the DBT technique suffers from the same problems of not being genuine, or do you believe that actively acting opposite develops into true emotions?

    Liked by 6 people

  3. A number of years ago I was told to give what I hoped to receive and act the way I wanted to be treated. Your post has me pondering this concept a bit deeper and from a varied perspective. Thought provoking, indeed, Dr. Perry. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 6 people

  4. Sharon says:

    Such an interesting piece Dr Perry!!! Personally, I am trying to deal with this utmost contempt for my oldest sibling. There are days I feel it borders on hate- but, because society in general says we aren’t supposed to feel that way towards family- I try to bury my feelings. I am finding though, that the more I bury it and try to act as though I love this sibling- the more the contempt is actually growing.

    Liked by 7 people

  5. Nyxinked says:

    Wonderful post! I always enjoy seeing that you have a new blog post up, they are always full of information and thought-provoking material. Not to mention you are a fantastic writer.

    I’ll be taking my time thinking about this one. x

    Liked by 6 people

  6. This is a very interesting post. It has me doing a little soul searching. It also reminds me of the antagonists in Lifetime movies. With that being said, how can the affected person recognize when someone is walking in reaction formation? Sooner or later the truth is bound to come out. I think I’d like to know sooner rather than later.

    Liked by 6 people

  7. jonicaggiano says:

    Very interesting Doctor. I have always thought that really having angry or hateful thoughts towards another meant that you had to have feelings for that person to start with. I don’t think hating anyone is a healthy thing to do ever but than I try to focus on the positive in people. Extremely interesting post Doctor and very thought provoking. Thank you.

    Liked by 5 people

  8. Sunshine24/7 says:

    Really interesting topic. I have never heard of this! Thank you very much for explaining and introducing me to this thought provoking idea.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. KEMwriting says:

    An interesting read. Makes me think of cognitive dissonance and how we have to either change our actions ro change our thoughts to correct it.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. mividadespuesdeldivorcio says:

    Amazing! In Spanish I read Walter Riso have his entire collections of books, I love this subject, always have, I really enjoyed reading this post.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Mrs. C says:

    It took me a bit but I understand this concept now. Thank you for explaining it so clearly. Very interesting and makes you think.

    Liked by 4 people

  12. I absolutely loved this writing piece, it is beautifully compelling – also it gives you insight to things you were once oblivious too. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and making a difference!!!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Dr. Perry says:

      You have been marked as spam. Please review my comment policy on the website version of my blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Aside from interesting this is also sad. We are ruled by what is and isn’t correct, and of course it will have an effect because we are always trying to hide. Fascinating topic, thank you.

    Liked by 5 people

  14. curious•pondering says:

    I needed to read this. I am glad that you wrote it and explained it as clearly as you did.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. Intriguing!! Honestly, I have a similar relationship with my sibling. Since our childhood we’ve had a rocky relationship. When we fought, I’d have a really scary moment afterwards where I’d think, “I really just hate him,” and then automatically feel like I needed to compensate for that emotion, cause I felt it was wrong. And I never understood why I never truly felt better!
    I’ve always felt a really uncomfortable mix of guilt and confusion, and you’ve just helped me understand these emotions and how I should change my way of thinking. Thank you very much!!

    Liked by 3 people

  16. Thank you for this insightful and helpful article. This article has helped me identify those times in my life where I fit right here. At age 66, I am still learning about myself and continue to grow.

    Liked by 3 people

  17. Annette Rey says:

    I enjoy the education you share. It seems to me that enablers engage in this behavior which helps them mask their resentment of the burdens put upon them. It would be nice if you were more conversational with your commenters. I think you are exercising an exaggerated degree of self-protection, not wanting to be accused of practicing online. That is understandable in these litigious days. Still, I wish you would discuss with your commenters and confirm or deny their views based on your acquired knowledge. That would facilitate a feeling of connecting with you. No offense has been intended by my remarks. 🙂 I respect your position.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dr. Perry says:

      Hello, every moment spent responding to comments, which there are many, takes me away from the precious moments that can be spent with my family. I am sorry to hear you feel my participation is inadequate. As my private practice and professional life is already extremely time consuming, I do the best that I can to share what I can on this platform without any request for compensation.

      Liked by 2 people

  18. Liz says:

    Such an interesting topic! It really makes you think. Thank you so much for sharing Dr. Perry.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Dr. Perry says:

      You’re welcome. Thank you for reading and I am happy to hear you found the post interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. DorothyMarie says:

    Interesting topic. I’d never heard of this before. I don’t think I’ve ever done this before. I went through a period where I disliked my brother. But I never pretended to like him. I just dealt with the anxiety. I truly disrespected him and avoided him mostly.

    Liked by 2 people

  20. These are the kind of Blogs that we all need to see in our early morning inbox. Thank you for being generous enough to not only construct it but sharing it too.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. weepingsnowflake says:

    This definitely makes me understand different scenarios on a deeper level. Thank you for sharing

    Liked by 2 people

  22. kalanleitch says:

    I see this in action all the time in the teaching community. Teachers who are literally victimised by students develop an overt attachment to those students. It’s happened to me personally… strangely comforting to have a syndrome to attach to it.

    Liked by 2 people

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