Written by Dr. Eric Perry, PhD
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“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.
Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology
M.A. in Clinical Psychology
B.A. in Psychology
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