What Is Reaction Formation? Definition, Psychology, Theory, And Applications
By: Nate Miller
Updated November 14, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn
Many of us have used reaction formation as a defense mechanism before, but since the term isn’t often used in our daily vernacular, we do not know what it means or how to identify it. So, what’s the definition of reaction formation? Why do we use it?
Overview: About Reaction Formation
Reaction formation is a defense mechanism where you act in a way that is opposite to your actual or initial impulse, desire, or feelings. You form a reaction, albeit unconsciously, as a protective mechanism to protest, avoid, or hide the way you feel. Particularly, this occurs when someone finds their true thoughts and feelings anxiety-inducing or unacceptable, whether to themselves, society, the people around them, or all of the above. Like other defense mechanisms, it’s there to protect you, but while it’s sometimes genuinely protective or even necessary, it can have adverse consequences.
The definition of “reaction formation” provided on vocabulary.com is “a defense mechanism in which a person unconsciously develops attitudes and behavior that are the opposite of unacceptable repressed desires and impulses and serve to conceal them.”
We all use defense mechanisms, and you may or may not be able to think of a time where you’ve used this one. It can be used on a smaller scale or a larger, more impactful one. For example, think of a time where you were a child and you or someone you knew pretended not to like something (such as a movie or a toy) because the other kids said it was “for babies,” and you wanted to fit in. You internalized that it was unacceptable to enjoy that thing, so you acted as though you hated it. Maybe, you even made fun of the toy or movie - or the children who enjoyed it - with the other kids.
On a larger, more significant scale, say that you have a political view opposite your family’s. Your family called people with said political views “overly sensitive,” so to avoid judgment and othering, you advocate against your own beliefs. Maybe, you even advocate against your rights.
An associated concept with reaction formations is overboard. Overboard is commonly observed in a reaction formation. When we act to cover up feelings we don’t like, we tend to “go overboard” in our response. For example, if we are ashamed of how much we want to eat dessert, rather than say we don’t want any cake, we get upset and talk about how the cake is bad, how no one should want cake, and how eating cake is irresponsible.
When Is Reaction Formation Harmful?
Most of the time, the root of reaction formation is the belief that our genuine, authentic thoughts, feelings, ideas, or even identities, are bad, wrong, or something scary for us to be or show. These beliefs may come from society at large, or they may come from a specific group you’re in, such as a religious group, a political party, the area you live in, or your family.
It is scary to go against the grain. Especially when you learn that your feelings and ideas aren’t acceptable from a group, you’re a part of or have a want or even a need to fit in with. It may be all that you’ve ever known, or you may fear being shunned. Our reactions and views don’t form themselves in a vacuum. Sometimes, we’re aware of that, and sometimes, we aren’t.
Unfortunately, there are times when reaction formation does harm. For example, say that you grew up in a family where people of a lower socioeconomic status than yours were looked down on. Maybe, your family made assumptions and spoke negatively when they saw someone homeless or otherwise in need. You don’t agree with this, so you say the same things to fit in with your family. You may act in a way equally as cruel so that your family doesn’t reject or mock you. Especially in cases like this, where the outcome isn’t without consequence, it’s something you must be accountable for.
Even in the example of someone rejecting cake and saying that it’s “bad” to eat cake, harm can be done. For example, if a child overhears this, they may feel “bad” for liking cake. Or, if a child hears that a toy they’d like is “for babies” and their group rejects that toy, so they bully other kids with that interest, there is harm.
It can also be personally harmful; authenticity is a known predictor of positive mental health. Knowing this, reaction formation may be a defense mechanism that you want to challenge and work through.
How Does Reaction Formation Occur?
Reaction formations occur for many reasons that depend on the person, but some elements make them much more likely. First, because of the shame/fear/confusion that typically motivates the defensive response in the first place, issues that threaten our desire to belong to a group (whether that group is family, a group of high or higher-status individuals, the people who attend the same church or school as you, or something else) and society are common areas for a reaction formation. Second, the more emotionally charged the issue, and the less room for ambiguity in the choice, the more potential there is for a reaction formation.
People are typically unconsciously motivated to experience reaction formation because of guilt, fear, or confusion. We are afraid to be wholly who we are or wish to be in front of other people. Sometimes we have impulses or ideas that scare us, that make us think, “people would NOT accept me if I did that.”
Shameful thoughts and feelings can be profoundly alienating. We are all driven to form bonds of fellowship, and it is painful to be alone. When we have thoughts and ideas that make us feel like they may cause us to lose those we care about, we are more likely to deny those ideas and feelings than face them impulsively.
What Can Influence Reaction Formation?
Possible influences of reaction formation include:
Cultural Identity - The cultures we grow up in intend to influence our beliefs and reactions, sometimes in a way that doesn’t align with our true thoughts as an individual. Even within one’s culture, beliefs can vary. It’s common, for example, for younger generations within a culture to share differing beliefs from those of older generations.
Social Norms - A social norm refers to actions, behaviors, and thought processes deemed typical within the society one life in. Although social norms may differ from area to area, group to group, and so on, none of us live without exposure to social norms of some kind. This is why it is important to reject and push back against harmful social norms.
Family Issues - Parents feeling guilty about their relationship with their children, siblings feeling judgmental about their sibling’s choices, conflict with in-laws, all of these situations, and more are ripe for reaction formation as a defense mechanism against conflict.
Reaction formation is just one of many possible defense mechanisms that can show up in a person’s life. Regression, projection, and denial are common defense mechanisms you might’ve heard of, and they can sometimes pair with reaction formation.
How Can You Identify Reaction Formation?
As with many things that have to do with the mind, reaction formation can be difficult to identify. It’s wrapped up in questions of motivation, desire, and intent, all of which require self-awareness and honesty on the part of the acting individual to assess properly. If someone angrily rails against something, it’s not necessarily because they secretly want that thing, and they may never admit it even if they do.
This is also why a reaction formation is more likely when the desire is partly or wholly subconscious. Dealing with embarrassing emotions is hard enough, but it becomes harder to do it with others when you don’t know how to describe them yourself. Also, if someone acts like they hate something, we’re more likely to assume they hate it than assume deep down they love it.
All of this is even further complicated because reaction formation is a response to thoughts we feel negative about. Fear, shame, and confusion are some of the primary motivators for reaction formation. Because we all experience those feelings for different reasons, it’s hard to know for sure what’s going on.
The good news is that noticing reaction formation is the first step to breaking it. Deep down, you might be aware that you’re saying or doing something you don’t believe in. Though it can take time and bravery to acknowledge this, that’s the first step for many people.
What Can You Do About Reaction Formation?
Typically when people learn what a reaction formation is, they can think of at least one example in their own lives.
As strange as it may sound, we don’t always make the best choices to advance our interests, and we can even make choices that work completely counter to what we want. Fear, shame, and confusion can lead us down that path, but it’s possible to breakthrough.
Reaction formation, like all defense mechanisms, is something that none of us are immune to. It can happen to anyone, and it doesn’t mean that you are a bad person. No matter what you’ve said in the past, as a human being, you don’t need to maintain the same beliefs or stances for your entire life. People are allowed to grow and change.
Therapy is an excellent place to address reaction formation and any other defense mechanisms or concerns showing up in your life.
We all grow up with influence from someone, and we continue to hear from many sources of influence for the rest of our lives. Sometimes, the way we are influenced is subtle, but it can be overt and clear in other ways. Culturally competent therapists, therapists that work with people of specific religions, LGBTQIA+ affirming therapists, and therapists with other backgrounds or areas of knowledge are out there. If you are of a specific religion or marginalized group, it can be advantageous to find a therapist who understands, and possibly even shares overlap with you. This can help make therapy a safe space, especially if one of these things informs your experience in the world.
It’s brave to go against the grain, and it’s something to be proud of. After all, it’s often how we make positive changes in the world and live with authenticity. A therapist can help support you in this process or address any other concerns you might face, such as those related to life stress and relationships. You can find a therapist near you or sign up for an online therapy platform like ReGain with licensed mental health professionals. ReGain makes it easier to start getting the support you need fast, and the providers on the platform extend both individual and couples counseling options. To get started, all you have to do is sign up and complete a quick questionnaire that’ll help you match with a provider who fits your needs.
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