Reaction Formation: Psychology, Definition And Implications For Your Relationship

Updated March 22, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

People commonly use defense mechanisms. In fact, you may be familiar with a few types of defense mechanisms but not the names associated with them. Reaction formation is one such defense mechanism that you may have experienced before.  

In psychology, reaction formation may be defined as a defense mechanism in which a person behaves in a way opposite or contrary to their true feelings. It could be the result of societal pressures or a sense of ego. For example, imagine an individual who lives an extremely fit lifestyle and condemns anyone who is sedentary or overweight. Perhaps this person was overweight as a child and has since changed their lifestyle. According to psychoanalytic theory, the person engaging in reaction formation may not actually despise people who are overweight, but instead, might hate that part of themselves from the past.

Not sure why your relationship is rocky

Discovering the psychology behind reaction formation, analyzing its definition, and learning how it might apply to your relationships can help you to better understand this defense mechanism. Uncovering the truth surrounding it and why you or your partner feels the need to use such a defense mechanism might help you personally as well as in your relationships.

What is the psychological background of reaction formation?

As with many psychology subjects, Sigmund Freud, known as the father of psychoanalysis, takes center stage. Freud developed the theories behind numerous defense mechanisms, including reaction formation. Since Freud's concept was developed early in the 20th century, there have been several additions and explorations into reaction formation since. Modern-day psychologists and many others over the years have further studied and explained the theory.

Today, reaction formation may be defined as an overcompensation in an attempt to convince oneself that their outward actions reflect their true inner feelings. You might wonder, though, why anyone would use this type of defense mechanism. To perform or act in a way that defies one’s real feelings may seem complicated. When it comes to psychology, there may be several reasons why an individual might develop reaction formation.

Reaction formation can come from outside pressures and the stress involved with them. Parents and other adult influences often, whether intentionally or not, teach many individuals to dislike a specific trait or behavior. Others may be pressured to avoid actions and behaviors by society, their peer group, or certain religious beliefs. 

When all these expectations add up, many people feel they have to outwardly say and do things to convince others that they share the same beliefs. Many go so far as to start actually believing what they are projecting. Others use reaction formation in an attempt to believe it. Whether or not it works, the reasoning behind it is much the same.

Despite what it may sound like, this defense mechanism is not necessarily the same as lying to cover up one's innermost truths. Reaction formation can be rooted more deeply than this. It might be a reaction that is so ingrained in the individual that it’s almost compulsive.

Consider an example: If an individual's parents taught them to shame interracial relationships, but this person does not have the same feelings towards these relationships, they might still outwardly speak out against them. Despite their true feelings of having no issue with an interracial relationship, the person might be vocal about their disapproval to appear as if they agreed with their parents.  

Defining reaction formation


According to the Oxford Dictionary, reaction formation is defined as: "the tendency of a repressed wish or feeling to be expressed at a conscious level in a contrasting form". An analysis of the definition can clarify a few aspects of this concept. 

The first part of the definition mentions a “repressed wish or feeling”. Repressed means to hold back. Holding back wishes or feelings can be a hard thing to do. Living a life in which your innermost desires must be repressed could cause several challenges. First, successfully repressing your wishes might make you resentful. It might also make you obsessive about staying true to what you think you are supposed to believe or want.

The second portion of the definition that can benefit from analysis mentions a “conscious level”. You might recall that the behaviors and actions associated with reaction formation can be compulsive. Despite their compulsivity, these actions still reflect a fully conscious decision. The individual is aware of their outward behavior and might even realize that it doesn’t align with their true beliefs. The behavior may simply be ingrained in their minds and difficult to change.

The last part of the definition uses the term “contrasting form”. Synonyms of contrast include dissimilar, opposite, different, and variant. Consider that an individual behaves in a manner opposite or dissimilar to how they truly feel. The pressure that this person feels that requires reaction formation as a defense mechanism might be considerable.

Repressing one's true feelings in a conscious effort to behave as others believe you should may be a struggle. Although this is simply a defense mechanism, it can still impact a person’s self-esteem and relationships. Addressing the problems that caused the reaction formation to begin with may be the best way to reverse any damage and stop engaging in this defense mechanism.

Reaction formation and relationships

A relationship in which reaction formation is an aspect of a partner's personality can cause a few concerns. For example, if one partner spends a lot of time volunteering for a specific cause, but the individual with reaction formation acts as though they support the cause when the opposite is true, problems might arise.

In fact, reaction formation may have started as a way to please a significant other and take an interest in their passions. No matter what started it, the individual's true feelings on the matter could come out eventually. This could be a big problem in a relationship, as it can be hard to discern the truth once a person learns that their partner is not exactly who they thought. This could allow for doubts to creep in and may even lead to a failed relationship.

The application of reaction formation to your relationship can be significant. While it depends on the situation, the defense mechanism can damage relationships. Think about reaction formation in parenting. For example, one parent might show affection with gifts, despite their true desire to spend time with their kids. While the other parent, conversely, does spend quality time with the kids and wishes the other would, too. These opposite outward parenting styles can potentially cause a rift between the two parents over time. Moving beyond reaction formation could be the primary way this issue might be resolved.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Not sure why your relationship is rocky

You might wonder how to avoid or eliminate reaction formation. Oftentimes, therapy might be the best option for moving beyond a defense mechanism like reaction formation. It can require a lot of inner reflection, self-acceptance, and a brave outlook to move on from something that you have come to accept as true or pretended is true for a long time. Understanding exactly what caused the reaction formation response and why your innermost self feels differently can help you or your loved ones accept your feelings. It can also help you grow through them to become a healthier and more genuine version of yourself.

Having a supportive partner can be a helpful aspect of moving on from a past reaction formation. It may not be something that will go away overnight, especially if the defense mechanism has been a long-term one. By focusing on the truth and what it might mean, an individual who has been using reaction formation as a defense mechanism may be able to move forward and live a life that they can call their own.

Online therapy can help you change defense mechanisms

It can be difficult to admit that you’ve been relying on a defense mechanism. Even though it’s natural and common, talking to a therapist about the situation can still bring about feelings of shame or embarrassment. Some people report feeling more at ease discussing sensitive issues like this in an online setting. Online counseling may also be more convenient since it can be scheduled outside of normal business hours. 

Online therapy has been studied in-depth over the last few years and has been found to be just as effective (sometimes even more so) for a variety of mental health concerns and issues as traditional in-person therapy. A meta-analysis of studies reviewed nearly 10,000 individual cases before arriving at this conclusion. 


At Regain, one of our vetted therapists can help you work through any reaction formation or other defense mechanisms that you might experience. Take the first step with a simple questionnaire to help match you with a therapist who suits your needs and preferences. Through individual counseling, couples counseling, or a combination of the two, you can begin to live more purposefully and authentically. 

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