What Is Reaction Formation? Psychology, Definition, & Applications In Your Relationship

By Kristina Speciale|Updated April 22, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Horn, LMFT

Nearly all people commonly use defense mechanisms. In fact, most people are familiar with a few types of defense mechanisms but are not aware of the names associated with them. Reaction formation is another defense mechanism that you likely are aware of but had nothing to call it.

In psychology, reaction formation is a defense mechanism in which the person behaves in a way opposite or contrary to their true feelings. It is typically the result of societal pressures or a sense of ego. If you're struggling to picture this, imagine an individual that lives an extremely fit lifestyle and condemns anyone that is overweight. In truth, this person was overweight as a child and has since changed his or her lifestyle. He or she does not inwardly hate people that are overweight but hate that part of themselves.

How does this kind of defense mechanism play a part in an individual's psychological makeup? Discovering the psychology behind it, analyzing the definition, and learning how it might apply to your relationship can help to understand reaction formation completely. Uncovering the truth surrounding it and why you or your loved one feels the need to use such a defense mechanism might help you personally and your relationship.

What Is The Psychology Background of Reaction Formation?

As with many psychology subjects, Sigmund Freud played a large role. In fact, Freud developed the idea behind numerous defense mechanisms, including reaction formation. Since Freud's concept was developed early on in the 20th century, there have been a number of additions and explorations into reaction formation since. Modern-day psychologists and many over the years have further explained the theory.

Today's reaction formation is most usually a big overcompensation in an attempt to convince oneself that his or her outward actions reflect their true inner feelings. The question, however, is why a person would do this? To perform or act in a different way than his or her real feelings may seem complicated. When it comes to psychology, there are several reasons that an individual might develop reaction formation.

Reaction formation comes from outside pressures and the stress involved with them. Parents teach many individuals and other adult influences to hate a specific trait or behavior. Others are pressured by society, their peer group, or religious beliefs to avoid actions and behaviors. There can be so many influences and expectations of how one is supposed to act, think, and live that the pressure can be too much.

When all of those expectations add up, many people feel they have to outwardly say and do things that convince those around them that they, too, believe these things. Many go so far as to start actually believe what they are projecting. Others use reaction formation to attempt to believe it. Whether or not it works, the reasoning behind it is the same.

Despite the condition, it is not necessarily the same as simply lying to cover up one's innermost truths. In fact, reaction formation is too deep to prevent without help truly. It is a reaction that is so ingrained in the individual that it can be hard to break; some would say it is compulsive.

You might be wondering what types of compulsive behavior this includes. For 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 outwardly speak out against them. Despite their true feelings of having no issue with an interracial relationship, the person would likely be incredibly vocal about the disagreement to appear outwardly against the idea.

For many, this isn't very honest. However, if this individual were raised in a household that constantly mentioned their disapproval of interracial relationships, they would likely start to think they feel the same. In the beginning, the comments and outward actions might be a rouse, but over time it becomes compulsive. A better understanding of the reaction formation definition might allow for comprehension of the condition as a whole.

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." Analysis of the definition can clarify a few aspects of the concept. This particular definition has three aspects that could use some analysis.

The first part of the definition that can be dissected is the portion that 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 would likely cause several challenges. Firstly, successfully repressing your wishes would probably make you resentful. It might also make you obsessive about staying true to what you think you are supposed to believe or want, meaning that once the claim is made the opposite of your actual beliefs, changing your tune is not likely.

The second portion of the definition that can benefit from analysis mentions a conscious level. A previous section discussed how the behaviors and actions associated with reaction formation are often compulsive. However, despite the compulsivity, the actions are still a fully conscious decision. The individual is very aware of his or her outward behavior. The behavior is simply ingrained in their minds and difficult to change or put a stop to.

The last part of the definition uses the term contrasting form. Synonyms of contrast include dissimilar, opposite, different, and variance. Consider that an individual behaves in a manner opposite or dissimilar to how he or she truly feels. The pressure that this person feels that requires reaction formation as a defense mechanism must be great.

Repressing one's true feelings in a conscious effort to behave as others believe you should be a struggle. Although this is a defense mechanism, you might imagine the effect that it might cause on one's self and relationships. Addressing the problems that caused the reaction formation, to begin with, is the best way to start fixing the damage it creates.

Reaction Formation And Relationships

A relationship in which reaction formation is an aspect of a partner's personality can cause a few concerns. It might apply to your relationship if reaction formation regards an issue that means a lot to the opposite individual. For example, if one partner spends a lot of time volunteering for a specific cause, but the individual with reaction formation acts as though he or she is for 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 his or her priorities. No matter what started it, the individual's true feelings on the matter could come out eventually. This would 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 allows for doubts to creep in and cause a failed relationship.

The application of reaction formation to your relationship can be significant. While it depends on the subject matter, the defense mechanism has the ability to damage relationships. Think about reaction formation in parenting. Mom might show affection with gifts, despite the desire to truly spend time with her kids. Dad, on the other hand, spends quality time with the kids. The opposite outwardly parenting styles can easily cause a rift between the two parents. Moving beyond reaction formation is the only way this issue might be resolved.

How does one move on from a developed reaction formation? Oftentimes, therapy is the best option for moving beyond a defense mechanism like reaction formation. It requires a lot of inner reflection, self-acceptance, and a brave outlook to move on from something that you have come to accept as true. Understanding exactly what caused the reaction formation response and why your innermost self feels differently can help you or your loved one accept your feelings.

Having a supportive partner is a helpful aspect of moving on from a past reaction formation. It is not 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 will be able to move forward and live a life that they can call their own. It is a life that they want to live, not one that someone else pressured them into. Find the right help, and you, too, can move on from this defense mechanism.

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