Reaction Formation: Psychology, Definition & Applications In Your Relationship

Updated July 12, 2022 by ReGain Editorial Team

Nearly all people commonly use defense mechanisms. In fact, most people are familiar with a few types of defense mechanisms but may not be aware of the names associated with them. Reaction formation is one such defense mechanism that you have likely been aware of and experienced either from someone else or yourself, but may not have known what it was called or that it even had a name.

In psychology, reaction formation is essentially defined as a defense mechanism in which a 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 who lives an extremely fit lifestyle and condemns anyone who is sedentary or overweight. In truth, this person was overweight as a child and has since changed their lifestyle. According to psychoanalytic theory, the person engaging in reaction formation doesn't inwardly hate people who are overweight, but hates that part of themselves.

How Do Defense Mechanisms Affect Your Relationships?

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 relationships can help to understand reaction formation better. 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 as well as your relationships.

What Is The Psychological Background Of Reaction Formation?

As with many psychology subjects, Sigmund Freud, known as the father of psychoanalysis, 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 others over the years have further explained the theory.

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

Reaction formation often comes from outside pressures and the stress involved with them. Parents and other adult influences often, whether intentionally or not, teach many individuals 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 believing what they are projecting. Others use reaction formation to attempt to believe it. Whether or not it works, the reasoning behind it is much the same.

Despite what it may sound like, it is not necessarily the same as simply lying to cover up one's innermost truths. In fact, reaction formation is rooted more deeply than this. 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 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 ruse, 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 challenging.

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 their outward behavior and, usually, that it doesn’t align with their true beliefs and/or feelings. 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 they truly feel. The pressure that this person likely feels that requires reaction formation as a defense mechanism must be considerable.

Repressing one's true feelings in a conscious effort to behave as others believe you should is understandably often a struggle, because you are not being your true and natural self. Although this is a defense mechanism, you might imagine the effect that it might cause on oneself and one’s relationships. Addressing the problems that caused the reaction formation to begin with is the best way to start fixing the damage it creates 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. 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 they are 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 their 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 may lead to 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. For example, one parent might show affection with gifts, despite the desire to truly spend time with their kids. While the other parent, on the other hand, does spend quality time with the kids and wishes the other would, too. The opposite outward parenting styles can potentially cause a rift between the two parents over time. Moving beyond reaction formation is the primary way this issue might be resolved.

How Do Defense Mechanisms Affect Your Relationships?

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 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 and grow through them to be 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 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 may 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.

With the right help, and you, too, can move on from this defense mechanism. BetterHelp is an online therapy platform with over 20,000 licensed therapists experienced in a large variety of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, trauma, grief, anger, and just overall self-understanding and improvement. Online therapy has been studied in-depth over the last few years in particular, and has been found to be just as effective (sometimes more so) for a variety of mental health concerns and issues as traditional in-person therapy, while being more discreet, more affordable without insurance, and more convenient.

One of our vetted therapists can help you to work through any reaction formation or other defense mechanisms that you might experience and seek to move past. Take the first step with a simple questionnaire to help match you with a therapist who suits your needs and preferences. You can switch therapists or end your subscription at any time, no hassle.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

Speak With A Licensed Therapist
This website is owned and operated by BetterHelp, who receives all fees associated with the platform.
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.