How To Know If You've Developed A Reaction Formation
By: Sarah Fader
Updated May 06, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Dawn Brown
Do you ever feel like you're not your most authentic self? Is there some little voice in the back of your head that tells you who you are is all an act? Are you terrified that people might discover the truth about you? Or worse, do you fear you may be hiding from the truth about yourself?
If so, you may have what is called in psychology a reaction formation. Worrying about fitting into society is a problem that never seems to go away. In fact, some cultural fears are so ingrained, that you may not even realize you're hiding from them. Fortunately, however, you can learn what a reaction formation is and how to recognize it in yourself.
In this article, you'll learn about reaction formation psychology. You'll find out how it's defined. You'll discover examples of reaction formations. You'll even learn about how the reaction formation is related to defense mechanisms, a term you may already be familiar with.
Let's jump right in and define reaction formation first.
What Is Reaction Formation?
A reaction formation is not always a conscious action. Often, it's a coping mechanism people acquire to deal with aspects of themselves that they have trouble integrating into their personality. Usually, the reason for the difficulty with certain aspects of the self is a perception of what others or society, in general, thinks of those traits or characteristics.
Reaction Formation Definition
Reaction formation refers to the process by which people repress a feeling or desire that is then expressed outwardly in a contrasting or opposite form. Sometimes this happens because of a prejudice against the true feelings or because of fear of ridicule or even fear of legal repercussions if the individual lives in a society in which their desire or personality trait is against the law.
Often, the person who develops a reaction formation will go overboard in trying to convince others that they are not this thing that they fear they are or know they are.
Reaction Formation Examples
Here a few hypothetical scenarios that are examples of reaction formation.
Someone greatly values romantic love and wants to be loved more than anything, but they fear they will never find someone to love them. So, they make fun of loving behaviors they see in others, talk about how they never want to "settle down," and call loving gestures "mushy" or "gross."
A person struggles with keeping their anger under control, so they go out of their way to appear courteous and helpful to others while not feeling kind or courteous.
Someone is resentful about past experiences with dating, and to hide their pain they often make derogatory comments about the gender they prefer to date, as a whole, when really what they want is to find someone compatible.
A person who tends not to like other people and privately complains about various types of people may publicly act very friendly.
Someone who secretly wishes they could cross-dress, or admires traits not associated with their assigned gender, ridicules people who don't fit a particular gender role.
A person with an eating disorder constantly talks about how unhealthy it is to overeat or be fat, and puts down other people for their weight. If they don't eat enough, they may point out thin people and accuse those others of having an eating disorder while hiding their own. Or if they are overeating, they may criticize others who they see eating unhealthy food or eating too much, pretending to have more control over their eating habits.
Someone who is depressed may go out of their way to appear happy and not let on by others how deeply troubled they are.
A person who professes loudly and often that they have complete faith in a deity but often has unvoiced doubts.
Someone with an obsession with sex or pornography scorns and criticizes anything perceived as sexual.
A person is strongly attracted to someone they know they shouldn't be, so instead of expressing their desire; they express hatred toward that person.
While we're talking about reaction formation and what it is, let's address a similar term for a moment. Sometimes, people confuse the terms reaction formation and formation reaction, but they are not the same at all. In fact, they're not related concepts.
Formation reaction is not typically a term used in psychology. It is a type of chemical reaction that occurs between molecules.
Now that we've got that out of the way let's move on to more about how the reaction formation works.
The Reaction Formation Defense Mechanism
A term you may already be familiar with is a defense mechanism. A defense mechanism is an unconscious process you develop as a reaction or in response to particular stressors, usually to avoid conflict, anxiety, or emotional pain. In psychology, defense mechanisms are also called ego defenses. And that's exactly what the reaction formation is-a defense mechanism to protect your sense of self.
Social groups have been an important part of human survival. The lone human doesn't survive as long or as easily without civilization. Yes, it's true that many of us feel that civilization and society can make things difficult for us, but imagine what it would be like if every person truly were just out of themselves. There would be no infrastructure, no educational system, no agriculture or system for food distribution. We would have far fewer technological inventions, and those that did exist would have much smaller reach. We need each other.
And that is precisely why we feel threatened at a very deep level when we think we are outliers from the dominant group. We feel an innate threat to our survival, and that feeling is true to an extent because of how much we depend upon each other. Being deemed an outsider from the society you're supposed to belong to can mean fewer resources for you, including fewer people to lean on when you need them.
When we fear social punishment or being ostracized, we may try to very noticeably act in a way that is the opposite of what we fear being criticized for, as in the examples listed in this article.
How To Recognize Your Defense Mechanisms
The thing about defense mechanisms is that they often operate on an unconscious level. You may not be aware of which particular defense mechanisms you use, or if you even use any. But if you possess a certain level of self-awareness, you can uncover your unconscious coping strategies.
Studying the various types of defense mechanisms and examples of each may help you to make a better judgment about whether you are currently using any of them.
It's important to understand that defense mechanisms don't always develop because we think or believe something bad. We are attempting to protect ourselves from something we think will cause us anxiety or guilt in front of others. As humans, we often fall into the trap of thinking that we need to be perfect to be loved or valued, and that just is not the case. Remember, no one is perfect.
Signs You're Engaging In A Defense Mechanism
Even if you don't realize you're engaging in a defense mechanism like reaction formation, you may be able to see signs that can tip you off. Here are some clues that may mean you're defending your ego unconsciously.
- You're having difficulty relating to others or maintaining friendships.
- You often seem to argue with the people you care about most.
- You try to control conversations.
- You criticize others often but feel like you are being criticized.
- You feel like you need to respond to a minor gesture or look in your direction, even if the other person didn't say anything to you or really indicate that they were thinking anything negative about you.
- You put other people down to feel better about yourself.
Talking To A Counselor
If you don't know what you are repressing or hiding, then you will need to search yourself to look for what's going on in your mind. Only once you are consciously aware of the issues that are making you feel threatened, anxious, or guilty can you begin to change your behaviors and move away from defensive reactions.
Talking to a mental health professional can help you to uncover the issues you may be unaware of. Sometimes, you may say something and not realize what you said, but a therapist can help you by hearing what you say, recognizing it, and repeating it to you to help you be more aware. They can also encourage you to talk about the issues you feel uncomfortable with.
Once you bring any issues out into the open, you can begin the work of changing your negative behaviors, like reaction formations. The reaction formation may feel safe, but if you admit the truth to yourself, it causes you quite a bit of stress to maintain. And avoiding stress was the whole point of creating a defense mechanism in the first place. You don't need your reaction formation.
To prove the point about a reaction formation causing more stress than it protects you against, consider the research that shows that living a lie causes significant stress and impaired health to most people.
Going to the extremes in trying to hide your true self-sets you up for a dysfunctional personality and unstable life. A counselor can help you to find a support system or other supportive environment where you can openly discuss your feelings and perhaps find others who share your fear. Knowing that other people feel the same way you do can help you to be less afraid of who you are and become more confident.