Reaction formation

Reaction formation

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In psychoanalytic theory
Psychoanalytic theory
Psychoanalytic theory refers to the definition and dynamics of personality development which underlie and guide psychoanalytic and psychodynamic psychotherapy. First laid out by Sigmund Freud, psychoanalytic theory has undergone many refinements since his work...

, reaction formation is a defensive process (defense mechanism) in which anxiety
Anxiety
Anxiety is a psychological and physiological state characterized by somatic, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral components. The root meaning of the word anxiety is 'to vex or trouble'; in either presence or absence of psychological stress, anxiety can create feelings of fear, worry, uneasiness,...

-producing or unacceptable emotions and impulses are mastered by exaggeration (hypertrophy
Hypertrophy
Hypertrophy is the increase in the volume of an organ or tissue due to the enlargement of its component cells. It should be distinguished from hyperplasia, in which the cells remain approximately the same size but increase in number...

) of the directly opposing tendency.

Theory


Reaction formation depends on the hypothesis that

"[t]he instincts and their derivatives may be arranged as pairs of opposites: life versus death, construction versus destruction, action versus passivity, dominance versus submission, and so forth. When one of the instincts produces anxiety by exerting pressure on the ego either directly or by way of the superego, the ego may try to sidetrack the offending impulse by concentrating upon its opposite. For example, if feelings of hate towards another person make one anxious, the ego can facilitate the flow of love to conceal the hostility."


Where reaction-formation takes place, it is usually assumed that the original, rejected impulse does not vanish, but persists, unconscious, in its original infantile form. .

In a diagnostic setting, the existence of a reaction-formation rather than a 'simple' emotion would be suspected where exaggeration, compulsiveness and inflexibility were observed. For example,

"[r]eactive love protests too much; it is overdone, extravagant, showy, and affected. It is counterfeit, and [...] is usually easily detected. Another feature of a reaction formation is its compulsiveness. A person who is defending himself against anxiety cannot deviate from expressing the opposite of what he really feels. His love, for instance, is not flexible. It cannot adapt itself to changing circumstances as genuine emotions do; rather it must be constantly on display as if any failure to exhibit it would cause the contrary feeling to come to the surface.
Reaction formation is sometimes described as one of the most difficult defenses for lay people to understand; this testifies not merely to its effectiveness as a disguise, but also to its ubiquity and flexibility as a defense that can be utilized in many forms. For example,
"solicitude may be a reaction-formation against cruelty, cleanliness against coprophilia",
and it is not unknown for an analyst to explain a client's unconditional pacifism as a reaction formation against their sadism. In addition,
"[h]igh ideals of virtue and goodness may be reaction formations against primitive object cathexes
Cathexis
In psychoanalysis, cathexis is defined as the process of investment of mental or emotional energy in a person, object, or idea. The Greek term cathexis was chosen by James Strachey to render the German term Besetzung in his translation of Sigmund Freud's complete works. For Freud, cathexis is...

 rather than realistic values that are capable of being lived up to. Romantic notions of chastity and purity may mask crude sexual desires, altruism may hide selfishness, and piety may conceal sinfulness."

Even more counter-intuitively, according to this model
"[a] phobia
Phobia
A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder, usually defined as a persistent fear of an object or situation in which the sufferer commits to great lengths in avoiding, typically disproportional to the actual danger posed, often being recognized as irrational...

 is an example of a reaction formation. The person wants what he fears. He is not afraid of the object; he is afraid of the wish for the object. The reactive fear prevents the dreaded wish from being fulfilled.

The concept of reaction formation has been used to explain responses to external threats as well as internal anxieties. In the phenomenon described as Stockholm Syndrome
Stockholm syndrome
In psychology, Stockholm Syndrome is an apparently paradoxical psychological phenomenon wherein hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them...

, a hostage or kidnap victim 'falls in love' with the feared and hated person who has complete power over them. Similarly paradoxical reports exist of powerless and vulnerable inmates of Nazi camps creating 'favourites' among the guards and even collecting objects discarded by them.
The mechanism of reaction formation is often characteristic of obsessional neuroses. When this mechanism is overused, especially during the formation of the ego, it can become a permanent character trait. This is often seen in those with obsessional character and obsessive personality disorders. This does not imply that its periodic usage is always obsessional, but that it can lead to obsessional behavior.

Example


A man who is overly aroused by pornographic material who utilizes reaction formation may take on an attitude of criticism toward the topic. He may end up sacrificing many of the positive things in his life, including family relationships, by traveling around the country to anti-pornography rallies. This view may become an obsession, whereby the man eventually does nothing but travel from rally to rally speaking out against pornography. He continues to do this, but only feels temporary relief, because the deeply rooted arousal to an unacceptable behaviour such as watching pornography is still present, and underlying the implementation of the defense. At that point he can be said to have developed an obsessional personality above and beyond the defense mechanism.

Sexuality


A strongly heterosexual individual who is fearful or hateful toward those who identify themselves as homosexual
Homosexuality
Homosexuality is romantic or sexual attraction or behavior between members of the same sex or gender. As a sexual orientation, homosexuality refers to "an enduring pattern of or disposition to experience sexual, affectional, or romantic attractions" primarily or exclusively to people of the same...

 and bisexual
Bisexuality
Bisexuality is sexual behavior or an orientation involving physical or romantic attraction to both males and females, especially with regard to men and women. It is one of the three main classifications of sexual orientation, along with a heterosexual and a homosexual orientation, all a part of the...

 may be seeking to counteract deep-seated and often untouched homosexual desires. A reaction formation is used to exaggerate heterosexual behavior outwardly, to relieve inward anxiety regarding homosexual desires.

Relationship assessment


When an individual cannot deal with the demands of desires (including sex and love) and reality, anxiety follows. Freud believed that anxiety is an unpleasant inner state that people seek to avoid. In an attempt to protect ourselves from this anxiety, people employ reaction formation unconsciously in their daily lives. Reaction formation involves adopting opposite feelings, impulses or behavior. Someone adopting a reaction formation defense strategy would treat a spouse or loved one in the same manner in which they’d treat a hated enemy. Another example would be that two people really fond of each other fight all the time to suppress their desire of love for each other. This may also occur when there is a failure of acceptance that the other person is really important to them. To suppress their feelings for that person, they may resort to reaction formation and try to hate or fight with their loved ones to avoid the anxiety of not having them around.

See also

  • Displacement
    Displacement (psychology)
    In Freudian psychology, displacement is an unconscious defense mechanism whereby the mind redirects effects from an object felt to be dangerous or unacceptable to an object felt to be safe or acceptable...

  • Projection
    Psychological projection
    Psychological projection or projection bias is a psychological defense mechanism where a person subconsciously denies his or her own attributes, thoughts, and emotions, which are then ascribed to the outside world, usually to other people...

  • Repression
    Psychological repression
    Psychological repression, also psychic repression or simply repression, is the psychological attempt by an individual to repel one's own desires and impulses towards pleasurable instincts by excluding the desire from one's consciousness and holding or subduing it in the unconscious...

  • Rationalization
    Rationalization (psychology)
    In psychology and logic, rationalization is an unconscious defense mechanism in which perceived controversial behaviors or feelings are logically justified and explained in a rational or logical manner in order to avoid any true explanation and made consciously tolerable by plausible means...

  • Regression
    Regression (psychology)
    Regression, according to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, is a defense mechanism leading to the temporary or long-term reversion of the ego to an earlier stage of development rather than handling unacceptable impulses in a more adult way...