Reaction Formation, a defense mechanism for complex problems

Reaction Formation
Two defense mechanisms therapists encounter and with which they must come to grips are reaction formation and projection. Defense mechanisms are those strategies that we develop which are designed to protect us from anxiety. Whenever there is a source of anxiety in our lives we work both consciously and unconsciously to avoid the stimuli which provide the source of the unpleasant anxiety.
Defense mechanisms are unconscious, automatic and hierarchical. We do not feel anxiety about a term paper that is due and decide consciously to avoid the anxiety by rationalizing or consciously deciding to “repress” the awareness of the term paper due date rapidly approaching. If you are afraid of the dentist you may temporarily forget that you have an appointment at nine in the morning, but remember it at nine thirty after it is too late to keep the appointment. This is an example of repression. You don’t decide to repress, you just do it, unconsciously, automatically and hierarchically. If you then experience anxiety about having missed the dental appointment, you will automatically rationalize the mistake away with some perfectly reasonable explanation. This, too, will happen automatically.
When we say that defense mechanisms are hierarchical, that is a reference to the amount of psychic energy that is required to subdue the anxiety sources. Freud maintained that defense mechanisms come in categories, first being the flight or fight mechanisms, second being anger and the ability to manage it, and finally what are called compromise reactions. These are the most complex and convoluted of the defenses we use. One type of compromise reaction is called reaction formation. An example of this is when a person feels a desire that is unacceptable to them, such as looking at pornography. The desire is there, it is real and intrusive. In order to defeat the anxiety that this desire provokes, perhaps due to the social or religious beliefs, it is common to use reaction formation mechanisms.

What the individual becomes aware of is that whenever they think of pornography, they think of how awful and unacceptable it is and they may even send a donation to a cause that fights against porn. They may support a political candidate who promises to put a stop to pornography. They may involve themselves in anti-porn rallies and advocate harsh punishments for those that involve themselves in such a seemly activity. These are things they do automatically, unconsciously, and hierarchically in order to not experience the awareness of the desire in its real state, which is not acceptable to them.

Therapists often see reaction formation when people profess so strongly that they believe in something, and how angry and oppositional they are about those who don’t agree with them. (“Me thinks thou doeth protest too much!”) Perhaps they have a glorified fantasy of the perfect family that requires that they “love” everyone in their family, but in reality they cannot stand their mother-in-law. Even though they do not like her, they do not feel that they can afford to acknowledge this to themselves. Such an acknowledgement would destroy their fantasy of the perfect family, where everyone loves everyone and lives happily ever after.

As a result, they seek out opportunities to be with their mother-in-law, they phone her on a regular basis to “chat” and they make sure to remember her birthday and her anniversary, etc. The interesting thing to figure out is why the fantasy of the perfect loving family has such power in their unconscious that anything challenging it raises such anxiety.

My guess would be that this individual came from a family that looks like the families written about by Pat Conroy. Conroy exposes the “gentile” looking southern family which looks perfect on the outside but inside is eaten up with violence, abuse and alcoholism. These families preach the message of looking good and keeping secrets. The children learn that nothing matters more than the maintenance of the image. In order to survive, they learn to suppress their reflexive and honest feelings. They are taught that these feelings are dangerous and will destroy you if you allow yourself to feel them.

The anxiety that this causes in these children by the pressure to survive within the dishonesty of their family is truly awful and powerful. These children, depending on the strength of their character and their ego, learn many ways to cope without dealing with the truth of their feelings.

Some of these children become over-achieving superstars. They are athletes or scholars who win acclaim and make themselves attractive to their family in order to gain acceptance. Some of them develop physical ailments because their illness protects them from the challenges of maintaining the image required for the “looking good family.” Some of them become actors who learn to turn it on and off at the drop of a hat so that they always project the perfect image, even if they can’t maintain it behind closed doors.
However they all internalize the need to have the good family. They fantasize about it and they try to create it without having any road map for what this perfect family life really looks like. Because they do not have a real model, they weave one from their image of what it should be. The fabric they weave is like the fabric in the fairy tale about the emperor who has no clothes. It is not real and it does not work, but they invest themselves emotionally in trying to pretend that it works. The anxiety that they feel is in response to this dishonesty and the fear of not getting it right, or being exposed as a fake, and therefore ceasing to exist is powerful.

One of the defense mechanisms that is commonly used to maintain this façade of dishonesty is reaction formation. They read about good families, they go to workshops about raising good families, they join churches that are known as “family centered” they become acclaimed lecturers who teach others how to have the good and perfect family. But, because of this defense mechanism (reaction formation) they never come to know their real feelings and never become able to be “real” in relationships. If they exposed their real-self it certainly means being less than perfect and making mistakes. It means learning that you can dislike someone today and like them tomorrow, that nothing is ever forever and that relationships are checkerboards of satisfaction and dissatisfaction.

When a therapist discovers someone who utilizes this defensive mask the challenge is to begin to reflect back to them the emptiness that surrounds their emotional reality. Gently, softly, slowly one shows them that they are being dishonest. That they do not really like or “love” their mother-in-law but, it does not matter. They suggest that it is possible to see this person as a real and whole person with flaws and good points. It is possible to negotiate a relationship that is based on reality and mutual need or respect without forcing it into a scripted dishonesty of the “good family.”

These messages are challenging and difficult to communicate. The best thing about it is the therapeutic relationship. Because of a phenomenon called transference, it is believed that all issues will eventually present themselves in the therapy session as issues between the client and the therapist. The therapist is trained to recognize this and to reflect it safely and non-accusatively back to the client. The message becomes “I see you accurately, or I think I do. Let me tell you what I see and you tell me if it is accurate. I do not judge you and I will not be the critical parent who shames or punishes you. I will just be the person who cares enough about you to see you accurately and honestly and still even after that….I care about you.”

If this message is communicated genuinely and repeatedly, it has a chance to break through the defenses of the client and help them find a place to stand where they can resolve the damage of their childhood and create a new and honest script for moving forward. It does not mean that they have to end their dysfunctional relationships. It means they can change them into functional ones. It is the job of the therapist to create the environment and facilitate the adaptation to self-knowledge, self respect and change.

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3 Responses to Reaction Formation, a defense mechanism for complex problems

  1. Lisa Wascher says:

    enjoyed reading this – good, basic article on reaction formation – thanks

  2. Grace Almleaf says:

    Well written and most useful 🙂 thank you I bookmarked your thoughts on reaction formation for future reference. GA

  3. Awesome read, very insightful and helpful as well.

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