Monday, January 20, 2014

Reaction Formation: Defense Mechanisms by Sigmund Freud

Reaction formation

Reaction formation is actually mental process, transforming anxiety-producing thoughts into their opposites in consciousness.

This is where a person goes beyond denial and behaves in the opposite way to which he or she thinks or feels.  By using the reaction formation the id is satisfied while keeping the ego in ignorance of the true motives.Conscious feelings are the opposite of the unconscious. Love - hate.  Shame - disgust and moralizing are reaction formation against sexuality.

Usually a reaction formation is marked by showiness and compulsiveness. 

In short, reaction formation means expressing the opposite of your inner feelings in your outward behavior.

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Reaction formation depends on the hypothesis that "the 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. Thus, where love is experienced as a reaction formation against hate, we cannot say that love is substituted for hate, because the original aggressive feelings still exist underneath the affectionate exterior that merely masks the hate to hide it from awareness.

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, reactive 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, high ideals of virtue and goodness may be reaction formations against primitive object cathexes 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 "phobia 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, 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 'favorites’ 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.

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Reaction-formation can also become a permanent character trait and its significance can grow more general; it can become not just a symptom of a specific pathology, but it heralds the process of socialization.

Reaction-formation is not restricted to character and moral virtues, but also includes the domain of thought and intellect. The counter-cathexis of the system of conscience, organized as a reaction formation, supplies the first repression. In "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death", Freud showed how altruism may originate from selfishness, and compassion from cruelty. "Noble" motives can have the same effect as "non-noble" motives. We cannot divine the instinctual life of a subject, however; we only can observe his or her behavior.

Humankind's capacity to reshape instinctual selfishness is otherwise known as its aptitude for culture. People have unequal abilities in this regard, and the most solid among them may prove the least well-defended. This explains how instinctual remodeling can be more or less thoroughly undone by circumstance—war being an event that puts culture most completely at risk—and how acquired civility, or the capacity to conduct oneself towards others according to ethical considerations, may entirely unravel. Reaction-formation thus exposes the fragility of morality and suggests how repressed instincts are able to return with a great intensity, as acts of barbarism and cruelty.


Freud claimed that men who are prejudice against homosexuals are making a defense against their own homosexual feelings by adopting a harsh anti-homosexual attitude which helps convince them of their heterosexuality. 

Other examples include:

* The dutiful daughter Mary, who loves her mother, is reacting to her Oedipus hatred of her mother.
* Anal fixation usually leads to meanness, but occasionally a person will react against this (unconsciously) leading to over-generosity.
* George feels that his younger son, Gary, is unattractive and not very smart. He accuses his wife of picking on Gary and favoring their other son.
* Lucy dresses in provocative clothes and uses suggestive language although she fears that she is unattractive and she really isn’t very interested in sex.
* John has a lot of unconscious hostility toward his father but he acts very affectionate toward him and tells other people that he and his father have a wonderful relationship.
* Peter, a man who is overly aroused by pornographic material, uses reaction formation defense mechanism to 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 behavior 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 obsession personality above and beyond the defense mechanism.
* Ann, a mother who has a child she does not want, becomes very protective of the child.
* Perhaps the most common and clearest example of reaction formation is found in children between seven and eleven or so: Most boys will tell you in no uncertain terms how disgusting girls are, and girls will tell you with equal vigor how gross boys are. Adults watching their interactions, however, can tell quite easily what their true feelings are!

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Therapy and Support

Most people don't realize that this defensive process is quite unhealthy. Since anxiety provokes the demands that are created by reality and the superego, these defensive mechanisms are developed to cope with anxiety and stress. In many cases, it is your unconscious that works to distort reality. Defensive mechanisms can be unhealthy, especially when they are overused to avoid dealing with a problem. The goal in psychoanalytic therapy is to uncover the mechanisms so the individual can find a healthy way to deal with their feelings.

When a person takes a position or stance on something, and particularly if that position is extreme, you may consider the possibility that their real views are opposite to this. This offers you two options in persuasion. You can either support their current position or carefully expose how their underlying tendencies are opposite (and how it is ok to admit this).

To cause a Reaction Formation pattern, show the other person that a particular behavior is socially unacceptable. Then give them the space and ideas to react against this undesirable pattern and create their own way of showing how they are actually very far away from the undesirable behavior.
In a therapeutic situation, help a person who is dysfunctionally forming contrary reactions by first create a supportive environment where they can admit and accept what is happening to themselves. Then support their changing of position to somewhere that is more acceptable and appropriate for them.

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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Sources and Additional Information: 

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