I had never heard of the psychological concept of “reaction formation” until recently, but I’ve apparently been using this defense mechanism all my life.
Almost two weeks ago, I encountered the idea of reaction formation in a book about the psychology of personality. In a chapter about my personality type, the author discussed reaction formation as the central defense mechanism of the type. The first time I heard it, the idea went in one ear and out the other. It didn’t sound relevant to me.
But I listened to the chapter a couple more times. One day this past week, a painful insight hit me. It was something I didn’t want to see. All of a sudden, I saw with startling clarity how I had been using this obscure defense mechanism my entire life. This sudden insight explained a lot about my past.
And then suddenly, an even-more-powerful insight showed me how I was continuing to do the same thing today — and that’s something I definitely didn’t want to see.
Reaction formation is a defense mechanism that causes a person to unconsciously reject an emotion that he believes is somehow unacceptable — and replace it with the opposite emotion instead. Here’s one of the many descriptions I’ve read about the concept:
Reaction Formation occurs when a person feels an urge to do or say something and then actually does or says something that is effectively the opposite of what they really want. It also appears as a defense against a feared social punishment. If I fear that I will be criticized for something, I very visibly act in a way that shows I am personally a long way from the feared position.
In other words, if a person is afraid of feeling a particular thing — for fear of punishment or social sanction — he acts in the exact opposite way in order to convince himself and others that he doesn’t feel such a thing.
This can manifest itself in a number of ways. For instance, I concluded a long time ago that many of those who are most vocal in loudly preaching against homosexual behavior are unconsciously covering up their own homosexual attractions.
We’ve seen a number of socially conservative politicians and even preachers over the years, for instance, who talked loudly on the issue of “sexual perversion” who were then found to have been deeply engaged in such behavior themselves. The defense mechanism of reaction formation would explain that.
But reaction formation can cause all sorts of false reactions and false emotions from people. And it was following that path which led me to some uncomfortable realizations lately.
One of the most confusing aspects of my childhood behavior in my dysfunctional family has been why I was so eager to excessively express love and devotion for my father. I was very aware — even at the time — of how angry he made me and how much I resented what he was doing. So why did I so strongly feel the opposite?
It wasn’t that I was lying. I wasn’t conning anyone. I just didn’t know what was going on internally. I was so terrified of my father’s wrath that I converted my anger and budding hatred to its opposite — into excessive love for him. That was the safe thing for my mind to do. It made him happy and it avoided the possibility of me being punished for expressing what I really felt.
I’ve told you before about a newspaper column I wrote when I was about 25 years old which I can’t bring myself to read today. It was a glowing tribute — for Father’s Day — about how good a father he had been for his children. I meant every word of it at the time, but an understanding of reaction formation explains why I would have expressed this “safe” idea which was completely opposite of how I felt deep inside.
Everything I read about reaction formation says it’s the most difficult defense mechanism for non-professionals to understand. And I now know why.
I went through my entire childhood expressing excessive love for my abuser. I didn’t understand how angry and hurt I was until I finally felt safe in expressing it around the time I turned 30.
Everything from the past is understandable, but the really surprising thing I discovered this week is that I’m still using a version of this defense mechanism. I didn’t like that discovery one bit.
I’ve written before about how I have trouble allowing people to know that I’m angry. I suddenly see that this continued pattern is part of reaction formation, too.
When I am angry and hurt with someone, I find it almost impossible to express it. I repress this hurt and anger — even from myself — and express love and longing even more strongly. I suddenly see why I do that.
If it’s a relationship which isn’t going to matter in the long term — one which I can get over — I don’t express the hurt and anger. I don’t even do anything else with it. I simply repress the feelings and cut off all thoughts of the person. It’s like having a social media “block” button in my mind. I can’t allow myself to feel the hurt and anger, but I can erase any feelings about the person from my mind and heart. The feelings will occasionally “leak out” in momentary flare-ups of anger, but I can quickly put a lid on it.
But if the relationship is one which matters to me — one which I somehow see as irreplaceable — I engage in reaction formation. Instead of experiencing or expressing the anger and hurt which I feel, I repress those emotions and instead feel even stronger love and longing.
Looking back on my life, I can see that the people I have done this with have been both of my parents — in very different ways — and a couple of women who I couldn’t get past.
In the case of my mother, I felt love for her which was unacceptable to feel, because my father wanted me to reject her. Because I was hurt about losing her — and because I wanted a mother so much — I had to convert that love and longing into anger and blame at her for destroying our family.
In the case of my father, I felt anger and bitterness for the ways in which I was treated, but because that was unacceptable to express in any way, I converted it to excessive love and praise — which kept me out of trouble for expressing the truth when I was completely within his smothering control.
In the case of a woman I’ve loved, it’s an odd mixture. I’ve felt anger and hurt, but it didn’t feel safe expressing that. I was programmed to believe it was dangerous to express this sort of anger or hurt about someone who I needed. I was programmed to believe that nobody could love me if I expressed that sort of ugly anger and hurt. And so I converted it into ever-more-extreme love and longing.
My parents are both gone, so it’s too late to learn to properly calibrate my feelings toward them in ways that I can express to them. (Before my father’s death, it was still too scary to express my anger to him, so everything I ever explained to him about my anger was said in cold and clinical terms, even though I felt blind rage eventually.)
And if I feel anger and hurt with someone who isn’t going to choose to be in my life anyway, what’s the point of converting the negative emotions into something positive? I have to simply accept negative things which I didn’t want to accept — and stop trying to keep something alive like I’m begging for a parent or other dear loved one to accept me.
I can deal with things I’m angry about. I can forgive things I’m hurt about. But as long as those emotions can’t be expressed and the dealt with, whatever else I feel is covering up for what needs to come out. So I need to somehow learn to accept the hurt and anger — and accept that nothing is going to change about them — and deal with them in emotionally healthy ways.
It seems as though there is a never-ending stream of things to learn about living an emotionally healthy life. Most people never even seem to try, but some of us were damaged badly enough that we are forced to keep learning and digging our way out.
Each new layer of understanding can bring painful realizations, as this one did for me. But I’m never going to be one of those people who is in denial about what I need. I’m not going to choose to live life ignoring the changes I need to make.
Note: If you have any interest in the subject of reaction formation in my personality type or in how I went down this rabbit hole, here’s a copy of the audiobook chapter which has taken me on this journey lately. I’m the subtype which she calls the “self-preservation one,” not the other two subtypes she describes.