What is Reaction Formation?

Mary McMahon

Reaction formation is a type of defense mechanism in which someone subconsciously redirects the energies of the id to hide true feelings, with the goal of overcoming or suppressing those feelings so that they cannot manifest. Like other defense mechanisms, reaction formation is not a conscious choice, with the person choosing to try and suppress desires, wishes, or beliefs. Instead, it is the mind's attempt at self protection, and is done without conscious action. It can also backfire quite spectacularly in some cases.

Therapy sessions can help to undo the work of reaction formation.
Therapy sessions can help to undo the work of reaction formation.

In reaction formation, someone experiences a wish or desire and behaves in a way which is contrary to that. This may be because the person is afraid of the desire, feels that it is socially unacceptable, or is worried about the consequences of acting upon it. Sometimes, the reasons for this defense mechanism are not entirely clear, and they can be extremely complex. Intense emotions like love, hate, greed, anger, jealousy, and bitterness can be involved in reaction formation.

Intense emotions may be involved in reaction formation.
Intense emotions may be involved in reaction formation.

A simple example of reaction formation can be seen on many school grounds. A child who likes a child of a different gender might behave meanly to the object of interest, expressing hatred when the child actually experiences the opposite feeling. This plays out among adults, as well, and is often characterized by the same exaggerated or excessive behavior. Many people have been around people who are excessively nice to cover up dislike, for example, or who behave in a seemingly altruistic fashion to mask greed.

Intense emotions like anger and bitterness can be involved in reaction formation.
Intense emotions like anger and bitterness can be involved in reaction formation.

The emotions behind reaction formation can be extremely intense, and they can grow stronger over time. People can become set in their emotional responses because the persistent denial of their feelings becomes more difficult to maintain. This is something to bear in mind when interacting with someone who seems unusually emotional about something; someone who vociferously and vehemently rails against homosexuality, for example, might be undergoing this phenomenon.

It is possible to undo the work of reaction formation, usually through therapy sessions. The therapist can help the patient explore the reasons behind the intensity of the feeling and reaction, and assist the patient with facing up to the deeply internal feelings which are driving the reaction. People may find this process intense and uncomfortable, but the end result can be better emotional health and the ability to take more pleasure in life by exploring or at least acknowledging internal desires instead of trying to subvert them.

Greed can be involved in reaction formation.
Greed can be involved in reaction formation.

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Discussion Comments


Reaction formation is kind of like wearing layers of masks. Your true internal self is hidden by the masks. Some people do not get their needs met as children, so as they get older, they start putting on masks to hide their feelings of being unloved, and lacking in self esteem. As an adult, they can reach the point of compensating for their internal feelings with a hatred for a particular ethnic or religious group.

This is an unhealthy way to be. Visiting a therapist is a helpful thing to do.


When I read this article, I immediately thought of a concern of mine that I have been dealing with for a while, and that is child bullying.

I have two boys. One is in elementary school and the other is in middle school. Although I try to teach them to treat others with respect, I know that they or someone that they know has to deal with being bullied on a daily basis.

I think that school counselors and child psychologists should do a better job in monitoring school bullying. Parents can only do so much, especially since we are not with our children while they are in school.

Perhaps child psychologists should be brought in when a student is behaving extremely badly towards other students. Reaction formation may be the underlying cause of that child's actions.

It really bothers me when I hear stories in the news of children who take their own lives because they were constantly being tormented by bullies. Teachers, school administrators, and parents need to do a better job of making sure that all students feel safe at school.


I always thought that being mean to a boy who you liked was just a childish thing to do, and that a person would eventually grow out of it. By reading this article, I now understand that this behavior stems from a deep psychological issue.

I used to think that it was silly that a grown woman would continue to act like a nine year old when it came to liking men. But, my 25 year old sister still insists on driving men away by being rude and mean to them, instead of trying to foster a relationship with them.

I think that I am going to forward this article to her. Reaction formation might be something that suffers with, and she should seek help about it. I would hate for her to miss out on happiness because her brain is trying to protect her from possible heartbreak.

Thanks for writing this, it has opened my eyes!


Wow, this is a great article! Reading it sheds so much light on the way people act when they are trying to suppress feelings. Thanks for writing it!

I like how you brought up how reaction formation can play a role in the way people might treat those who are homosexual. When I read this, I immediately thought of how this is displayed in one of my favorite television shows, Glee!

In that show, all of the kids in the glee club are bullied because they are considered freaks and outsiders by the more popular kids. One of the students in the glee club is a flamboyant homosexual boy, and he is violently taunted by a football player.

As the story continues, you realize that the reason the football player is such a bully is because he too is homosexual. He has not come to terms with his sexuality, so he takes out his frustration on the only other gay boy in the school.

I wonder if other hate crimes are caused by people who use reaction formation to suppress their true feelings.

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