What Lies Beneath Your Emotions – Reaction Formation

Written by Dr. Eric Perry
Image Credit: Pixabay

“People have motives and thoughts of which they are unaware.” ~Albert Ellis

What if you hated someone who you were socially and morally expected to love? For instance, what if you felt hate for your sibling, child or spouse? These feelings, if openly expressed and acknowledged, would be reprehensible to you. According to the theory of reaction formation, these feelings that we fear and deny will cause our unconscious to exaggerate the opposite of what we are feeling in order to avoid feeling anxiety.

Reaction formation is an ego defense mechanism. One of Sigmund Freud’s concepts, which is still relevant today, is that of psychological defense mechanisms. Freud developed the idea of the defense mechanism from his belief in the Id, Ego and Superego. Freud believed that humans are driven to avoid tension and feelings of anxiety that arise when there is a conflict between the Id and the Ego. As a result of the conflict that threatens how we view ourselves, we seek to diminish unpleasant feelings through unconscious defense mechanisms.

In the case of reaction formation, the thought of hating one’s sibling, child or spouse would cause one much anxiety and internal conflict. The reaction (impulses and emotions), in this case, hate, is not acceptable and will cause our ego to have anxiety. In order to prevent this, we will try to avoid the feared emotion by engaging in its opposite. Essentially, the true feeling is masked in the exaggerated opposite feeling in order to avoid internal conflict and anxiety. The idea is that the rejected impulse (hate) will exist undeveloped in our subconscious and the resulting emotion does not substitute the hate, it merely masks it.

Freud postulated that our instincts are arranged in pairs. For example, life vs death, action vs passivity, love vs hate and construction vs destruction. In the case of hate, in order to avoid feeling anxiety over how we truly feel,  we respond by engaging in an overflow of love to conceal the hostility.  Love, in this case, will become an exaggerated performance. An example of this is the mother who bears an unwanted child. The mother will become extremely solicitous and overprotective to convince both herself and the child that she is a good mom and does indeed love her child.

The love that arises from the defense mechanism of reaction formation is not based on real emotion. It is love that sprouts as a reaction to our initial feelings of hate. As such, it is a love that is exaggerated, showy, inflexible and compulsive. It is a love that cannot adapt to changing circumstances as genuine emotions. It is a love that must be constantly on display as if any lapse in the performance will cause the real and contrary emotion to display itself.

Some other examples of reaction formation are as follows:

1. Displaying high ideals of virtue and goodness may be reaction formation against primitive urges

2. Altruism may mask selfishness

3. Piety may mask sinfulness

4. A phobia may mask a person’s desires

5. Stockholm syndrome is an example of  hate masking as love

The concept of reaction formation may be difficult to grasp or identify completely. It is an effective defense mechanism that can be disguised in many ways. Essentially, the defense mechanism of reaction formation causes you to express the opposite of your inner feelings through your outward behavior. Your subconscious will choose to express emotions that it deems safe in order to avoid anxiety. Many of us engage in this behavior without being aware of why we act in a certain way. Please note, this is a psychoanalytic theory and is not meant to apply to all situations. I would love to hear about your thoughts and/or experiences with this defense mechanism known as reaction formation.

The thoughts expressed in this blog post are my own and are not meant to create a professional relationship with the reader. This blog does not replace or substitute the help of a medical professional. Please note, I am unable to answer your specific questions as I am not fully aware of all of the circumstances.

Dr. Perry

Copy of Dr. Eric Perry

“I help ambitious and high achieving individuals manifest a life of success and fulfillment in order to achieve the life they truly desire.”

Dr. Eric Perry | drericperry.com

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163 responses to What Lies Beneath Your Emotions – Reaction Formation

  1. Scottspiritualcare.blog says:

    Nice article, in the context of religious organizations I have witnessed ”Piety may mask sinfulness” my observations span decades and I am convinced, the holly and more ” piety, ” expressed the greater the issue..

    Liked by 24 people

  2. A number of years ago I was told to give what I hoped to receive and act the way I wanted to be treated. Your post has me pondering this concept a bit deeper and from a varied perspective. Thought provoking, indeed, Dr. Perry. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 17 people

  3. Sharon says:

    Such an interesting piece Dr Perry!!! Personally, I am trying to deal with this utmost contempt for my oldest sibling. There are days I feel it borders on hate- but, because society in general says we aren’t supposed to feel that way towards family- I try to bury my feelings. I am finding though, that the more I bury it and try to act as though I love this sibling- the more the contempt is actually growing.

    Liked by 19 people

  4. Nyxinked says:

    Wonderful post! I always enjoy seeing that you have a new blog post up, they are always full of information and thought-provoking material. Not to mention you are a fantastic writer.

    I’ll be taking my time thinking about this one. x

    Liked by 16 people

  5. This is a very interesting post. It has me doing a little soul searching. It also reminds me of the antagonists in Lifetime movies. With that being said, how can the affected person recognize when someone is walking in reaction formation? Sooner or later the truth is bound to come out. I think I’d like to know sooner rather than later.

    Liked by 14 people

  6. jonicaggiano says:

    Very interesting Doctor. I have always thought that really having angry or hateful thoughts towards another meant that you had to have feelings for that person to start with. I don’t think hating anyone is a healthy thing to do ever but than I try to focus on the positive in people. Extremely interesting post Doctor and very thought provoking. Thank you.

    Liked by 15 people

  7. Sunshine24/7 says:

    Really interesting topic. I have never heard of this! Thank you very much for explaining and introducing me to this thought provoking idea.

    Liked by 14 people

  8. mividadespuesdeldivorcio says:

    Amazing! In Spanish I read Walter Riso have his entire collections of books, I love this subject, always have, I really enjoyed reading this post.

    Liked by 11 people

  9. Mrs. C says:

    It took me a bit but I understand this concept now. Thank you for explaining it so clearly. Very interesting and makes you think.

    Liked by 13 people

  10. I absolutely loved this writing piece, it is beautifully compelling – also it gives you insight to things you were once oblivious too. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and making a difference!!!

    Liked by 12 people

    • Dr. Perry says:

      You have been marked as spam. Please review my comment policy on the website version of my blog.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Geary Erua says:

    Thank you Dr. Perry. This topic seems very interesting. This article proves how powerful the mind can truly be.

    Liked by 13 people

  12. Aside from interesting this is also sad. We are ruled by what is and isn’t correct, and of course it will have an effect because we are always trying to hide. Fascinating topic, thank you.

    Liked by 14 people

  13. curious•pondering says:

    I needed to read this. I am glad that you wrote it and explained it as clearly as you did.

    Liked by 12 people

  14. Intriguing!! Honestly, I have a similar relationship with my sibling. Since our childhood we’ve had a rocky relationship. When we fought, I’d have a really scary moment afterwards where I’d think, “I really just hate him,” and then automatically feel like I needed to compensate for that emotion, cause I felt it was wrong. And I never understood why I never truly felt better!
    I’ve always felt a really uncomfortable mix of guilt and confusion, and you’ve just helped me understand these emotions and how I should change my way of thinking. Thank you very much!!

    Liked by 8 people

  15. Thank you for this insightful and helpful article. This article has helped me identify those times in my life where I fit right here. At age 66, I am still learning about myself and continue to grow.

    Liked by 12 people

    • Dr. Perry says:

      You’re welcome. Thank you for reading and I am happy to hear you found the post interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. DorothyMarie says:

    Interesting topic. I’d never heard of this before. I don’t think I’ve ever done this before. I went through a period where I disliked my brother. But I never pretended to like him. I just dealt with the anxiety. I truly disrespected him and avoided him mostly.

    Liked by 13 people

  17. weepingsnowflake says:

    This definitely makes me understand different scenarios on a deeper level. Thank you for sharing

    Liked by 11 people

  18. kalanleitch says:

    I see this in action all the time in the teaching community. Teachers who are literally victimised by students develop an overt attachment to those students. It’s happened to me personally… strangely comforting to have a syndrome to attach to it.

    Liked by 11 people

  19. Number 4 is fascinating. I’ve heard it said that our fears reflect our desires. It’s always interesting hearing your objective voice. Not always easy to look in the mirror.

    Liked by 11 people

  20. parikhit dutta says:

    This is interesting! The way we behave, display emotions could be a result of so many factors. I was quite surprised by 5, Stockholm Syndrome.

    Liked by 6 people

  21. Thanks for all the inspiring words and informative posts. I also wanted to let you know that I nominated you for the Mystery Blogger Award. Congrats! You deserve it! No worries if you don’t have time to write an award post. Have a great week!

    Liked by 9 people

  22. Thank you for sharing Dr. Perry. At times, I couldn’t understand the love-hate relationship with my siblings. It feels weird to hate them because they are related (by blood) with us. Even we are upset, we are required to portray the best attitude towards family members, ie forgiving, patience, supportive. Probably it’s also due to family value taught by parents, and we were not taught to acknowledge how we feel all the time, simple reason because life doesn’t just revolve around us.

    Liked by 10 people

  23. I can see how this plays out. I for one was brought up to suppress primitive urges and now I KNOW my primitive urges are real and what shapes me. Therefore, I’m into the arts: acting, dancing, painting, writing. That is where I find myself. Or rather, the energy that shapes me. I like to know that I’m not one entity but an organic organism that moves with the people I’m with and the environment I’m in.

    Liked by 6 people

  24. Leonard L. Sand says:

    Dr. Perry, thank you for writing and sharing this interesting article about reaction formation! I’m looking forward to read more of your articles!

    Liked by 8 people

  25. Thank you for sharing the insightful article. It interesting to read that ‘anxiety and internal conflict’ can lead to hate. For many years I had a strong emotional dislike for my mother. Part of me felt justified to do so – but at the same time I felt ashamed of myself. It is only after I made a decision to forgive myself and everybody everything, that today I love her.

    Liked by 9 people

  26. Hi Dr. Perry,
    This is mind-bending stuff! I know you can’t answer personal questions for liability reasons, but this sounds much like the love-bombing phase that is part of the narcissistic abuse pattern/dynamic. I’ve been love bombed by many of my abusers over the years; parents, spouse and child, and although I’m able to spot it more readily now, sadly… after reading this… I’m now not sure if I’ve ever been loved? I was going to ask you to write an article about how to know the difference between love and love-bombing, and the answer just appeared… there’s no abuse. Bingo. Eye-opening!

    Liked by 8 people

  27. Such an interesting post. I’ve never heard of reaction formation, but can now pick a part pieces of my own behavior that align with it. My family was very religious when I was growing up. And similar to a good chuck of people who follow religion, we had a host of skeletons in the closet. Our desire to do good wasn’t as pure as I’d like to believe.

    Liked by 10 people

  28. cshelz says:

    As someone who has only recently started self-reflecting, I found this very thought-provoking; it immediately made me think of situations in which I’d consciously done this, but not really thought about the reasons. I always just assumed that I was making a conscious decision to be nice to someone when I knew I was annoyed with them because I knew that a situation might not be wholly their fault, yet I did not think that I was trying to avoid the anxiety I’d feel at hurting that person or possibly even losing them as a friend. This has really encouraged me to reflect a little deeper on the decision I make when it comes to reacting and not assume that my immediate instincts about the reasons are the right ones. And reasons are important…

    Liked by 5 people

  29. izzyglitched says:

    I find this topic quite relevant to a situation I experienced today. First, I am in treatment for substance abuse and live in a sober house with four other men, which means shared kitchen and dinning. I would consider myself mindful of others and say I clean up after myself. Yet, I find myself building resentments toward people when they do not clean up after themselves. This is naturally an uncomfortable feeling. Sometimes, I am understanding and clean up after them and it doesn’t affect my mood so much but other times I clean up after them and it does. Take today, I went beyond what I normally do and went on a mini cleaning frenzy. In hind sight and after reading your article I would say I was doing these actions to ease the resentment I felt. This was an enjoyable read.

    Liked by 5 people

  30. dewofmay says:

    Excellent post Dr! Thank you for reconfirming some thoughts I have always had on this topic. It amazing how we humans have such opposite traits co-exist in us.

    Liked by 6 people

  31. Ray Davis says:

    Fascinating topic. I always enjoy your blogs. I’ve certainly seen what appears to be reaction formation in other people. It seems like a good exercise for all of us to evaluate ourselves to see where this might be at play in ourselves.

    This mechanism seems like a type of social conformity. It would be interesting to know if this impulse is innate or happens as the result of internalized social conditioning.

    Liked by 6 people

  32. thenewsundays says:

    I am glad to see some psychoanalytic theory coming up in the feed. I’m a psych student and it’s too often dismissed…

    The more self-aware I have become, the less I believe I am using defence mechanisms such as reaction formation as I am aware of the process and I catch myself in action and change it. But, then again, I wonder if I can ever truly become so self-aware that I only use constructive defence mechanisms such as sublimation (turning a negative into a positive).

    Liked by 6 people

  33. liberallin says:

    Dr. Perry, imagine my surprise at 3 am when your ‘like’ popped up. I almost drowned in the too small tub! Seriously , I throughly enjoyed your article. Have always been fascinated with emotional disorders…used to have a job demying people ss benefits…And I know I can find my picture on one of those case studies in the Encyclopedia of disorders I used to keep on my desk. Looking forward to learning more.

    Liked by 6 people

  34. Hello Dr. Perry,

    Well done using examples to discuss reaction formation. It makes sense that distressing thoughts have some sort of mechanism to minimize them. Reaction formation seems to be one way that people can avoid distressing thoughts. I am now more curious about other ways that people can avoid these.

    Thanks for sharing this post!

    Liked by 5 people

  35. Smrithi says:

    This makes a lot of sense! Gave me a vague idea about certain circumstances. I love knowing the scientific side of emotions. Thanks for this write up Dr Perry!

    Liked by 5 people

  36. meenawalia says:

    Solved a doubt in my mind reading this article.The person I know usually hides behind painful emotions by being extremely aggressive.Thanks a lot for sharing coz now knowing his true feelings I might be able to help him.Thanks once again

    Liked by 5 people

  37. Wow. That’s a whole lot of great information on this topic. My brother (a veterinarian), while he was still in school, once told me that he was taught never to trust your emotions (in logical decisions). We were both, much younger, and I didn’t believe him. Isaac Asimov said, emotions will save your life when you don’t have time to do it by reasoning, and, I’d agree (fight or flight). Well, I suppose I could go on and on and on forever so I’ll stop here. Thanks for a great article!

    Liked by 2 people

  38. Loved reading this! Glad to see Freud making an appearance without having a negative undertone to it. Still such a shame the psychoanalytic theory isn’t really taught nowadays. Thanks for this!

    Liked by 3 people

  39. iamvhardik says:

    It was an interesting read. Especially the part on instincts. How they arrive in pairs and affect the responses of a human to the stimuli.

    Liked by 4 people

  40. John B says:

    Thank you so much for this fascinating post. I have never heard this term and you explain it very well. I have to say I love your blog.

    Liked by 2 people

  41. Max says:

    Wow such an interesting topic! I have never heard of reaction formation but I think it’s explains some of my behaviors. You gave me a lot to think about. Thank you

    Liked by 2 people

  42. Hi,
    Your posts are interesting. Mental distress is something which is very common now and there is a greater need to address people dealing with such issues. Your posts are helpful. I am not a professional but yes have enough experience now to address some concerns and offer guidance.

    Liked by 4 people

  43. sUbjective Individualism says:

    Seems to me that the thought of going against the “status quo” – what our culture teaches us we should and shouldn’t be thinking and doing -encompasses a certain amount of anxiety in all cases (at least initially). It’s a walk into the unknown causing conflict within the self. Nice post!

    Liked by 5 people

  44. inditer14 says:

    Very informative! I have seen and/or have displayed some of this myself but didn’t have a formal name for it heretofore! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

  45. Isha Garg says:

    A touchy and interesting subject! Such conversations and discussions are much needed in a world that shuns an open discussion of major mental health issues. Thanks for this post, Dr. Perry!

    Liked by 3 people

  46. This can also happen in a business transaction. I find that distancing myself from the offender and being strictly professional is how I cope with another realtor who is manipulative.

    Liked by 3 people

  47. Steve Weeks says:

    As a regular performer I believe the motivation to be on stage can be such a reaction to actual shyness. The stage offers a mask, actually a fake situation where one appears (to others but more importantly to oneself) to be brave, in control, confident. The truth is that an audience conspires with a performer by remaining mostly silent and there is actually no true conversation happening.

    Liked by 3 people

  48. soodamittai says:

    human mind is fascinating and at the same time terrifying. thanks doc! this is a wonderful piece of writing.
    the words “Altruism may mask selfishness ” – i’m understanding now! it’s an amazing concept that you put in wonderful words. it deserves so much appreciations !!!

    Liked by 2 people

  49. A.E. Hughes - Philosophy and Writing says:

    Our innate tendency to avoid all things which cause pain…pleasure pain principle. Interesting article.

    Liked by 3 people

  50. annastk76 says:

    Hi Dr Perry! I’m so glad I discovered your blog – these are concepts and theories I’m only scratching the surface of (just finishing level 2 Counselling, all being well finishing levels 3 and 4 by July 2021, by which time I’ll be qualified to practice) and this is all so fascinating. 👌

    Liked by 3 people

  51. KJ says:

    This was fascinating! As an author with a head full of characters, I can see how this would be helpful in figuring out some of their motives. Thank you!

    Liked by 3 people

  52. Jacqueline says:

    How true this is… I am feeling like you brought light to my eyes. I think my fun happiness and joy of life I have found again in past year. Perhaps it does mask something I am struggling with

    Liked by 3 people

  53. Wow, reading your blog is like a breath of fresh air. Offering information for free that could change the way people think is true altruism. I’m sure that you are a very busy person so taking time out to help others is great and greatly appreciated. Thanks so much.

    Liked by 4 people

  54. Sadly I have seen parents put their energy into being upstanding members in the community only to find out years later the abuse some of their children experienced from their hand. Makes me suspicious now when I see someone work ‘too’ hard at being upstanding in the community. It’s a warped version of the catholic idea of doing penance.

    Liked by 4 people

  55. fatemehblogs says:

    Very interesting read. It is true that we tend to mask our true nature with other attributes lest our real feelings be known. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

  56. juliekarey says:

    Wow this is actually make a lot of sense out of a complicated relationship I’m trying to navigate. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  57. There is a lot of truth in this. Piety to mask sinfulness because by nature we err continually. If a person who believes in morals and higher power acts so, he masks his sinfulness through piety. Personally, I can perhaps relate somewhat to masking primitive urges through virtue, and selfishness through altruism perhaps.
    I can’t say that in case of feelings of love and anger I have felt that there is a reaction formation.
    Maybe at some moments of anger which are uncontrollable and have to be masked or brought under control. Very thought provoking

    Liked by 1 person

  58. You’ve got quite an interesting perspective of the reaction formation.
    Sometimes I know that I must fulfill my obligation and while trying to continue despite hurt or anger, I feel the masking effect that you described.
    Sometimes it just takes opening up and addressing the trigger of the initial emotion.
    It is more difficult when the issue is with someone who does not naturally cooperate.
    Lovely post!

    Liked by 2 people

  59. Jorinde says:

    I think it can be useful to find out for yourself in how far you want to PROOF your emotions, how important it is to have them seen, as a clue to whether they’re genuine or not.

    Liked by 1 person

  60. Mia says:

    My shaman brother said to me something along the lines: “sometimes two people hate each other but after a while… etc” which applied to my situation. My first reaction was exactly that – that I can’t possibly hate that person. But a little later I discovered I wasn’t completely honest with myself…reading this made me want to look at a situation again and deeper.

    Liked by 2 people

  61. I faced something similar with a sibling, my older brother. I did not hate him, but, to be honest, saying that I loved him would be a lie. Truths found out about him after his death made me lose what little respect I had for him, but I still can’t say I hate him. I endured him at family functions in an aloof kind of way out of respect to the family as a whole. He simply wasn’t someone I would have chosen to have in my life if I’d had a choice.

    Liked by 2 people

  62. imlistenning says:

    Your writing and expressing of your ideals is very good. I like when you describe a certain condition but you follow it up with an example. It helps the reader better understand what they read rather than assume what they read made any sense.

    In this article, it makes sense in the way how and why my mother treated me. I have a fantastic memory so I can recall specific details and based on what you wrote it clarifies how she may have actually subliminally felt about me. It helps with closure. I shall begin to explore how my significant other treats me and see if these ideas also support the hypothesis. Thanks for your time.

    Liked by 1 person

  63. I recognise this as motivating a lot of my behavior.. In my experience it is one of the reasons a childhood education steeped in Catholicism or religious principles can be so damaging.. We try to be ‘good’ rather that genuine and then bury our real selves.. a very helpful and enlightening post.

    Liked by 2 people

  64. From my own experiences, I think that one of the signs that reaction formation is occurring is when I feel as though I have to resist the initial emotion that appeared, even after the second emotion was expressed. Like another comment had said, sometimes I might feel hatred for someone, yet be loving because it feels inappropriate otherwise, but it only seems to increase the hatred I feel for them inside.

    I can also see times whereby the pairing emotion was helpful. Sometimes I might feel hatred for someone, yet I’m also aware of the love I have for them, the second emotion overcoming the first. I end up expressing the initial emotion in a loving manner instead e.g., ‘I love you, but I really don’t think that that was appropriate’.

    Liked by 2 people

  65. researchorganizedgangstalking says:

    An excellent movie that documents classic reaction formation is Hacksaw Ridge, the story of a conscientioys objector.

    Directed by Mel Gibson, its the story of Desmond Doss, an American war hero who goes from a biblical Cain and Abel scenario in childhood, to becoming a hero by saving 75 lives on Okinawa.

    A truly excellent film.

    Liked by 2 people

  66. researchorganizedgangstalking says:

    Great! Its a classic reaction formation movie.

    In a sort of related film, Mel Gibson explores the 19th century framing of an atheist as insane, according to the standards of parochial Occidental society.

    “The Professor and the Madman,” the story of Dr. William C. Minor (who was likely neither insane, nor necessarily criminal ) is an excellent explication of many topics in psychology, but control of an individual, and the mind within him, is the centerpiece.

    Liked by 3 people

  67. Really great content!!! It made me think about how I have experienced so much hurt, trauma from family members, and how being a peacemaker and a christian woman I am taught to love no matter what! But I realize that I suppress my true feelings and when around those people I feel a lot of anxiety and feel triggered. It’s when I allow myself to really feel my emotions when anxiety is felt but released

    Liked by 4 people

  68. Unlocking The Hidden Me says:

    Wonderful posts you have. Just have gone through the topics, definitely will be reading for sure, it’s really intriguing. Samreen

    Liked by 3 people

  69. Thank you for this interesting article and information about reaction formation. Upon reading it, I could quickly see it in myself in some cases and in others in some cases as well. I always appreciate yet another way to understand the human psyche!

    Liked by 4 people

  70. I thought this was a really interesting and well put together post.
    I’m intrigued…
    With some people I feel there is a distinct love/hate at the surface, and it’s almost like a severe conflict going on within you

    Liked by 1 person

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