Reaction Formation

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Reaction Formation is an Awareness Reduction Mechanisms] that the Bodily Ego uses to avoid uncomfortable confrontation with reality. When we engage in reaction formation, we engage in opposite or contrasting behaviour in order to reinforce a reduced awareness. We present a false image of ourselves and our reality to the world to convince ourselves and others we are something that we are not.

Other Awareness Reduction Mechanisms

Awareness Reduction Mechanisms > Avoidance, Denial, Displacement, Dissociation, Distortion, Distraction, Diversion, Gaslighting, Intellectualization, Internalization, Projection, Rationalization, Reaction Formation, Regression, Repression, Sublimation

Related Terms

Awareness Reduction Mechanisms > Bodily Ego, Cognitive Wall, Defence Mechanisms, Disjuncture, Externally Directed ARMs, Internally Directed Arms


The classic example of reaction formation is the abusive and toxic family that spends all its time cleaning, shining, primping, and performing in order to make their house, yard, and life look perfect so they can appear like a healthy, functional family. A family such as this one may be ignorant, abusive, controlling, and violent, yet the family tries to distort the views of others by acting in a way exactly opposite of reality. A perfectly clean house, a perfectly manicured yard, perfectly dressed children, and perfect smiles all help cover the toxic reality beneath. The presentation and performances all distort reality and help to reinforce repression by reinforcing the family’s own self-delusions, and by preventing challenge from the outside world. Outsiders who see the “perfect” family are unlikely to think untoward about the family and unlikely to challenge the family’s repression.

Another example of reaction formation is the gay priest who has been made to feel intense guilt and shame over their homosexuality, and thus becomes virulently homophobic just to make sure nobody ever thinks he is gay. This could also be the bad parent who becomes the local Girl Scout troupe leader just to distract from her own abuse by building the image for herself and for others that she is good with kids.

Distortion and reaction formation are increasingly pathological and increasingly violent defence mechanisms. They are pathological because they increasingly detach an individual from reality. They are violent because they increasingly involve others in efforts to repress. A gay priest that becomes homophobic in order to deny, distort, and repress isn’t just trying to repress his awareness and isn’t just harming himself, he is also trying to modify awareness and reality of others, with sometimes disastrous results. A priest that pounds the homophobic pulpit in order to defend against awareness of homosexuality encourages, by virtue of their status as spiritual authority, parents and teachers of gay children to punish and assault them, rather than accept and love them. This can lead to chronic family abuse and significant harm to children, even to the point of self-harm and suicide. Distortion and reaction formation are not, in other words, victimless crimes. They impact the individual and others as well. It is worthwhile noting that people who are engaged in reaction formation are deeply traumatized and afraid. Their fear at being “outed,” the fear that somebody may realize the truth about their toxic family, their queer sexuality, their abusive history, or whatever, and the anguish, shame, and pain that would result from that awareness, leads them to interfere with reality with increasing desperation.