In Sigmund Freud‘s psychoanalytic theory, reaction formation is a defense mechanism in which a repressed, socially unacceptable impulse is expressed in an exaggerated, opposite way. The original impulse, perceived as bad or anxiety producing, remains unresolved in its unconscious, infantile form. This feeds the flames of a neuroses.
An example of a reaction formation would be the LGBT hater who represses his or her own LGBT fantasies. Another would be the disordered criminal who denigrates the so-called “mentally ill.”
Reaction formation isn’t always a lifelong sentence. With increased personal maturity it may lead to the successful sublimation of the original, fearful impulse. Sublimation, according to Freudian theory, means redirecting something negative into a socially acceptable channel.¹
A socially acceptable response to a fearful impulse would be, for instance, the mother who sublimates sexual desire for her son into buying him fine clothing.
However, some maintain that this is not the best solution. Different thinkers each have unique solutions. But generally, they say that the optimal solution is to resolve socially unacceptable impulses through analysis, prayer or other spiritual techniques for purification. In other words, become conscious of the impulse to transcend it.
Other theorists say it’s impossible to eradicate sexual desires, appropriate or not. At best one can just “put them in the right place,” within the psyche. But this essentially medical, psychiatric view is at odds with accounts from saints like Faustina Kowalska who wrote about the divine gift of celibacy.²
Reaction formation has also been discussed in the context of hostage taking and other oppressive situations like the holocaust. Here the victim actually comes to like or even love their oppressor.³ This seems to be a desperate attempt to make good of a lousy situation where one or more creeps exercise physical, economic or cultic power over a victim who, deep down, really doesn’t like it.4
¹ Wikipedia says this is an unconscious process but it need not be. Many people are aware, for instance, that they redirect their anger and frustration into something positive, like housecleaning or other undesirable tasks. One “attacks” the problem.
² See also http://www.religious-vocation.com
³ 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 ‘favourites’ among the guards and even collecting objects discarded by them. >> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reaction_formation
4 In a less extreme sense, one could ask how many wives, husbands and priests would continue in their “loving” relationship or vocation if it didn’t bring economic security. That might sound cynical but I think, in some cases, it’s a realistic question.
Related » Reversal
Charles Rycroft, A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1977, pp. 136-137.