Reaction Formation and the Ego Defense Mechanisms

Reaction Formation and the Ego Defense Mechanisms

Reaction Formation and the Ego Defense Mechanisms
Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D.

"We knowers are unknown to ourselves, and for good reason: How can we ever hope to find what we never look for? There is a sound adage which runs: "Where a man's treasure lies, there lies his heart." Our treasure lies in the beehives of our knowledge. We are perpetually on our way thither, being by nature winged insects and honey gatherers of the mind. The only thing that lies close to our heart is the desire to bring something home to the hive. The sad truth is that we remain necessarily strangers to ourselves, we don't understand our own substance. We must mistake ourselves; the axiom, "Each man is farthest from himself," will hold for us to all eternity. Of ourselves we are not knowers." --Nietzsche

Since the invention of complex spoken language and the advent and eventual dominance of linguistic consciousness, many functions mediated by the right half of the cerebrum and the limbic system have often been viewed as dangerous, sinful, or irrelevant. Indeed, so autocratic and presumptuous is the left half of the brain that not only does it try not to be conscious of many of these natural abilities, impulses and inclinations, but has attempted to suppress or discard them as useless and unimportant.

This is so terribly unfortunate for the right brain possesses tremendous talent and innumerable capabilities, much of which were millions of years in the making and which enabled our very ancient ancestors to live in harmony with themselves, with others, and with the natural and supernatural world surrounding.

Unfortunately, since the left brain often refuses to fully utilize or is unable to acknowledge the existence of this supposedly hidden world and all the possibilities it represents, many (non-sports related) natural non-linguistic abilities which prevailed for over 100,000 or more years have been allowed to whither. "If you don't use it you lose it." Many of us have been increasingly taught to forsake the capacities so long and painstakingly developed and which are now associated with the right half of the brain, and instead have become slave to the linguistic whims, confabulations, and rationales of the left brain and have thus increasingly lost touch with the Original Mind which at one time dominated the mental system maintained by both the right and left cerebral hemispheres.

Many of us have forgotten who and what we are and from whence we came and have been forced by prevailing logic, rationalizations, reasons, and preconceptions, to deny the unconscious wealth which can be found within our own mind. This has given rise to unnecessary feelings of guilt, and innumerable psychic and interpersonal conflicts, and has increasingly disrupted the harmony and maintenance of what was over a million years in the making: the family and the capacity to see things as they. All to often, of ourselves we are not knowers.

Indeed, it is a curious thing about the conscious mind, for if repeatedly told that something is unacceptable, or to feel guilt for having or expressing certain thoughts, often it and the whole brain in fact begins to feel guilty and will reject and condemn what in fact may be quite normal. In order to not feel guilty, the conscious mind begins to believe what it has been told, or what it tells itself, and then denies, represses and explains away even the most natural of phenomena, even when they are an integral part of the Self.

Many modern human beings are so completely out of touch with who and what they are, and they have so willingly accepted the verbal labels applied by others as to what is acceptable, normal, and so on, that sometimes even the most natural of body functions, such as breast feeding, sweat, body odor, urination, defecation, and even the sexual act, is somehow viewed as abnormal, depraved, uncouth, and uncivilized, even when these actions or functions occur within the privacy of one's own home. At the minimum these topics are a source of embarrassment for many, and there are thus numerous products on the market to make one appear and smell as if a person is other than who they are, even when what they look and smell like is perfectly OK (and by this I do not mean the unwashed body).

There is so much pressure, starting in childhood, to disavow certain tendencies, to wear certain clothes with the right designer label, to use the right perfumes or colognes, to drink certain alcoholic beverages, or to maintain a certain hair style or color, or a certain weight, waist or breast size, and so on, that the true self often becomes lost in the process. We are all bombarded with these messages, be they from advertisers, the media, our parents when we were young, or even the prevailing culture which constantly tells us even what is fashionable to think, feel, or believe. The overarching message is that "you need help," "you need to change," as what you are may not be acceptable.

But acceptable to who? We must deny and be other than we are because it may offend someone else's sensibilities. They may not like us or reject us, and if others do not like or approve of us, how can we like ourselves? So, if we wish to be accepted, we must be other than what we are; at least that is what many are erroneously led to believe.

Sometimes, what is offensive to one person is another person's mental health, intellectual capability, independence, physical or athletic prowess or beauty and sex appeal, or even their lack of concern as to what others might think. However, the person who is offended, who demands that "you" change in order to appease their sensitivities, are often responding to their own insecurities, some of which have nothing to do with the person being attacked. As pertaining to advertisers, it should be obvious that they are not concerned as to anyone's health or psychological well being, but only in making money and will say or do whatever the law allows to get consumers to spend as much of it as possible.

Some people are easily offended, however, not so much because they wish "you" to change so as to improve yourself, but because what they see reminds them of their own hidden self, and their own disowned and disguised impulses and desires, or, perhaps their own inadequacies. Rather than feel guilt for their own inclinations, they instead fling guilt and condemnation on those who represent their own unknown face.


In the land of the blind, those with eyes are said not to see.

Humans are fraught with all kinds of desires and "needs". They have a need to eat, a need to make love, a need to go for a walk, a need to go to the bathroom, a need for knowledge, a need for companionship, a need for physical activity, and the list goes on. Although we may label our desires and needs in a variety of ways (e.g., physical needs, emotional needs), some might best be categorized as "good needs" whereas others would properly be described as "bad needs." For example, the need for drugs or the unconscious need to resurrect certain aspects of a painful childhood, as in the need to be hurt, rejected, neglected, might best be described as bad needs. Although admittedly the notions of good and bad are relative and value laden, what is meant here by "bad needs" are those which are harmful or self-destructive.

All desires, impulses, and needs, regardless of their being good or bad, are generated by the various regions of our brain and originate in response to our internal and external environment and in reaction to the manner in which others treat us. Our needs and desires are thus shaped by conscious as well as unconscious forces as well as our conscious and unconscious self-image.

Indeed, some desires, needs and impulses come to be denied, whereas others are disguised or misinterpreted in accordance with the manner in which we and others view ourselves. Some desires and unconscious impulses are not acceptable to our self-image. When this occurs conscious and unconscious conflicts sometimes result and the individual may completely fail to recognize and thus meet his real needs. This may leave him in a state of deprivation and dissatisfaction which in turn may generate feelings of anger or depression as well as considerable tension.

Denial and misinterpretation may also incite people to engage in activities which have little or nothing to do with their original needs. This may happen when the original unconscious impulses are completely contrary to the person's conscious self-image. Indeed, some people feel one thing while conducting themselves in a completely opposite manner. When they react against their inner impulses by behaving in a fashion opposite to them, so as to disguise them, they have engaged in Reaction Formation.


Mary had been raised in a small farming town by fairly strict parents who emphasized conservative, moral and religious principles. Mary in fact saw herself as a fairly conservative, moral individual.

When she married, her husband was the first and only man she had ever made love to. Although she maintained her conservative viewpoint and life style, Mary discovered that she loved sex and became completely uninhibited in the bedroom much to her slight embarrassment and the delight of her husband.

Two years into their marriage they moved to the Big City and bought a small house. On the day they moved in Mary noticed that their next door neighbor was in his yard working. His shirt was off, his chest was hairy, and she was taken by his muscular arms and shoulders. He looked up at her and smiled, and she smiled back. That night, to her dismay, she found her thoughts drifting to him when she and her husband made love. This made her feel very guilty so she tried to blot him out of her mind.

Two days later he came over and introduced himself. Feeling extremely nervous and uncomfortable she was not very nice to him (i.e. a reaction to her original impulse and desire). That afternoon she found herself thinking about him over and over and that night as she and her husband made love, she began to imagine it was the man next door. She began feeling nervous and upset, tried to blot out the image and then midway, much to her husband's chagrin suddenly indicated she was not feeling well.

The next day and the next she refused to have sex with her husband, complaining of not feeling well and of having no sexual desire. She began dressing more conservatively than was her nature and for the next three months consented to have sex only once. During that time they had frequent arguments. She complained bitterly that he was just "using" her as a "sex object," that she was "better than that," was not "brought up that way," didn't have "any sexual desire," and "never really wanted to anyway." She claimed she "just did it to please" him, but was through with that because she is "not some wanton hussy" and he was no longer going to treat her like a "whore." When he threatened a divorce, she sought counseling.

Essentially Mary was utilizing a defense mechanism referred to as "reaction formation" as well as "denial" and "projection". She denied having sexual feelings. She projected and blamed her bad feelings and guilt on to her husband (thus enabling her to ignore the real source). And she protected her self image and the image she presented to others by behaving and reacting completely opposite to what she was really (unconsciously) desiring: "I'm not a whore. I am a nun!" She reacted by forming feelings and ideas completely opposite to what she was truly desiring. By engaging in these defense mechanisms she was able to defend herself from consciously confronting certain unconscious impulses or personal characteristics which she would have found abhorrent.

Although by utilizing these defenses she seemed to be countering a "bad need," she in fact confused a good need (sexual desire) with a bad need (a desire for her neighbor) and essentially stifled both thus damaging her relationship with her husband.

Essentially, Mary felt a desire which was completely contrary to her moral and conservative conscious self image. Because she felt sexual desire for her neighbor she in turn (i.e. her unconscious Parent, and conscious Self) felt like a "wanton hussy," and a "whore" (feelings she projected and blamed on her husband instead of the fellow next door). She could have utilized a different defense mechanism such as "Projection." That is, she could have decided that it was her neighbor that had these desires so as to explain away these bad feelings by blaming him for making her uncomfortable. (Projection will be dealt with in a later section.)

Being a whore, or screwing her neighbor were completely contrary to her conscious self image. So to defend herself from feeling like a whore she had to react by denying her sexual desires. She reacted to these desires by claiming (and believing) she had absolutely no sexual feelings. By denying her sexual desire she was able to deny her desire for the man next door and thus preserve her self image. "I couldn't possible want to screw the man next door. I was not nice to him. I have no sexual desire. I am not a whore!"

Reaction formation allows a person to maintain his conscious self-image by forming and engaging in behaviors or thinking certain thoughts which are in all ways opposite to his original unconscious impulse.

The person who has an unconscious "inferiority complex," as we've noted, may also attempt to deal with his fears and feelings of inadequacy by reaction formation. He develops a "superiority complex," the flip side of the same coin. Essentially he is saying: "I am not inferior. I am superior." Nevertheless, the extreme and exaggerated manner of responding, i.e. by acting superior, is a pretty reliable indication that he is in fact fearful of being seen as an inferior being. His conduct and attitude is designed to hide the truth from himself and others by acting in a manner completely opposite to what he unconsciously believes and feels.


For some people an unconscious need, desire or tendency may be so contrary or upsetting to the conscious self-image that they go to great lengths to suppress, deny, compensate or overcome their feared unconscious impulses. When this occurs, sometimes the continual effort to deny and suppress a desire results in its gaining strength, like a steam pressure cooker.

Subsequently the original impulse may burst forth in hugely exaggerated dimensions. This probably explains to some degree the cases of famous (and not so famous) evangelists who in the thick of the night seek out prostitutes or engage in other "scandalous" behaviors that during the day and amongst their flock they thunderously condemn; i.e. reaction formation: "I don't want to have sex. Sex is evil and bad."

Unfortunately, when an impulse is suppressed, it often gains strength and may actually increase it desirability by giving it a certain extra allure; i.e. forbidden fruit.

For example, the very reverend Thomas had a dutiful wife, a large congregation, his own radio ministry, and sometimes appeared as a guest on the show of one noted television evangelist. Where other preachers of his ilk were concerned with "Liberals", "Democrats', and the need for "more money," Thomas wanted to wash the world clean of the evils of sex: "Sin and fornication," he would shout, his eyes bulging, " is not the heat of passion, but the furnace of hell. Sex is a sty in the eye of God. Pluck out thine eye if it offends thee...The devil walks among us and his name is sex. Sex is the blight of human kind...we have become a cesspool of sinners. Pornography, abortions, disco dancing, adultery...Sex is the key to the gate of hell..."

Given his fervent shouting about the evils of non-reproductive sex, his congregation and ministry were completely aghast when they saw his picture in the local paper after his being arrested for soliciting sex from a police decoy. What was even more shocking was that the decoy was male.

"It was the devil...." he sobbed. "The devil made me do it...he is trying to destroy God's work...don't let him succeed...this is proof of the Devil's evil....don't be fooled by the devil...send me your me spread the word..."

And he, like several other noted and infamous evangelists, actually seem to believe his own denials. Unfortunately it is not the word of God that they truly wish to spread...

As to those evangelists who sought out prostitutes or members of their own congregation for adulterous sex (while vehemently condemning the very behavior they were engaged in), it is indeed possible that consciously they believed their own lies, though some appear to be nothing more than complete charlatans. It is also possible that they also believed that the evil devil made them "do it." The devil is of course their own unconscious 1.

In any case, these evangelists and others of their ilk, suppressed and denied normal sexual desires and curiosity because they considered it sinful. However, denying the desire did not make it go away. The desire, like a hunger for the "forbidden fruit," only grew stronger and more intense, until it burst forth and overcame them. If they had let the pressure out gradually they would not have found themselves seeking "forbidden fruit" in a hotel room with a hooker. Unfortunately, for some of these men, normal sexual desire was probably not acceptable to their conscious self image. Suppressing these feelings, however, only resulted in their becoming overwhelmed by their desire.

In some instances, however, it is likely that elicit sex is sought for the purposes of engaging in "kinky" activities that they fear their wives would find abhorrent. Hence, to keep their self image intact, at least as reflected by their loved ones, these wayward men of God find an unknown other whose perceptions are inconsequential. Presumably God is not watching.

Thus depending on a person's self-concept, self-image, and conscious values, he may be plagued by unconscious desires and impulses that are in fact normal, but which disturb him. Although normal, if unacceptable to his conscious self-image, he will go to great lengths to extinguish them via suppression and denial and will lie to himself and others about his own inclinations. He may attempt to keep this or that particular need unconscious and refuse to acknowledge its existence consciously. The left half of the brain, refusing to consciously access information that is possessed unconsciously, can thus believe it's own lies. Contradictory information is not available.


It is not at all unusual for a person actually to employ a number of defense mechanisms simultaneously, such as "reaction formation," "compensation," as well as "self-deception" and "denial."

For example, a man raised in an environment in which tenderness, nurturance, or femininity (that is, within a man) are treated with derision, may deny any "soft," "caring," or nurturing qualities within himself.

If "Rambo" has consciously accepted that a man must have no "feminine" characteristics and has fashioned his self-image accordingly, then any tendencies he possesses which could remotely be considered feminine would have to be reinterpreted, misinterpreted, denied and suppressed. He will subsequently be forced to exert a tremendous amount of energy hiding these tendencies from himself. Consequently he will feel a considerable degree of tension as well as self-doubt.

What does he do when feeling such tension? He utilizes it in an adaptive fashion to eradicate his self doubt and any possible suggestion that he is not 100% prime beef MAN! He begins to run and lift weights on a daily basis, takes classes in marshal arts, wears heavy gold chains around his neck (which he would be surprised to discover, some people consider feminine) and joins the Air Force in order to become a jet fighter pilot. Unfortunately, although he has succeeded in becoming an Ace pilot and in developing muscles where no muscle has gone before, he feels unhappy. Something is missing in his life. He continues to feel self-doubt and thus becomes depressed. His unexpressed needs continue to strive for expression and he feels tension and conflict. The pressure cooker is cooking.

How does he resolve this? He begins to take steroids and anyone who dares to even subtly question his masculinity is beaten to a pulp.

What has driven "Rambo" to become super macho man? It could very likely be his unconscious femininity. Indeed, the more masculine or "macho" a man feels he must be, the more he may be expending energy to eradicate his "soft" inner feminine core. He thus overcompensates for a feared personal defect.

What this particular "Rambo" has done is misinterpret the desire and impulse to be "caring" and "nurturing" and reshaped these tendencies in accordance with his conscious self-image. He has responded to these impulses by behaving in a manner completely opposite to his real nature. He has engaged in denial and reaction formation. He will not be caring, he will be brutal. He will be brutal and overly manly because he needs to prove to himself that he is not in any manner feminine.

If these impulses and the tensions driving them were not there initially, the energy to drive his masculine quest would would have been missing. The tension of his original unmet needs thus continue to plague him causing pangs of unhappiness, anger and self-doubt. The tension mounts with each passing day.

Like the evangelist, "Rambo" feels increasingly threatened by these now exaggerated unconscious tensions as the pressure cooker boils. As they grow he begins to fear that these impulses and tendencies represent something much more terrible than a desire to be "caring" and "nurturing." By being suppressed they have also begun to take on exaggerated importance and dimensions. Now his fear of what these impulses imply also increases. By feeling his own fear the threatening nature of these impulses deepens. He has created a vicious circle and a downward spiral.

Though being a caring, nurturing human being is a natural and normal quality possessed not only by females, but by most members of the human race, he feels beside himself. Unfortunately for "Rambo" the exaggerated nature of these disguised impulses now threaten his entire self-image and he begins to fear that he is a homosexual. If he had confronted his own unconscious tenderness he would not now feel overwhelmed by impulses that he considers horrible. His response to is to engage in "gay bashing."

He thus makes use of defense mechanisms such as compensation, denial and reaction formation to protect his conscious self-image. He thunders to himself: "I am not a queer. I hate queers."

Isn't it curious that some men who are repelled by the notion of two men "touching" one another in an "intimate manner," feel compelled to make intimate physical contact with them; that is, in the form of physical blows. Is this yet another disguised impulse and need? As one homophobe told me: "I couldn't wait to get my hands on those queers!"


Individuals employ a variety of defense mechanisms. A defense mechanism is a protective strategy most often utilized by the conscious mind and left brain. Defense mechanisms serve so to prevent conscious recognition of information which is in some manner threatening to the conscious self image. In other words, the conscious mind has to have at least some notion as to what is threatening, in order to defend against it.

Some forms of information are simply too overwhelming, too threatening and too difficult to deal with or confront openly. The suspicion that one's spouse may be having an affair might be too threatening and painful to acknowledge. Consequently one may consciously decide to ignore any clues picked up by the right half of the brain which may then force one to read the "writing on the wall." The person may engage in "denial," in which case they simply deny the obvious. They may engage in "suppression," in which they simply refuse to confront consciously even the slightest hint of betrayal. Or they may engage in "rationalization," such that they make up and confabulate "rational" explanation which explain away the obvious. The left brain is very good at fooling itself.

RATIONALIZATION. "Yes. There was lipstick on his collar and shirt, and he did have the aroma of perfume on his body, and he did come home rather late. But he rides a crowded elevator and lots of women work in his building.Besides he had a lot of work and meetings to go to so that's why he was late and that's why he couldn't have been with another woman; he was at a meeting. And I know he loves me. He brought home those nice roses; even though he did forget and leave them in the car until I found them...."

PROJECTION. When a person engages in projection, he is usually blaming someone else for his own unacceptable desires, impulses, or bad conduct, as in, "Somebody around here wants to have an affair. It must be you!"

John, a happily married, moral man, is flirting with his secretary who a few days earlier separated from her husband. She makes a suggestion about his coming over for dinner to "go over these reports." Although he is tempted, he declines because he knows what might occur.

As he walks in the door of his home, still vaguely reminiscing about the possibilities with his secretary, he hears his wife, Jill, giggling on the phone. He steps into the kitchen and she looks at him with surprise and quickly tells the other party goodbye. Immediately John is suspicious. "Why was she giggling? She never giggles like that. Why did she get off the phone? Who was she talking to? Was that surprise or guilt on her face?"

John: "Who were you talking to?"

Jill: "Oh, no one. Just Sally."

John: "Sally? Why did you look so surprised and get off the phone so quick?"

Jill: "Because I was just about too leave and you're home early.

John: "Just about to leave? Jill, are you having an affair?"

JUSTIFICATION/RATIONALIZATION. When a person makes use of justification, he is in effect attempting to dismiss or "justify" his own bad behavior, by blaming someone else. When Jill leaves the house, John, having projected his desires onto her, begins to feel very uneasy. He feels convinced that she may be seeing someone else, and thinking back realizes that her behavior has been somewhat odd for the last week (beginning about the same time his secretary separated).

Now he becomes angry. If she is seeing someone else then why shouldn't he do the same. Why should he be a fool and hold back when she's not. Feeling rejected, upset, and now angry, he makes a conscious decision. He calls his secretary and asks if it is OK if he drops by after all. She says "yes."

DISPLACEMENT. If one is treated badly, one may feel angry or hurt and yet be unable to express his feelings until later at a safer time. These feelings may be placed on hold because someone has suddenly hung up and refuses to answer the phone when one calls them back, or the other individual is someone on one would dare retaliate against (e.g. an employer, a judge in court, a police man who has just given a ticket). If this happens one may express their anger against the very next person or thing he happens upon so he can safely vent his rage. He might kick his dog, yell at some kids playing in the street, or honk and swear at the driver in the car in front of him.

When Jill comes home laden with the ingredients for the special dinner she was planning for John that night, she finds a note in the kitchen. It states matter of factly that he has gone to a business meeting and for her to not to wait up. At that moment her son walks in and throws his books on the kitchen. Jill turns to him and screams: "How many times have I told you not to throw your books on my table? Now get the hell out of here!"

Her son slinks away feeling guilty, wondering what in the world is wrong. Noting the hurt look on her son's face, she resolves to apologize for being so irritable. However, looking again at the note a panoply of possibilities occur to her and she begins to wonder about his odd comment about an affair. Her anger flares again and she takes all the groceries and tosses them into the garbage.

Not all defense mechanisms require that information be completely submerged and hidden away within the unconscious. However, all require that feelings, needs, desires, and other impulses be misinterpreted, denied, or suppressed to varying degrees. This is not always bad, as defense mechanisms also serve an adaptive purpose. They prevent a person from becoming overwhelmed. However, they also serve so as to prevent a person from getting a closer look at his own unknown face.


Copyright: 2006, 2000, 2010, 2018 - Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D.