Reaction Formation

Karla’s best friend, Tara, texted: “K, stop by on your way home so I can show you my new outfit!” When Karla visited later, Tara was wearing the new clothes and said, “Don’t you just love it?”

Truth be told, Karla thought Tara looked hideous. Karla thought, “Omigod, they don’t even match. Plus, the shoulders droop on the blouse and the slacks make her look 20lbs heavier. Crap. What do I say?”

“Is this a knockout outfit or what? On sale, too, so I got a great buy.”

Karla decided she didn’t want to deflate Tara’s balloon. “She’s on such a high over this stuff I can’t bear to tell her what I think. I’ll bring her down gently later,” Karla thought to herself.

“It’s nice, Tar,” Karla said weakly. “I’m really glad you found something you like, and at such a price. You always were good at finding the bargains!”

Karla lied, right? Yes, but some might call her lukewarm praise diplomatic, tactful. She didn’t want to ruin her friend’s happy moment by being brutally honest, so she fudged a bit with a “white lie.” No harm, no foul, right?

We all do it now and then…a little deception out of respect for someone’s feelings. They treated you to a movie you hated, bought you dinner at a restaurant you hate, or gave you a present you can’t stand. In each case, you bite the bullet, thank them, and say how enjoyable it all was. Nothing to lose sleep over, as long as eventually you find a way to correct the lie.

Correct the lie. Karla could do that by waiting a couple of days and saying to Tara, “I’ve been thinking about that new outfit you got. It’s nice and you’re really good about picking clothes, but it just doesn’t bring out your natural good looks. Something’s not right…maybe the color. Hey, let’s go shopping tomorrow where you got it and see if we can get something even better!” Karla corrected the lie, complimented Tara, and involved her in improving things. That’s good coping!

Note that originally, Karla acted and spoke the opposite of how she really felt. When done in moderation, and to spare hurting someone’s feelings, we call it diplomacy, being considerate. But what if this behavior is chronic, habitual, your customary way of dealing with others to make them think you are something you are not? In this case, we have what psychologists call the ego-defense of Reaction Formation.

For instance, what if Karla didn’t feel comfortable correcting her lie? What if she was worried that doing so would make Tara mad, and jeopardize their friendship? What if she didn’t have the self-confidence and personal empowerment to suggest to Tara that the outfit really wasn’t the best choice? She sure wouldn’t suggest that they shop for something better.

But now Karla would have a problem: feeling guilty about lying to Tara, even if it was well-intended. She could be aware of the guilt or not, but either way she has created a stressful situation for herself. What to do? She could engage in reaction formation, which would involve praising Tara regularly – excessively, in fact – about her good taste, especially to others. Friends may even begin to notice: “Karla, why are you constantly reminding us that Tara should be a fashion designer because she has this incredible taste in clothes? I mean, OK, we believe you. Just let it go.”

Shakespeare said it succinctly in Hamlet, when he had Queen Gertrude comment on the insincerity of a character in a play: “The lady doth protest too much.” Karla’s friend is basically saying, “You know, Karla, the way you praise Tara all the time makes me wonder if you really mean it.” And that’s what reaction formation means: Behaving outwardly the opposite of how you feel inside, in order to hide those inner feelings that cause you anxiety.

George is 38, shorter than average, was often bullied in high school. College went OK, and after graduation he landed a job in a brokerage firm. Even though his performance was decent, he was insecure and lacked self-esteem and confidence. At work he kept a low profile so he wouldn’t stick out. He stayed in his safe zone to avoid facing his insecurities.

One day a colleague said, “Come on, George, get out of that shell. You know the market but you never put that knowledge into action. Go for it! Take some risks!”

George did just that and luck was on his side. His investment gamble brought millions into the firm almost overnight, and he went from a drone to a shining star. His whole demeaner changed. He pranced around work like the head rooster in the farm yard. He boasted about his prowess and criticized his colleagues often. He wore the best clothes, bought a super expensive car, and moved to an apartment well beyond his means. He became an arrogant snob who acted like he was better than everyone.

George’s behavior became extreme, well beyond what he could logically justify. Yes, he had his share of successes at work, but he also had failures. The fact that he continued to ride the success reputation in spite of the failures showed that he was trying to hide something from others and from himself: Inside, he remained insecure and afraid of failure. His extreme overt displays of confidence were reaction formation, smoke screens – ego defenses – designed to hide those fears.

George’s actions became extreme, beyond showing moderate self-confidence. His displays of competence and independence became so extreme, so intense, and so chronic, they betrayed in him a desperate attempt to hide his anxieties and weaknesses from others, and especially from himself.

When used as a defense mechanism, reaction formation – habitually, and with great exaggeration, overtly acting the opposite of how you feel on the inside – is like all ego defenses – a form of denial. George goes by a mirror and sees an immaculately-dressed man smoking a king-sized cigar. That vision allows him to deny what is truly inside him: A frightened, insecure wimp who finds the slightest hint of failure a dire threat to his psychological stability.

In our earlier example, Karla was not showing reaction formation when she told Tara she liked the new outfit. She was simply showing some empathy, and she corrected the deception later. We noted, however, that if she failed to make that correction, she becomes George: deceiving herself by taking on extreme actions to hide insecurities.

Keep an eye on your actions, and ask yourself if you have become George. The original Karla dynamic is an example of coping successfully with a stressful situation. The George dynamic is one of denial, avoidance, and instability, a pattern that will end up causing a lot more stress.

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