Funny way of showing it
They hated each other so why did they get married?
They looked like they were going to kill each other. They were yelling eyeball to eyeball, gesticulating wildly and making blood-curdling threats. And this was before breakfast. By the end of the day they’d had two more explosive exchanges before starting all over the next morning.
They had only known each other for a few days, having been thrown together, along with the rest of us, on a residential course. And now they gave every indication of hating each other. From the outside it wasn’t altogether apparent why.
Several months later I was interested to hear that they were seriously considering marriage.
This is called a reaction formation. It’s when people – quite unconsciously – behave in exactly the opposite way to what they’re – again perhaps quite unconsciously – feeling. The reason for the transformation of something into its polar opposite is to protect against emotions which are unacceptable to the individual. Those emotions might be embarrassing, shameful, guilt-inducing, socially impermissible or repellent. Whatever the case, they’re threatening.
You can probably think of your own examples of this. It might be a person attracted to the same sex who regularly inveighs against homosexuality. Or a highly religious person battling lustful urges and loudly extolling the virtues of modesty. Or an absent parent who showers their children with presents. Or two people who secretly can’t stand each other making fulsome pronouncements of friendship and admiration.
… In children
One of the earliest appearances of reaction formation is in the very young child who gets a brother or sister. For all the love they may have for the new sibling, the child is quite likely to feel angry with, jealous of and pushed aside by this newcomer who’s suddenly getting all the attention that only yesterday was theirs. But the child usually manages to convert their negative feelings into feelings of love for the new family member. Something of the other feelings often seeps through, however. They hug the baby sister to the point where she starts screaming. They bounce the baby brother up and down too violently. They talk to them too loudly, offer them something dangerous to eat or accidentally drop them.
This ‘seeping through’ is frequently the give-away of a reaction formation at work – including in adults. There’s something exaggerated, false, manic, compulsive or inflexible about the behaviour. Something that doesn’t ring true.
I said that reaction formations are when a feeling is expressed in a diametrically opposite way. But more accurately they’re a denial that more than one thing is being felt. It’s perfectly possible for us to be ambivalent towards people – for example sometimes to feel love and hatred, admiration and envy, gratitude and resentment and so on. Instead of being able to tolerate that, a person lapses into a reaction formation to express only one pole of the twin-pole emotions being experienced.
In a small child that’s understandable. In an adult perhaps it would be more appropriate to be self-aware and honest enough to recognize the complexity of the emotions at play. And to behave accordingly.
© Brian Shand 2019
More where this came from at https://www.guildfordtherapy.co.uk/blog/