Reaction formation is a type of defense mechanism in which someone subconsciously redirects the energies of the id to hide true feelings, with the goal of overcoming or suppressing those feelings so that they cannot manifest. Like other defense mechanisms, reaction formation is not a conscious choice, with the person choosing to try and suppress desires, wishes, or beliefs. Instead, it is the mind's attempt at self protection, and is done without conscious action. It can also backfire quite spectacularly in some cases.
In reaction formation, someone experiences a wish or desire and behaves in a way which is contrary to that. This may be because the person is afraid of the desire, feels that it is socially unacceptable, or is worried about the consequences of acting upon it. Sometimes, the reasons for this defense mechanism are not entirely clear, and they can be extremely complex. Intense emotions like love, hate, greed, anger, jealousy, and bitterness can be involved in reaction formation.
A simple example of reaction formation can be seen on many school grounds. A child who likes a child of a different gender might behave meanly to the object of interest, expressing hatred when the child actually experiences the opposite feeling. This plays out among adults, as well, and is often characterized by the same exaggerated or excessive behavior. Many people have been around people who are excessively nice to cover up dislike, for example, or who behave in a seemingly altruistic fashion to mask greed.
The emotions behind reaction formation can be extremely intense, and they can grow stronger over time. People can become set in their emotional responses because the persistent denial of their feelings becomes more difficult to maintain. This is something to bear in mind when interacting with someone who seems unusually emotional about something; someone who vociferously and vehemently rails against homosexuality, for example, might be undergoing this phenomenon.
It is possible to undo the work of reaction formation, usually through therapy sessions. The therapist can help the patient explore the reasons behind the intensity of the feeling and reaction, and assist the patient with facing up to the deeply internal feelings which are driving the reaction. People may find this process intense and uncomfortable, but the end result can be better emotional health and the ability to take more pleasure in life by exploring or at least acknowledging internal desires instead of trying to subvert them.