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Reaction Formation & Type 2

When I first discovered the enneagram I tested as a Type 1. At first glance this made enough sense to me. I have always known I was a superego core and there is enough overlap in the descriptions between the superego cores to easily mistype. One thing about Type 1 which I honed in on as an interesting idea was the concept of reaction formation as a defense mechanism. Reaction formation?? What even is that? It sounds nonsensical. I wrote it off as something I did not do, but there was something about it which stayed present in the back of my mind as a thing that was inviting more exploration.

As I have deepened my learning, I cannot say if reaction formation is an appropriately named defense for type 1. It is clear that all three superego types are engaging in rationalization as a defense mechanism. It is also clear to me that type 2 utilizes denial as a defense mechanism. But what of reaction formation? Was this to be typologically left out in the cold?


Last night I had an epiphany, but first let’s review how reaction formation is defined…

Reaction formation is described on wikipedia as:

“In Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, reaction formation (German: Reaktionsbildung) is a defense mechanism in which emotions and impulses which are anxiety-producing or perceived to be unacceptable are mastered by exaggeration of the directly opposing tendency.”

Reaction formation depends on the hypothesis that:

"[t]he instincts and their derivatives may be arranged as pairs of opposites: life versus death, construction versus destruction, action versus passivity, dominance versus submission, and so forth. When one of the instincts produces anxiety by exerting pressure on the ego either directly or by way of the superego, the ego may try to sidetrack the offending impulse by concentrating upon its opposite. For example, if feelings of hate towards another person make one anxious, the ego can facilitate the flow of love to conceal the hostility."[3]

Where reaction-formation takes place, it is usually assumed that the original, rejected impulse does not vanish, but persists, unconscious, in its original infantile form.[2] Thus, where love is experienced as a reaction formation against hate, we cannot say that love is substituted for hate, because the original aggressive feelings still exist underneath the affectionate exterior that merely masks the hate to hide it from awareness.[3]

In a diagnostic setting, the existence of a reaction-formation rather than a 'simple' emotion would be suspected where exaggeration, compulsiveness and inflexibility were observed. For example,

"[r]eactive love protests too much; it is overdone, extravagant, showy, and affected. It is counterfeit, and [...] is usually easily detected. Another feature of a reaction formation is its compulsiveness. A person who is defending himself against anxiety cannot deviate from expressing the opposite of what he really feels. His love, for instance, is not flexible. It cannot adapt itself to changing circumstances as genuine emotions do; rather it must be constantly on display as if any failure to exhibit it would cause the contrary feeling to come to the surface.[3]

Reaction formation is sometimes described as one of the most difficult defenses for lay people to understand;[1] this testifies not merely to its effectiveness as a disguise, but also to its ubiquity and flexibility as a defense that can be utilized in many forms. For example,

"solicitude may be a reaction-formation against cruelty, cleanliness against coprophilia",[2]

and it is not unknown for an analyst to explain a client's unconditional pacifism as a reaction formation against their sadism. In addition,

"[h]igh ideals of virtue and goodness may be reaction formations against primitive object cathexes rather than realistic values that are capable of being lived up to. Romantic notions of chastity and purity may mask crude sexual desires, altruism may hide selfishness, and piety may conceal sinfulness."[3]


I am sure in reading this you can detect some 2ish themes. Back to my epiphany… I was describing the way my feelings operate in the context of scrambled centers and it occurred to me that when I am feeling upset or an otherwise negative feeling which feels indulgent and needy that I immediately will respond to this urge by asking someone, “How are you sweetie? Do you need anything?” And aha! THIS is reaction formation!

The ugly thing, the selfish thing, the thing that would eliminate my very existence cannot be!! Its opposite appears in a flash. The ego works so expertly that this process cannot be detected.

I could not identify this previously because this is so automatic and immediate. There is not conscious awareness that the preceding feeling should be eliminated or that this is the path to do so. A quote from the movie Robots comes to mind, “See a need, fill a need!” On the surface this is what a 2 feels they’re doing. Only perhaps what is actually happening beneath is, “See a need within? Fill a need externally for someone else! It is a kind of displacement… a kind of “no, you” that no one is even aware happened… not even the 2.

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