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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Thursday Therapeutic Thought - Reaction Formation

Nice to be back with everyone on the blogosphere! I've missed this writing community.

Without further ado, I want to keep today's Thought focused on Reaction Formation. This is a fascinating defense mechanism from the psychoanalytic theory (Freud)...but one that we use all the time in writing! So I thought I'd clue you in on it.

To break it down, a defense mechanism is a psychological strategy the mind employs to cope with reality. Freud used a bunch of different words to explain this process more fully (id, ego, superego), but for our purposes, the above definition will do. There are over twenty identified defense mechanisms in four levels, Level One being severely pathological and Level Four being more mature and geared toward success.

Reaction Formation is in Level Three, which means it's usually considered neurotic, but is fairly common in adults. Reaction Formation is when a person converts unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous or anxiety-producing into their opposites. A person could behave in a completely opposite way of how they really want or feel (i.e. a woman fakes indifference to men and gives off an independent vibe when all she really wants is to be loved and cherished). A person could also believe the opposite of something simply because the true belief causes anxiety (i.e. a man believes that all women are gold diggers because to believe only his ex-fiance was is too painful).

Hopefully your brain is already working on this, but I'll give a few more examples to solidify my Thought. I'll use some movies to do so. Take Maid in Manhattan. Jennifer Lopez's character takes on the opposite persona of what she is because the thought of telling Ralph Fiennes' character that she's actually a maid trying on expensive clothes belonging to another woman is too anxiety-producing. Reaction Formation. Take Twilight (Edward = sigh). Edward tells Bella that he's the bad guy and that she should stay away from him, but what he really wants is to get to know her much more intimately, to learn why he can't read her mind and why she smells so much better to him than other humans. Reaction Formation. many books have you read where the entire plot hinged on a reaction formation? Seriously? Usually, this would be in the characters inner journey. The key to reaction formation is that it can work effectively only in the short term, because eventually is will break down. So it's a built-in plot tool for a writer to use. The character will have to give up the reaction formation in due time (hopefully by the end of the book...otherwise, we won't see the character's inner journey to completion).

Q4U: Think about your own works. Do you or have you used reaction formation for your characters? Did you resolve their reaction formation by the end of the book by having them once again embrace the truth?

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Katie said...

How could I forget deal ol' id, ego, and superego! Sweet memories from psych class!

This was GREAT! I kept thinking about Bethany. She puts on the persona of being this put-together, self-sufficient woman when really she has very little self-confidence. She actually has to teach herself to walk with her shoulders straight and her chin titled up.

Great stuff Jeannie! So glad you're back in the blogosphere!

Jeannie Campbell said...

hey katie! to be honest, i was beginning to wonder if my comment button was working. i was feeling neglected. :)

glad to be back...we'll see how it goes with all the changes i'm still going through over here!

Jessica said...

Great post, Jeannie. Yes, I do use this.
Can it also be used with a character's reaction toward God, and who he believes God to be?

Food for thought on a Friday. Cool. :-)

PatriciaW said...

I think all writers use them, even if unknowingly. Susan May Warren (or maybe Rachel Hauck?) calls this "the lie your character believes". It's the thing that motivates the character to act a certain way, even when reality is different, setting up conflict. Eventually, the character has to deal with her beliefs, cementing them or rejecting them for a new truth.

Jeannie Campbell said...

jessica - absolutely it can be used in relation to god.

patricia - hey girl! the lie your character believes. i like that.

Janna Qualman said...

Awesome blog you have here, Jeannie! And very, very helpful.

Thanks for visiting mine, too. I always like new faces! :)

Terri Tiffany said...

Yup--just did that in a book I edited this week and sent out. She really had it bad:))

Krista Phillips said...

This might be a dumb question, but I am queen of those so whatever:-)

Is this what they mean when we talk about 'subtexting'? Saying one thing but really meaning another? This seems a little more complex than that though. I like it though!! I'm trying to think about my characters, and I think my third book, Kat, really falls into this. She is so desperate to be loved and feel accepted, but she is afraid of being hurt so she builds this shell and does very destructive things that will ruin her chances at love. Hmmm

Jeannie Campbell said...

krista - this isn't subtexting. this is acting/believing one way but thinking the exact opposite. everything the character does is in line with their false belief. that said, you could still write subtext about it....confusing, huh? :)

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.