"The Meaning of Life Explained"
All my life I have been fascinated by people with rigid and somewhat doctrinaire beliefs. These folks espouse strong opinions about other’s behavior and beliefs and often act as if they are “right.” It’s almost as if they have secret information or facts that I am not privy to and that they will neither verbalize nor share with me. They are rarely open to considering alternative viewpoints and in my experience they tend to get somewhat agitated if confronted or called on their beliefs. I probably became sensitized to this through the moralistic and preachy ways of my mother as she constantly and unapologetically denounced people of color, gays (homosexuals, lesbians, transgender – you name it), non-Christians, rock stars with long hair and – well, you get the point. My father, on the other hand, was well read and was at least open to discussing beliefs and ideas that were contrary to the way he lived and he tried to understand and tolerate alternative lifestyles (it was the 60’s folks). So I grew up during those formative years (anyone remember Wonder bread?) with a double-shot of contempt for all on one side and tolerance of alternatives on the other. Enough to make one schizophrenic, don’t you think?
So here’s the deal. I really think there is something to be said for the psychoanalytic understanding of defense mechanisms and in this case, the defense mechanism of reaction formation. Here’s the definition:
A defense mechanism by which an objectionable impulse is expressed in an opposite or contrasting attitude or behavior.
Here is a slight variant on the definition of reaction formation:
A defense mechanism in which a person adopts conscious attitudes, interests, or feelings that are the opposites of their unconscious feelings, impulses, or wishes.
Those who tend to hold rigid beliefs about the “wrongness” of other’s beliefs and behaviors and who also espouse and act on these beliefs are often (not always) defending against their own unconscious impulses and thoughts toward that very behavior. The way they handle these unacceptable impulses is to rail against it in others. We see examples of this all the time in the public sector. How many times have we seen politicians trample over gay people with various pronouncements and bills and laws, and then they get “caught” in the very behavior they attempt to regulate? Check out Mark Kirk, Mark Foley, David Dreier, Ted Haggard (threw in a preacher here), Larry Craig, Bob Allen, Glenn Murphy, Jr. and well – you get the point. In essence they are exhibiting classic signs of reaction formation carried to its extreme.
So I look at people with rigid beliefs about the “wrongness” of others and I think reaction formation. It’s a variant of the psychological defense mechanism of projection.
The definition of projection is:
Projection is a defense mechanism that involves taking our own unacceptable qualities or feelings and ascribing them to other people. For example, if you have a strong dislike for someone, you might instead believe that he or she does not like you. Projection works by allowing the expression of the desire or impulse, but in a way that the ego cannot recognize, therefore reducing anxiety.
A favorite phrase of mine is “You spot it, you got it.” In essence this is projection. When I’m around people and I find myself agitated or irritated or perturbed by someone it’s usually because they are behaving in a manner that is actually me; but, because I cannot admit this to myself I project my disdain onto the other person. For example, I react internally very strongly to people who behave arrogantly and judgmentally and I immediately form opinions about their entire personality and life. The truth is that I find myself to be quite capable of behaving arrogantly and judgmentally and this is not acceptable to me; however, it does trigger a visceral response in me when I see it in someone else. My solution is to engage in the classic defense mechanism of projection as a way of dealing with this. It doesn’t mean that the other person is in fact not acting arrogantly and judgmentally; they usually are. It just means that my internal reaction (feelings) is way stronger than warranted because it’s really me. I see this all the time.
So we have reaction formation and projection teaming up to make interactions pretty lively and emotional and often counter-productive. Need some more examples of this in action? Watch the Republican presidential candidates’ debate next Tuesday evening and think “reaction formation and projection” and you’ll have some fun understanding the impulses these folks are defending against. Bachmann-gay? Santorum-fear of being unloved? Newt-not really that smart? Perry-inferiority feelings? Paul-I really hate everybody? Cain-can’t get enough approval? Huntsman-need Dad’s validation? Romney-I’ll never measure up?
Okay, okay – enough bashing the Repubs. It obviously means I just feel gay, unloved, inferior, not enough, and in need of parental validation or something like that or I wouldn’t find these folks so maddening. Except, they are engaging in these rigid behaviors and thought patterns and I’m just observing it; but, not getting all wrapped around the axle over it. At least not right now. J Don’t you hate smiley faces? I think Forrest Gump gets the credit and I do love him.
So what are your favorite examples of reaction formation at work, or how does projection work in your life (what do others say/do that infuriates you when in fact it’s really you)?
And have a defenseless and pleasant weekend. And oh yeah - none of this applies to Tink. There are simply no defenses at work there. It’s all Id – and all loveable and someday Ed I Tor is going to catch on.