Be Careful What You Wish For

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You’ve probably heard the expression “Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it.” From the psychoanalytic point of view the reason this can be good advice is due to the phenomenon of reaction formation, which is the tendency of a repressed wish or feeling to be expressed at a conscious level in a contrasting form. Or as Rollo May once succinctly put it, what we repress we show in equal and opposite force to the world.

What this means is that sometimes what we clamor for most loudly is exactly what we least want. An example we’re all familiar with is when people who are feeling hurt say, “I just want to be left alone.” What they usually really want is the opposite, they want to be comforted and understood, they want human contact not human separation. What they’re really feeling is isolated and misunderstood, a difficult state to bear, so they repress those painful feelings and what bubbles into conscious awareness is the reaction formation “I don’t need anyone, I don’t want anyone around me right now, I’m just fine on my own, etc.”

Reaction formation is a powerful psychological tool but the problem of course is that sometimes our conscious thoughts are perfectly in line with our authentic desires. Or, as a quote commonly attributed to Freud puts it, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” So how do we tell the difference in our own lives, how do we know when our conscious motivations are in line with our deeper desires and when the two contradict each other?

Probably the first and most important clue is that the expressed wish or feeling brings powerful, difficult to conceptualize emotions in its wake. These difficult to conceptualize emotions could probably best be termed ambivalence. With reaction formation it’s almost like you’re playing a game of tug of war within your own psyche, you’re creating conflict within yourself due to pitting what you really think, feel, want and need against what you tell yourself you think, feel, want and need. Reaction formation represents the irrational side of human nature. Irrational psychic phenomena always include powerful emotional states incommensurate with the activating event.