Episode Five: Reaction Formation As A Self Defense Mechanism
“Thank you for meeting with me Alfred. I won’t take up too much of your time, I just have a couple of questions about the night Mrs. Zahir’s necklace went missing” I said.
“Of course” Alfred, the butler, replied with a quick nod.
“In the earlier investigations, you said you went upstairs right after dessert was served, correct?”
“Mrs Zahir needed ice for her rash. I had no choice. I was only doing my job” Alfred went pale and his hands were shaking.
“Calm down. I’m just confirming the information with you.”
“I’m sorry. I’ve just been around long enough to know the unprivileged always serve as everyone else’s scapegoats….”
A couple of months ago….
“What are you, deaf?” Mohanad snapped. “I said Scottish smoked salmon. This is clearly Norwegian”
“I will have it replaced right away, Mr. Zahir” Alfred replied with courtesy, even though he was burning inside.
“Rich people are arrogant sick freaks. What difference does it make Scottish or Norwegian? They’re both stinky pink fish!” Alfred slammed the plate on the counter top when he walked into the kitchen.
Giselle, the housekeeper, didn’t say anything. She gulped down the unwanted food, straightened out her apron and then stood at the sink to wash the dishes.
“He’s taking out his anger on me like he always does. We’re lucky we’re not like those people. Their lifestyle is so pretentious and toxic. They have everything they want and they’re not even happy. Take Mr. Zahir, he’s always grumpy, right? And Mrs Zahir is popping pills all day to relax. But people like you and me Giselle, we sleep peacefully coz our conscious is clear.”
“So you wouldn’t want to be in Mr. Zahir’s shoes?” Giselle asked with one eyebrow up.
“Of course not. I hate this exaggeration and fakeness. I’d rather lead an honest simple life, than sit by the pool smoking cigars all day and crying coz my drink doesn’t have an umbrella in it!” Alfred spit out bitterly.
“I’ve worked for many rich families. They’re not all bad” Giselle shrugged.
“Money is a curse I tell you, a CURSE! It turns people into monsters. Wealthy people are everything that’s wrong with this world. They’re bloodsucker. They exploit the poor for their hard-earned money and then pat themselves on the back when they give their leftovers to charity!”
Alfred went back to his room after making sure everyone was sleeping. He looked at the suits he was supposed to take to the dry cleaners for Mr. Zahir, put one on, and sat down to eat a plate of salmon and caviar. He followed his little weekly tradition with lighting up one of his boss’s expensive cigars, while looking at pictures of Mr. Zahir’s Ferrari.
“I hate myself..”, he sighed….
“So how long have you been working for the Zahirs?”
“About six months now.”
“How’s your experience so far?”
“I can’t complain. They’re fine people. I hope to stay working here for years to come.”
“I heard you got married recently.” I told Alfred, watching his facial expression slowly.
“What does this have to do with anything?” He panicked.
“Well, I spoke to your wife earlier this morning. She’s under the impression you’ll quit your job in a couple of weeks and move permanently to South Africa. She said you plan to buy a house by the beach. Is this true?”
There was a long awkward silence. I could sense the poor butler’s inner struggle and embarrassment at being caught in a lie. He obviously had no intention of working for the Zahirs’ ‘for years to come’.
“We’re still thinking about it….” Alfred finally said after clearing his throat a couple of times.
“Well it does sound like a good plan. You must have a lot of money saved on the side”
Later that day
“He’s totally busted. So what did he say?” Jenna, my eager assistant asked curiously.
“He said he wasn’t planning on serving rich people for the rest of his life. He was ready to do something meaningful for a change.” I replied as I stared out of my office’s window.
“Did you notice his antagonism towards wealthy people? Is that a ‘communism’ defense mechanism?” Jenna joked.
“No” I laughed. “He’s using Reaction Formation as a self defense mechanism”
“Sounds like something we learn in Chemistry class.”
“Except this mechanism is used when there’s no chemistry between the heart and the mind. It makes people appear the opposite of what they actually are. Like Alfred, he criticizes rich people and yet deep down he wishes to be one of them.”
“What a hypocrite!” Jenna put a hand on her hip.
“It does seem that way, but it’s more like repressing socially unacceptable feelings. Some people cover them up and instead, behave in the completely opposite manner.”
“Because fitting in is a basic need, Jenna. And whenever you start feeling you’ll be ridiculed, judged or left out for having different views or emotions, you sometimes ‘self defend’ yourself against this ‘social pain’ by pretending you’re one of the crowd.”
“La Hawl Wala Kowata Ela BiAllah, I just explained.” I laughed. “Like for example, a father who’s emotionally unavailable, will go the extra mile to show he’s overly protective of his kids. Or a man who secretly has homosexual tendencies yet openly and excessively criticizes gays. Or a woman who inwardly despises her colleague might be extremely nice to her in public. This kind of exaggerated behavior is what we call “Reaction Formation’”
“Good luck treating patients who use this weird mechanism” Jenna scoffed.
“There’s usually a deeper and a much more complicated psychological problem beneath the surface of what the ‘Reaction Formaters’ show. Therapy can provide a safe environment for them to explore their contradictions and perhaps get to the bottom of their primary conflict.”
“Maybe Alfred’s primary problem is his inferiority complex. And maybe he stole the necklace to trick his wife into thinking he’s rich and that way he’d feel superior in her eyes.”
“Come on! There’s no other explanation. It’s definitely him!”
“There’s one more suspect.” I said slowly.
“Oh you mean the house keeper, Giselle? You gave me the impression she’s as timid as a blushing newborn rabbit.”
“Yes, but I saw her under a different light.”
“She was eavesdropping on us. And it wasn’t the first time….”
To be continued…..
So I couldn’t tell Jenna but I’m gonna tell you guys what I really think, since we’re all friends here. She was right; Reaction Formation is a sort of hypocrisy, but surprisingly it’s an unconscious one. I know I’m not making a lot of sense but go with me coz it’s a very thin line.
When people try to cover up undesirable feelings or opinions, they’re using a self-defense mechanism to protect themselves from social stigma, but when they add contradictory ‘action’, that’s when they become hypocrites.
In Islam, they’re allegedly the ones who want both this life and the Hereafter but end up getting neither. They think they’re so smart they can actually deceive Allah, but He knows their real intentions.
“(The hypocrites) will call the believers: “Were we not with you?” The believers will reply: “Yes! But you led yourselves into temptations, you looked forward for our destruction; you doubted (in Faith); and you were deceived by false desires, till the Command of Allah came to pass. And the chief deceiver (Satan) deceived you in respect of Allah.” (57:14 Holy Qur’an)
Now I’m going to touch on a very sensitive subject and please forgive me if I don’t do it very eloquently. Some people judge and criticize sinners so forcefully it makes one wonder why they’re so ruthless when our beautiful religion teaches us to be merciful and tolerant of others. Could it be that those same critics have undesirable wishes to sin, too? Could this exaggerated hatred be a sign of using ‘Reaction Formation’ as a self defense mechanism?
If you catch yourself attacking someone’s lifestyle or behavior in a brutal manner, stop, and take a moment to analyze your intentions. Helping others find the right path involves love, compassion and most of all patience….
We all know this:
Through judging we separate, but through understanding we grow stronger…
And it goes both ways…
If someone condemns you in a hurtful way, (and before you get so mad you feel the smoke coming out of your inflamed nostrils) I need you to remember that perhaps it’s more about them than it is about you. Judging others isn’t listed in our job descriptions as Muslims, and so when we take it upon ourselves to become the world’s most infamous critics, it usually has nothing to do with Islam.
So don’t take the hurt to heart, and try to understand when someone deliberately tries to break someone else, it’s usually because they’re already broken inside…
And ‘having mercy on broken hearts and souls’ is definitely on our job descriptions…
See? Right here on the list, in a bold huge font!
Lilly S. Mohsen