Acting out is a psychological term from the parlance of defense mechanisms and self-control, meaning to perform an action in contrast to bearing and managing the impulse to perform it. The acting done is usually anti-social and may take the form of acting on the impulses of an addiction (e.g. drinking, drug taking or shoplifting) or in a means designed (often unconsciously or semi-consciously) to garner attention (e.g. throwing a tantrum or behaving promiscuously).
In general usage, the action performed is destructive to self or others and may inhibit the development of more constructive responses to the feelings in question. The term is used in this way in sexual addiction treatment, psychotherapy, criminology and parenting.
Acting out painful feelings may be contrasted with expressing them in ways more helpful to the sufferer, e.g. by talking out, expressive therapy, psychodrama or mindful awareness of the feelings. Developing the ability to express one's conflicts safely and constructively is an important part of impulse control, personal development and self-care.
Freud considered that patients in analysis tended to act out their conflicts in preference to remembering them - repetition compulsion. The analytic task was then to help "the patient who does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out" to replace present activity by past memory.
Otto Fenichel added that acting out in an analytic setting potentially offered valuable insights to the therapist; but was nonetheless a psychological resistance in as much as it deals only with the present at the expense of concealing the underlying influence of the past. Lacan also spoke of "the corrective value of acting out", though others qualified this with the proviso that such acting out must be limited in the extent of its destructive/self-destructiveness.
The interpretation of a person's acting out and an observer's response varies considerably, with context and subject usually setting audience expectations.
Early years, temper tantrums can be understood as episodes of acting out. As young children will not have developed the means to communicate their feelings of distress, tantrums prove an effective and achievable method of alerting parents to their needs and requesting attention.
Ideally, as children develop they learn to replace these attention-gathering strategies with more socially acceptable and constructive communications. In adolescent years, acting out in the form of rebellious behaviors such as smoking, shoplifting and drug use can be understood as "a cry for help." Such pre-delinquent behavior may be a search for containment from parents and/or other parental figure. The young person may seem to be disruptive—and may well be disruptive—but this behaviour is often underpinned by an inability to regulate emotions in some other way.
- Sigmund Freud, On Metapsychology (PFL 7) p. 288-9
- Quoted in Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (1994) p. 36-7
- Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1946) p. 570-1
- Jacques Lacan, Écrits (1997) p. 239
- Lawrence Spurling, An Introduction to Psychodynamic Counselling (2004) p. 138 and p. 115
- Selma H. Fraiberg, The Magic Years (1987) p. 153
- Patrick Casement, Further Learning from the Patient (1990) p. 115
- Craig Nakken, The Addictive Personality (1996) p. 7
- Michael J. Lynch, Critical Criminology p. 20
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- Acting Up is Not "Acting-Out" Dr George Simon at CounsellingResource.com
- "Projective Identification, Countertransference, and the Struggle for Understanding Over Acting Out" Robert T. Waska, M.S., MFCC, Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research 8:155-161, April 1999
- Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor, 'Acting out/Acting-in'
- Acting out More complete explanation from a psychological perspective.
- Acting out Understanding acting out from outsiders and insider's perspectives, suggestions for developing positive potential from acting out traits.