Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Acting Out: Defense mechanisms by Sigmund Freud

Acting out can be looked upon as one of the defense mechanisms by which the unconscious protects itself against being uncovered by the ego. In therapy acting out can be viewed as one of the borderline defenses. Based on the Vaillant classification, this defense mechanism is part of the Immature Defenses category.

Acting Out Defense Mechanism Explanation

There are many possible definitions of "acting out". In brief, you may define that as particular behavior, leading to the actions instead of experiencing the corresponding feeling. In the broadest sense, we talk about acting out when a person unconsciously uses action or any non-verbal communication or psychosomatic symptom instead of getting in touch with his true feelings, instead of acknowledging to himself and putting into words what he really feels and experiences inside himself.

Therefore, acting out is performing an extreme behavior in order to express thoughts or feelings the person feels incapable of otherwise expressing. Instead of saying, “I’m angry with you,” a person who acts out may instead throw a book at the person, or punch a hole through a wall. When a person acts out, it can act as a pressure release, and often helps the individual feel calmer and peaceful once again. For instance, a child’s temper tantrum is a form of acting out when he or she does not get his or her way with a parent.

Acting out is a hidden manifestation of destructive anger. Perhaps the most dangerous form of destructive anger is one, that is not experienced as anger or any feeling at all, but is acted out instead. The repressed, unrecognized, destructive anger can turn also against the self and appear in many different guises. Self-injury may also be a form of acting-out, expressing in physical pain what one cannot stand to feel emotionally. The person might suffer from psychosomatic symptoms, become accident-prone, attempt suicide, or commit unconscious acts of self-sabotage or destruction in relationships, in his work, and so on.

In a way, “Acting out” literally means acting out the desires that are forbidden by the Super ego and yet desired by the Id. We thus cope with the pressure to do what we believe is wrong by giving in to the desire.

A person who is acting out desires may do it in spite of their conscience or may do it with relatively little thought. Thus, the act may be being deliberately bad or may be thoughtless wrongdoing.

Where the person knows that they are doing wrong, they may seek to protect themselves from society's eyes by hiding their action. They may also later fall into using other coping mechanisms such as Denial to protect themselves from feelings of shame.

More on Definition

Under Freudian/psychoanalytic terms "acting out" is seen as a dichotomy between the conscious and the unconscious wanting to both send out a repressed message.

In psychoanalysis, the term "acting out" has misconceptions related to it. People have given the term the broader meaning of someone throwing a tantrum, or verbally expressing pent up emotion. In reality, Freudian psychoanalysis specifies that acting out is much more subtle than that: the client who acts out clearly unconsciously expresses a repressed, unremembered something with actions rather than with inaccessible words, and such actions are intrinsically woven within the psychoanalytical situation. In psychoanalysis, acting out has a lot of communicative potential because it sends signs that will indicate to a therapist the client's repressed, unrecallable memories.

Freud first used the term in 1914 in "Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through". As Freud defines it, acting out is when patients cannot access repressed memories that motivate unconscious behaviors that "symbolically dramatize the past in order not to remember it".  Acting out during therapy, as described by Freud, includes such things as behaving toward the therapist as they behaved toward parents, having disturbing dreams and associations, complaining of lack of success because of a childhood "deadlock" in the Oedipal stage, etc. Therapists might also, perhaps simplistically and erroneously, suggest acting out pertains to all the changes in affect and gesture that the patient goes through as he or she talks about themselves.

These include:
* Intonation changes
* Facial expressions
* Eye movement
* Change in tone of voice (volume)
* Imitation (remembering a mother's shrieking voice and repeating it)
* Body language-use of hands and excited speech, or withdrawn

Acting out is different from "acting in," which occurs outside the bounds of therapy sessions, for example in work or love decisions. Acting out it consists of unconscious messages expressed through behavior in the therapy transference relationship.


A good example would be an overworked and underpaid worker who slaved all night to finish a project and when he placed it on his boss’s desk, the only thing his taskmaster had to say was “Well, it’s about time!” On his way back to his desk, the worker mutters under his breath “That SOB!.” He then enters the washroom and begins to wash his hands. He washes, and washes…and washes. He washes until his hands turn red and blister, but he continues to wash. He is not aware of it, but he seems to engage in this compulsion whenever he feels bad inside for thinking ill about another. That is not right, after all. On the one hand, he wants to tell his boss where to go. On the other hand, he’s grateful to have a job and he has been taught well that bearing ill feelings toward another is the work of the Devil. He feels so unclean when he “slips” and says those hateful things under his breath. His compulsion is an instance of displaying through an action the conflict that rages within him. It helps relieve the anxiety he feels to some degree, but it does not really solve the problem. Yet it gives him enough relief that he does this over and over again in similar situations, with no insight into the “dynamics” of the situation.

Sources and Additional Information:

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