In the psychology of defence mechanisms and self-control, acting out is the performance of an action considered bad or anti-social. In general usage, the action performed is destructive to self or to others.
The term is used in this way in sexual addiction treatment, psychotherapy, criminology and parenting. In contrast, the opposite attitude or behaviour of bearing and managing the impulse to perform one’s impulse is called acting in.
The performed action may follow impulses of an addiction (e.g. drinking, drug taking or shoplifting). It may also be a means designed (often unconsciously or semi-consciously) to garner attention (e.g. throwing a tantrum or behaving promiscuously). Acting out may inhibit the development of more constructive responses to the feelings in question.
Sigmund 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.
Annie Reich pointed out that the analyst may use the patient by acting out in an indirect countertransference, for example to win the approval of a supervisor.
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.
As children develop they often learn to replace these attention-gathering strategies with more socially acceptable and constructive communications. In adolescent years, acting out in the form of rebellious behaviours such as smoking, shoplifting and drug use can be understood as “a cry for help.” Such pre-delinquent behaviour may be a search for containment from parents or other parental figures. 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.
In behavioural or substance addiction, acting out can give the addict the illusion of being in control. Many people who suffer with addiction, either refuse to admit they struggle with it, or some do not even realise they have an addiction. For most people, when their addiction is addressed, they become defensive and act out. This can be a result of multiple emotions including shame, fear of judgement, or anger. It is important to be patient and understanding towards those who suffer with addiction, and to realise that most people want to break free from the symptoms and baggage that come with addiction, but do not know how or where to start. Thankfully, there are many preventative measures and programs than can help those who personally struggle with addiction, or for those who have a friend or family member that suffers with addiction.
Criminologists debate whether juvenile delinquency is a form of acting out, or rather reflects wider conflicts involved in the process of socialisation. Deviant behaviour is commonly associated with crime and social deviance. Many of those who are involved in crime, usually grew up in broken homes, or had no authority figure in their life. For some, a life of crime is all they have ever known. This could be a reason as to why there is a debate over whether or not juvenile delinquency is a form of acting out.
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.