Defenses: Acting Out

Here is a snippet from our Clinical Camp!

 Acting Out

Acting Out is a term often used by parents or teachers to mean misbehaving. However, for psychodynamic therapists this is a much richer concept. Psychodynamic therapists believe all behaviors have meaning AND that unwanted thoughts and feelings which are unresolved will find expression through unconscious means.   Thus, acting out means that unresolved thoughts and/or feelings are being expressed in some way – however- this is outside of the awareness of the actor! For example, a person who feels she is guilty over some perceived misdeed may conduct herself in a way that results in her getting into trouble (sometimes repeatedly). This way, the guilty feeling can be somewhat satisfied by being punished over and over. Since the original ‘misdeed’ is never dealt with, she is unconsciously compelled to repeatedly get herself into a position of being punished.  Acting out is a defense in that the problematic thought or feeling does not gain conscious acknowledgment, but finds expression in behavior (outside of the person’s awareness!).  One clear example is the ‘Freudian Slip’ in which a person says something which is really on her mind, without any conscious awareness she is about to do so (revealing some true and often problematic thoughts or feelings).

Psychological defenses and one’s subjective sense of self and others

The current state of ‘knowledge’ (one facet of post-modernism) is that everything is open to further discovery.  Current physicists and psychotherapists both understand that there is no ‘ground-floor’ to reality.  Upon further examination, or with new tools or newer theoretical models, we may find things are again not as they seem.

This description is particularly apt in thinking about psychological defenses.  Our minds develop psychological defenses to protect us from ‘knowledge’ or ‘truths’ that might be very painful or conflictual for us to consider about ourselves.  In essence, our mind is playing tricks on us and altering our sense of self,other and reality.

For example, a person who is passive-aggressive (p/a) typically is so because he or she is afraid of their own aggression.  They typically think of themselves as ‘a nice person.’  Others, however, often end up annoyed by this person who ‘is just trying to be helpful.’   The aggression is still there, but instead, the p/a person induces others to feel his/her aggression.  They, in turn, get to feel wronged/misunderstood/that the world is just so harsh.

A person who relies heavily on projection, disavows a particular mental content/thought/feeling and instead attributes it to another. This other person becomes feared/criticized/condemned by the projector.  “Why are you such a …. (racist/homophobe/cheater)?  The projector still has to deal with these thoughts or feelings, but now they are not a troubling inner experience, but rather become contained and personified by another person.

We all have defenses, and they are there to protect us.  When we rely on them too much, they skew our perception of ourselves and others – sometimes in quite predictable ways.  The process of psychotherapy is one in which a person comes to terms with difficult thoughts and feelings, and thus comes to a place in which she or he can rely less on defenses and therefore not alter their perception to such a great level.  In the process, in learning to come to terms with oneself, a new form of peace and wisdom is found.

See also our entry on Acting Out.