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The term acting out is used in two ways:
Acting out as a defence
In psychoanalytic theory Acting out is a psychological term meaning to perform an action to manage (often unconscious) emotional conflicts. For example someone may self-harm and this may be interpreted as: they are 'acting out' of their needs to resolve a conflict: they want to talk about being sexually abused but cannot, by cutting themselves the pain distracts them from their thoughts and gives them temporary emotional release. The behaviour usually has a paradoxical quality to it, expressing the unconscoius feelings (in this case of pain) as well as defending against them
Acting out painful feelings may be contrasted with expressing them in ways more helpful to the sufferer, e.g. by talking out, art therapy, psychodrama or mindful awareness of the feelings. Developing the ability to express one's conflicts safely and constructivly is an important part of impulse control, personal development and self-care.
The term has come to have a more general, less technical meaning where Acting out broadly means to act following impulses that they are not aware of. It has a negative connotation and is generally applied to problem behaviour.
It is generally implied that the observer,usually a professional, somehow has access to a the persons 'real' motivation and is in a better position to give an account of the behaviour than the person themselves.
The power dynamic this position creates is not without its difficulties. Firstly it makes it difficult for the person themselves to subsequently account for their own actions, now they have been pathologised. Secondly it makes the defining authority open to the charge that they too are 'acting out', out of a need to establish social power through the control of definitions.
Where such interpretations are accurate and sensitively given they can be helpful. Where they are inaccurate and imposed they can be problematic and psychologically iatrogenic.
The action is often anti-social and may take the form of acting on the impulses of an addiction (ie. drinking, drug taking or shoplifting) or as a means designed (often unconsciously or semi-consciously) to garner attention (ie. throwing a tantrum or behaving promiscuously). Acting out may be considered a form of projective identification.
The action performed is usually destructive to self or others and may inhibit the development of more constructive responses to the feelings. The term is used in sexual addiction treatment, psychotherapy, twelve-step programs, criminology and parenting.
The interpretation of a person's acting out and an observer's response varies considerably, with context and subject usually setting audience expectations.
See also: parenting
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 a child develops 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". The young person may seem to be disruptive - and may well be disruptive - but this behaviour is often underpinned by the need to regulate emotions that are too difficult to be handled in any other way.
See also: addiction
The moral model of addiction states that addictions are the result of human weakness, and are defects of character. Those who advance this model do not accept that there is any biological basis for addiction. They often have scant sympathy for people with serious addictions, believing either that a person with greater moral strength could have the force of will to break an addiction, or that the addict demonstrated a great moral failure in the first place by starting the addiction. The moral model is widely applied to dependency on illegal substances, perhaps purely for social or political reasons, but is no longer widely considered to have any therapeutic value.
The disease model of addiction holds that addiction is a disease, coming about as a result of either the impairment of neurochemical or behavioral processes, or of some combination of the two. Within this model, addictive disease is treated by specialists in Addiction Medicine. Within the field of medicine, the American Medical Association, National Association of Social Workers, and American Psychological Association all have policy as to addictive processes representing a disease state. While there is some dispute among clinicians as to the reliability of this model, it is widely employed in therapeutic settings. Most treatment approaches involve recognition that dependencies are behavioral dysfunctions, and thus involve some element of physical or mental disease. Critics like Stanton Peele describe an absence of medical evidence for an implied physiological process (beyond that of simple mood state changes) that can be equated with the disease of addiction. Organizations such as the American Society of Addiction Medicine believe the research-based evidence for addiction's status as a disease is overwhelming.
See also: criminology
Classical school criminology based on "rational agent" philosophies...
References & Bibliography
- National Library of Medicine - Medical Subject Headings
- Acting out/Acting in (excerpt) International Journal of Psychoanalysis
- "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
Self help / informal psychology
- 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.
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