I was listening to familiar ad on the radio the other day in which a self-proclaimed “behavioral therapist” touted that his methods could prevent all types of “acting-out” by children in school. And it once again struck me how often and egregiously this term is misused – even by professionals. I posted an article on this topic once before, and by agreement, readers were redirected to an earlier article I’d written on the same topic on a different blog site. But having scanned several comments over the past year and having read many books and articles in which this and other important terms and concepts have either been misunderstood or misused, I thought it worth another attempt to clear the air a bit, starting with a discussion about “acting-out.”
The term comes from the old psychodynamic psychology of Freud and his followers. It’s meant to describe a phenomenon by which person engages in some kind of behavior (as opposed to displaying a particular psycho-physiological “symptom”) that both manifests and mitigates the anxiety associated with an unconscious emotional conflict. I give an archetypal example of acting-out in Character Disturbance on page 205:
After laboring for several days, and staying up all night the night before to complete the task, a man puts a business report on his boss’s desk. In typical fashion, the ever-demanding boss retorts: Well, it’s about time! And it had better be good! Upon leaving the boss’s office, the man utters under his breath: “That SOB!” Then, the man enters the men’s room and begins washing his hands – and washing his hands – and washing his hands. He washes until his hands are red, raw, and blistered. He want’s to stop but he can’t. He’s developed a compulsion or ritual. And what’s worse, he’s completely unaware of the connection between his under-the-breath comment about his boss, the guilt that this evokes, and the compulsion he feels to make himself “clean” again.
The man in the story harbors some deeply conflicting emotions and is conflicted in conscience as well. And he seems to engage in his stereotypical compulsive behavior whenever he feels bad inside for thinking ill about another, although he’s totally unaware of this. His relationship with his tyrannical boss only fuels this kind of conflict. On one hand, he wants to tell his boss where to go. On the other hand, he’s not only grateful to have a job but he’s also been taught that bearing ill feelings toward another is the work of the devil. So it causes him no end of anxiety when he “slips” and says hateful things under his breath. Still, he’s unaware of the real source of his distress. All he knows is that it helps him feel better to some degree when he washes his hands, and he does this over and over again in similar situations with absolutely no insight into the “dynamics” of the situation. In this case, we have a behavior (hand washing) that is a “symptom” (called a “compulsion”) that represents both an outward expression (or acting out) of an unconscious emotional conflict and a marginally effective way of mitigating anxiety and emotional pain.
Now, there are some times when troublesome behavior can indeed represent some type of acting out. For example, a child might be in the early stages of succumbing to depression but has not yet directed some of the anger underlying that depression fully inward. And occasionally, when stressed, without thinking about it, the child might “slip” in self-control and express the anger outwardly in a behavior that’s out-of-character. But the fact things like this can happen doesn’t mean they happen as often as some appear to think. Even the example I gave above is rare. Most people suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are not raging “neurotics” acting out an unconscious emotional drama but rather unfortunate souls struggling with some brain biochemical imbalances. And most of the time, misbehavior, is just what it seems: acting-up. And acting-up is definitely not acting-out.
Unless a person is suffering from a brain disorder that prevents them from thinking in a rational way and conforming their conduct to acceptable standards, their behavior is likely to be both purposeful (i.e. directed toward a goal) and intentional (i.e. fully conscious and deliberate). And most of the time, when folks act badly, as irrational as their behavior might seem on some level, these bad actors know what they are doing and why. It’s important to remember this and the difference between acting up and acting out. Why? Because when people make the erroneous assumption that their behaviorally dysfunctional relationship partner simply mustn’t realize what they’re doing, they inevitably not only “enable” the misbehavior but also fail to take the kind of action that would empower them and hold the bad actor to account.
Last week I mentioned the “industry” that’s developed around various kinds of behavioral “addictions” (see: (Addict or Malevolent Abuser?). And in reviewing the material that frequently accompanies these types of interventions over the years it’s common to hear therapists talk about the “denial” their patients have to overcome before “uncovering” the dynamics associated with their problematic “acting-out” and eventually “recover.” Such programs buy into a model and a perspective that’s often seriously divorced from the reality of the situation. And just as proponents of these models sometimes misconstrue the true nature of their clients’ so-called “acting out,” they also sometimes make unwarranted assumptions about the presence and influence of “denial” (another commonly misunderstood and misused term talked about in another post) in their problems. It’s bad enough that such erroneous perspectives can unnecessarily prolong and undermine the potential efficacy of treatment. Unfortunately, they can also cause the victim of the bad actor’s behavior to suffer even more (I’ll have more about this in another post).
Words have meanings. And having information is also empowering. But having incorrect information and both misunderstanding and misusing important terms always works to one’s detriment. One of the reasons I wrote In Sheep’s Clothing was to clear up misconceptions about manipulative behavior (including the difference between “passive” and “covert” aggression). In the coming weeks we’ll be looking at other concepts and terms that are, unfortunately, frequently ladled with misunderstanding. And I invite the readers to pose as many questions as they can think of in the discussion forums about concept and terms they’ve either had a hard time comprehending or accepting.
Sunday night’s Character Matters program (7 pm Eastern, 6 pm Central) will focus on the “new discipline,” its shortcomings, and its possible role in the increase in episodes of folks “going postal.”