Acting Out

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This term has been misused so much that it has lost its original meaning. It now means misbehaving, doing something illegal, breaking hospital rules, or annoying one’s therapist. It’s a pretty good bet that if somebody says you are acting out, they are not happy with your behavior.

It wasn’t always that way. It was Freud, I believe, who coined the term, and he meant something very precise by acting out. He meant showing in actions something that couldn’t be said in words. There was no value judgement attached; it was simply a description of a non-verbal method of communication.

In this sense, artwork is acting out, but journaling is not. Children’s play is acting out, adult games can be acting out, and so can strange or even quite ordinary behavior.

As survivors, we have to act out a lot because we have a lot to say about our past. Perhaps the information is held by a non-verbal alter or by a part that is too terrified to speak. Since the pressure to communicate is unbearable, we do the best we can to show what we are feeling and remembering.

Take self-injury, for example. I would bet dollars to donuts that when we self-injure we are re-enacting something we saw or were forced to do. Or we are following instructions that one of our abusers gave us verbally. We are communicating a memory that we don’t consciously remember.

Acting out often has a different “feel” to it than freely chosen actions. Sometimes we feel like we are in a trance, sometimes we watch ourselves doing something without engagement or emotion, sometimes we just feel compelled to do something without knowing why. Usually there is little consideration given to the consequences and little rational forethought. Sometimes there’s an internal argument beforehand –­ “Should I?” “Shouldn’t I?”

Some acting out comes from programmed instructions, which are like post-hypnotic suggestions. Other instances have nothing to do with programming. Acting out is a normal human way of coping, and there probably isn’t an adult on earth who has not experienced it at some time or other. It’s not crazy, it’s not abnormal, and it’s not even unusual.

It’s not helpful to blame and scold that part of you that doesn’t yet have the words to say what needs to be said. It’s far better to empathize with how frustrating it is not to be able to express yourself and to reassure that part that sometime soon they will be able to tell in words. Explain that the “don’t talk” rules no longer apply and offer the opportunity to try and tell with pictures, little figurines, or dance. It’s worth a try!

from Survivorship Notes, Vol. 2, No. 3 March 2000

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4 thoughts on “Acting Out

  1. Hallo K, I do not know sign language well but I have a friend who has a wonderfull book to teach you. I will find out from her and post the detail on the blog for you.
    I have drawn a number of pictures, abstract and normal, it helped me to form my thoughts and like you, to bring out stuff I could not speak about.
    Signing is good, just like someone I know who once described her experience in the third person, using a small chick as herself.
    Buy crayons, paint and just draw what you feel and sense.
    Keep well. 🙂

  2. I think the whole idea of acting out is fascinating, thanks for bringing it up, sometimes I think that every action I take is an acting out. I have had a partial memory that is about being in a bed I don’t remember, my baby sleeping beside me, and I know that this bed, and the room it was in was called the ‘green room’. So when I needed to buy a new sofa, and was looking in secondhand shops, I made a sudden decision to buy a green ‘sofa bed’, which I regretted instantly it was home. but it was an acting out, of this bed in the green room. the ‘bed’ part was completely hidden as part of the sofa. as the green room bed was.

  3. I love art ‘therapy’ – for me it is a painless way of letting some memories surface. I have only tried it once but it was very helpful. The woman was an artist, but not necessarily a therapist but she did know about overcoming trauma. I first took a piece of art paper and painted the surface with plain water, then painted with what ever watercolors I wanted to – all the colors would edge into each other. When I felt like I was finished we let that dry.. The next step was to use a thin pointed artsy pen and with my less dominate hand – for me the left – to just doodle — it was amazing what ‘showed up’ – things that my conscience mind could not handle then, but years following, I found the meaning of. That was at least 9 years ago and even now I see new things in that piece. I have been thinking about trying it again. — and do you know anything about sign language? It is so difficult to speak of some things and I have dreamed of signing some of it. – has anyone done that? -just a thought.

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