Here we have an explanation of what acting-out is, what types of beliefs lead to its creation, how this plays out on a societal level, and a glimpse into the abundant maladaptive emotional reactions that can ensue.
What a slippery concept acting-out can be to grasp!
Perhaps this has something to do with the nature of the process itself. As defence-mechanisms seek to screen off perceptions, thought, impulses and emotions from conscious awareness which, we perceive, will cause us detrimental conscious anxiety, simply understanding the concept of acting-out must compromise the unconscious’s ability to have material from defence-mechanisms remain outside of conscious awareness.
Thus the difficulty grasping this concept can have less to do with one’s intellectual ability and more to do with the possessiveness of our unconscious over what it sees as protected material.
The problem which exists, however, is that not all perceptions, thoughts, impulses and emotions which are out of conscious awareness are there because of defence-mechanism, yet all will be motivating our behaviour without us knowing it to some degree. As this is the essence of what is meant by acting-out, a clear distinction needs to be made between grasping the concept of acting-out and addressing issues which arise from acting-out – while noting that the material under scrutiny, once glimpsed, may be increasingly difficult to grasp because of such things as deflections of thought. This is not because of a lack of intelligence or illegitimacy of concept.
Caveats aside, acting-out describes how such things as perceptions, thoughts, impulses and emotions which are out of conscious awareness still motivate our behaviour. This is absolutely central to grasping acting-out. Behaviours the person is displaying are motivated by perceptions, thought, impulses or emotions which he or she is consciously unaware are the cause of his or her behaviour.
Although those perceptions, thoughts, impulses and emotions are not necessarily restricted by a defence-mechanism, they may well be. In either case a person can pursue interests, start activities and avoid places or persons based on motivations he or she is unaware. This is perfectly normal. Everybody is doing this all the time. Circumstances which result from such unconscious motivations could be good or bad, positive or negative, successful or unsuccessful. Simply because behaviour is being motivated by a subconscious source is not a cause for concern. Much of our behaviour is motivated in this fashion.
The over-intellectualism which was born in the age of enlightenment and promoted all the way into the 1950s by many scientific types in Europe and America cannot avoid taking some blame. Represented by arrogance and naively shallow approaches such as rationalism and behaviourism, over-intellectualism seeks to dislocate intellectual processes from their homeostatic place and put them on a pedestal above every other feature of the human existence. The extremely blissful amazement that Europeans felt for the importance of intellectual abilities that brought into existence the industrial revolution, and subsequent technologies, is understandable. One can only imagine how enthralled the people of pre-industrialised countries became with scientific discoveries when lifted out of a disease filled life of hard labour into a state of antiseptically cleaned modern transport systems, factories and technology filled homesteads. How could anyone who lived through that not be utterly amazed with such transformation?
A thought error occurred in the midst of the reverie. An inappropriate allocation of status was given to the intellect. Slowly but surely an arrogance matured in the minds of many scientific types. They promoted intellect as supreme and emotions as redundant evolutionary impulses appropriate to a more animalistic age. At a time when no psychology existed, as a profession, psychological suppression began to take root across Western cultures. Criteria for what would be called “acting-out” behaviour were created. So placed within the over-intellectuals’ belief of superiority, which they strutted into educational pamphlets for families in the name of science, was a malady which would infect the minds of all that believed their haughtiness.
Emotions are the motivations for everything we do and this includes our lofty scientific thoughts. Intellectual activities are motivated by our emotions. Preferences of which lines of enquiry to follow and which to reject are motivated by emotions. The conscious mind is tiny in comparison to all the unconsciously motivated behaviours we have evolved over millions of years that are intricate expressions of homeostatic principles created and sustained for our prosperity.
Due to this denigration of emotions, deeply flawed rationales were created and spread through the intelligentsia. A snobbish rejection of anger and avoidance of its expression, for example, set the scene for a growing plague of passive-aggressive attitudes, and a political correctness which would let abuses go unchallenged as long as its rationality rules were followed. As if, they believed not addressing the abuses which anger motivates us to tackle is okay, for Candidly thinking that somehow somewhere those abuses will be resolved by some magical force which will be unleashed by following the new rationale of intellectualism and its superior conduct based upon emotional repression. In reality it created emotional literacy problems throughout the West. As emotions perform homeostatic functions, solemn consequences of paramount importance to behavioural regulation were in the pipeline.
Acting-out, in many circumstances, is an issue of emotional illiteracy. As the principal dynamic of acting-out is conscious behaviour unknowingly motivated by subconscious/unconscious sources, if we cannot recognise which emotions we are experiencing, we are bound to act them out inadvertently.
When this sort of conscious repression is used to avoid emotions, they are pushed out of conscious awareness, yet perhaps more importantly, as time progresses, literacy levels drop in the population, so the ability to read which emotions are being experienced diminishes and their implicit meanings are weakened too. Dramatic dysregulation of behaviour on a social wide scale will become a progressive issue. Sadly this is unavoidable due to the homeostatic functions which emotions instinctively serve. We are all motivated by emotions to perform and not to perform certain actions of which many help us to create and sustain a balanced life across the psychological, social and biological spectrums.
Let’s run through a few circumstances where emotional literacy problems manifest acting-out situations.
1) Anger is created from a perception of injustice. It serves a homeostatic function of motivating us to stop malicious or abusive behaviour. So if we are slowly exposed to stories which lead us to believe someone or a group of people are committing injustices, we will gradually become increasingly angry with those persons. The critical aspect governing whether we do graduate in this escalating direction is belief. If we believe the reports of injustices, we will progressively become angrier if we know it or not. As anger instinctively motivates us to stop the actions of those we feel anger towards, automatically our disposition will turn oppositional towards the reported group. Thus if the reports/gossip we hear of that group have been inflated, our default disposition towards them will be inappropriate. Therefore the evolutionary motivation we use to prevent abuse will be corrupted into creating frictions in society which could themselves lead to abuses. If the anger is out of conscious awareness, as in this case of acting-out, not only will we be somewhat unaware of our oppositional disposition but if someone refers to us as angry, we may well deny the statement any credit as the anger is not recognised consciously.
2) Sympathy is created when we identify with another’s experience. One of the most poignant sympathetic expressions we experience is our reaction to perceiving distress. When we see a family member in distress, we are instinctively motivated to give aid. The original homeostatic function was to do such things as alleviate stress, help recuperation and promote bonds of trust within the family unit. One only has to imagine how such instinctive reactions smoothly maintain and promote a functioning unit to realise how critical sympathy has been to our evolution. Remove sympathy and dysfunction will follow. Nevertheless if a person or people feign distress or we hear un-contextualised and inflated reports of persons in distressed, which we believe, then we will gradually develop sympathetic feelings towards those people. Thus our default disposition will graduate to one of voluntarily giving aid to a group or person who does not deserve the aid. As in this situation the emotion is out of awareness, we will be unconsciously attracted to participate in activities that give aid to undeserving people. Therefore the evolutionary motivation which is designed to create smooth running family units based on bonds of trust and reciprocity is corrupted into a disposition of random acts of kindness. As it’s based on inappropriate perceptions, the aid deprives the resources of sympathetic aid towards those close to us that need it, encourages people to exploit those who have dysregulated sympathetic expressions by continually eliciting sympathetic issues, and so promotes dependency on exploitative behaviours by those who use them successfully while making unwitting victims of sympathisers. Emotional literacy is relevant here again, for to know that perceptions of distress will lead to feelings of giving aid makes us more careful in contextualising perceptions of distress.
3) Guilt is caused by accepting that we have unduly harmed someone or persons. Its homeostatic functions are to act as a kind of social barometer which causes us to check our behaviour when going too far, it motivates us to stop our offending behaviours and give recompense to the wrongfully injured party. Again this is a critical part of a healthy functioning family. It’s clear to see how this emotion moderates behaviour and maintains a cohesive whole of separate members. Remove guilt and dysfunction will follow through dissention and rebellion.
Nevertheless if a person or group is continuously reported as attacked or abused by a group of which you are a member, even if you do not feel directly involved, and if you believe the accusations, a guilt complex will begin to develop. Again emotional literacy problems are an issue here, for if you cannot recognise the experience of guilt or that it rightly stems only from undue harm, or that accusations of undue harm will lead to guilt and its evolutionary responses, there will be an unconscious build up of guilt. The acting-out part would be a subconsciously driven desire to engage in activities which are oppositional to one group by seeking to shutdown their behaviour while at the same time seeking to give possessions of that group to another group. Thus if the accusations are inflated, misleading or completely false yet believed, huge injustices will ensue in the pursuit of this corrupted sense of justice that stems from feelings which are out of conscious awareness. Therefore if people are so emotionally illiterate that they are unaware of people seeking to elicit feelings of guilt so they can get something for nothing, duped people will be increasingly motivated from an unconscious source to actively undermine their own group and give possessions from their group to their abusers. As this is motivated by a subconscious source, it’s classed as acting-out.
Because guilt naturally motivates us to refrain from an offending behaviour, the same dynamic of eliciting guilt can also be exploited to keep people from behaving in a way which is contrary to, say, an ideological agenda.
It’s a scam that exploits the best of human nature. Both the group that’s falsely accused and those who are duped into believing the lies are exploited.
Good natured people who are so wilfully advocates of seeking recompense and act to protect the abusers can find it difficult to believe that anyone would abuse guilt in such a way, so they form a stubborn defence which progressively makes them seem naive and too arrogant to accept their mistake.
4) Resentment is created from perceiving someone has committed an offence and got away with it. It’s basically unexpressed anger. Thus emotional literacy problems and emotional expressions are key to dealing with the ramifications (which there are many) from a build up of resentment. Resentment can create and sustain other destructive emotions. Also a process called carryover is shown to happen with a build up of resentful feelings, and it involves a very specific way of release (see Resentment).
People have the tendency of backdating issues of resentment from numerous sources and then releasing them onto another person or group who may well have no material connection to the previous offences upon which the resentment is based. So even when people have some awareness of their resentment, they still experience this kind of rough justice, somewhat out of control, outburst. At least when some conscious recognition of the resentment exists, some tracking of the build up is present, and so the outbursts are moderated to some degree.
Therefore, in the case of acting-out, the accuracy of those misguided outbursts will be less accurate and potentially far more dramatic.
English. Act = of behaviour or performance + Out = moving from one place (e.g. inside) which is closer to a centre mark to another (e.g. outside) which if further away.
1. Behaviour which is motivated by emotions of which we are not aware are the motive for those actions.
2. Powerful emotions which are out of our awareness which nonetheless motivate our behaviour.