For an introduction to defence mechanisms in counselling and psychotherapy, please read earlier posts in this series. If you're familiar with these ideas, or have already read earlier posts, please read this post about the defence mechanism of acting out.
Compared to some of the more subtle or slippery defence mechanisms that we've discussed, such as projection, acting out is generally fairly easy to recognise. In fact, usually when people act out, it is with fairly extreme behaviours that are difficult not to notice! Acting out involves behaving in an extreme way as an alternative to feeling and tolerating an uncomfortable emotion.
Common examples include people who act out by cutting themselves, to avoid overwhelming feelings, or to avoid a feeling of numbness. (People also cut for other reasons, but acting out is commonly part of the dynamics of cutting.) Another example is that of a person who hits their partner, rather than feel and tolerate anger, powerlessness, or shame.
Acting out is a defence mechanism that a counsellor or psychotherapist will often, in one way or another, help their clients to change, simply because acting out can cause a lot of suffering both to the client and to those around them.
As with other defence mechanisms that are easily noticed and potentially destructive, acting out can bring with it a lot of shame. The normally polite person who acted out by drunk dialing their boss and abusing them will feel mortified the next day, and will probably find it very difficult to get help from a therapist. It is important that the therapist does not avoid talking about the destructive behaviour (because it really is a problem that needs to be dealt with), but it is also important that the therapist conveys a lack of judgement or condemnation.
Given that most of us at times resort to the defence of acting out, and given that often the acting out will be something we later regret, what helps? One of the most common things that helps with acting out is learning to use words rather than actions to express our feelings. This may sound simple, but often it's not.
To use words to express our feelings we need to first be able to identify what we're feeling. Learning to identify what we are feeling can be difficult. It may help to have a therapist who can express what we might be feeling, so that we can decide if that fits or not, and we can learn the language to fit the emotion from how the therapist has been talking to us.
Perhaps we know what we're feeling, but don't feel confident about expressing it. A psychotherapist or a counsellor may help with this by helping us to find clear and assertive language, or to deal with the fear of how others might respond to our expression of feeling.
So, to summarise the above, therapists can help us with acting out by helping us to use words rather than actions to express ourselves. However, this may not be the most important approach for everyone. Some people know what they're feeling, and how to find words to express this, but when under stress find it difficult to avoid acting out anyway. Such people may find a DBT program helpful, particularly skills such as mindfulness that help regulate impulsivity and the intensity of the emotion that is at risk of being acted out.
Through mindfulness practice we let go of the impulse to judge or analyse or act on thoughts and feelings. We do this in mindfulness each moment, when we notice our distracting thoughts or feelings, and bring our attention back to whatever we're focusing on, whether it be our breath, body sensations, a view out the window, or a piece of music. Mindfulness has been shown to be effective in reducing the impulsivity even of violent and impulsive offenders, so it clearly really does work.
Not only can mindfulness help us to not impulsively act out an overwhelming feeling, but we also find that through accepting rather than judging our emotions, we begin to feel soothed and the painful emotion reduces in intensity. There are many styles of psychotherapy and counselling that integrate mindfulness into the therapeutic process, including DBT, ACT, and MBCBT.
Some people seem to fear that through learning to regulate their emotions rather than act them out, they will lose the dramatic or creative aspects of their personality that they value. My experience is the opposite. I have found that through doing this personal work people boost their creative or dramatic potential by being able to add a degree of measured skillfulness and control to the spontaneity that they so value.
So, if you're thinking about changing your habit of acting out, you have everything to gain, and nothing to lose. That said, you may need to learn to assert yourself more, because it is possible that your habit of acting out developed because that's what worked to get people to understand that you needed help.