What does acting out mean?

Acting out is a psychological term, and it’s a defence mechanism, which means it can protect us from feeling difficult emotions.

When acting out happens, it commonly means that instead of fully connecting with a difficult feeling, we channel it into a destructive or immature behaviour instead. We know its acting out when its a behaviour we repeatedly do whenever the emotion should arise. People who act out on feelings may say things like “I don’t get angry”, “I don’t do jealousy” or “I’ll be fine”.

It’s an easy habit to get into, using a behaviour to distract ourselves from a feeling. When we first start doing it, it can feel good – but eventually the sense that something’s not right comes creeping back.

Common examples of acting out can include:
• exercising excessively to avoid feelings of hurt or loss
• spending money to avoid feelings of inadequacy or inferiority
• yelling, slamming doors, or breaking things instead of dealing with your anger
• binge eating to avoid feeling lonely

Acting out can be hidden in other, more acceptable activities as well, such cleaning up, or organising and reorganising posessions. Whatever it is, it is not the behaviour itself that is a problem but the feeling that the behaviour helps you to avoid… because avoidance is temporary. If you avoid your feelings, they tend to come back to you over and over, trying to get your attention.

Understanding your feelings can be very scary, especially if you don’t know how big they truly are. But if you’ve started to recognise that you always DO something as an alternative to feeling something, then it may be time to get some help or support and listen to what your feelings are trying to tell you.

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