Acting Out and the Act of Naming

Acting Out
Acting Out in Paris

People talk about ‘acting out’. Addicts say it to describe what they do that leaves them addicted; psychotherapists say it to describe what a client might do less consciously rather than talk about it, consciously. In either case we’re describing behaviours as symptomatic of dissociated or repressed ‘stuff’. What’s that ‘stuff’?  I’ve written about it here and here where I explore the ‘scenes’ people create when acting out.

Here, however, I need briefly to air my frustration at the way we name the acts of acting out.

In the theatre I love it that I usually find simply, unnamed but identified, Acts I, II, and III. Occasionally I just find Act I, and sometimes an additional Acts IV and V. In psychotherapy, though, especially when we are talking about addiction, we name acts like crazy.

We name the acting out of love 1, loving performed in a certain repetitive way,  as love addiction and create a psychopathology of the ‘love addict’ 2which includes a cause and a treatment. We do the same thing for the ‘codependent’, or the ‘gambler’ and a host of other creations.

These labels can have a place. I call myself a Pole, for example: usually when I feel threatened (reading some James Baldwin this morning re-awoke me to that, after my interest was triggered by Boris Johnson parading the word ‘liberal’ in some freighted, soon to be exploited way, rather like a new British brand of aperitif). To call myself something is a different matter.

This naming of acts seems in step with a tendency I’ve noticed during my time alive, and which probably existed beforehand; but I feel less qualified to comment on matters pre-Tom 3. For example: post-punk, to describe the way my friends and I used to back-comb our hair and listen to bands like the Cure in the late 1970s to early 1980s. We also, of course did many other things, including in my case listening to Duran Duran, going to see plays by Pinter, falling in love with Shakespeare, going hatefully to church, and living in France.

It’s a controlling tendency. One that circumscribes me, draws a circle around me that limits your understanding of me. One that leaves me anxious in the way it short-changes me of  life the world: the less of me that’s there to be known, the less of me there is to be returned to me 4. I need as much as possible to come back to me, or I will only ever know myself as a caricature, and who can survive on that? No wonder I would feel anxious!

This tendency to name acts, to categorise and subcategorise our problems, can create a brittle kind of un-human (not inhuman) understanding; one that looks to understand by pathologising. The phenomena of experience, the dynamism of our lives together 5, are to be understood in terms of their causes, so they can be dealt with. But I’m afraid my experience of life suggests that however much we love theory, and however much it might tell us about forces that might affect us in life, theory is only ever really a listening (reading) exercise 6.

In my various psychotherapies, the ones in which I’ve been able to sit back and let someone else sort out the room beforehand, I’ve gradually managed to let go of a tendency in me to look for a tendency, or a reason, or an underlying cause. Laplanche has some good things to say about this. And I’m not against taking a good look at tendencies.

But there isn’t one underlying cause to explain me; not even a dozen. Not even an army of them. And there’s nothing specific to be done to me that will make me happier, more aware of my life or better able not to repeatedly act out the same old stuff.

All I have learned is that by noticing things with a someone who has a very good ear, who really knows how to listen, you come to notice a lot more in life, manage to stay with the feelings you’ve been avoiding (a psychotherapist needs to be able to hang around with you while this happens without being physically there 7 … something of an art more than a science) and then things change. You learn to better accommodate both yourself, whatever that is,  and the other people, whoever they are, in your life, the broadest sense imaginable of you and not you, so you become gloriously present and not to the exclusion of others. Sometimes it feels like hell, but not as often as you’d imagine. Often it doesn’t.

Happiness is a not a chimera, but it needs to take its place alongside gloom.

As you may have detected, the more I rattle on, the more you learn about me; and that’s the way it should be, surely? Someone I once spent a lot of time in therapy with told me, as I peppered him with questions about who he was, that I’d find out in time; but maybe if I just thought about how, if I’d met him and we were chatting somewhere, it would be a little weird if he told me everything about himself in one go. Point taken. Relationships need to develop over time, sometimes a very long time.

So, you won’t find me telling you, as an act of therapy, that you are a love addict. I won’t be telling you what that means, that we need to do this to sort you out, or where would that leave you. Or us, for that matter? I might suggest thinking about love addiction as an interesting thing to do, that might help you understand some of the ways you have become hooked on the what’s rather than the who’s of your relationships. And if you want to call yourself a love addict that’s a completely different matter. Go for it. Call yourself what you want and that will do you, I’m sure, a lot of good.

Just be cautious of a style of psychotherapy that looks to quickly explain you, or your acting out, your acts, through names, categories or patterns. This act, an acting out, seems suited to a certain kind of heroism in the Obi-Wan Kenobi – Luke Skywalker mould, possibly a masculine thing, when I think about it … that leaves me rather appalled.

Heroism.  Codependence is about heroism, in a way; that we can’t be constant heroes. But that’s another story.

  1. Which I shall focus on as it’s the acting out I’ve been asking about more than any other recently: something to do with what we read about in the news each day. I remember reading the same newspapers twenty years ago presenting stories about the same kind of situation in other ways, as a snippet in a showbiz column, for instance. These people can be so utterly wildCrazy. That kind of thing.  People who were larger than life. Charisma. Their passport to abuse, in other words, sanctioned by the national press.
  2.  In addiction circles there’s a difference between the acting out of love and the acting out of sex, of course. Up to a point, a sensible division; but to begin with an unhelpful division for a psychotherapist to make, steering a client away from the bigger picture, perhaps. 
  3. although I could think about the hysteric, the neurotic, the flaneur and so on
  4. anorexia, in some ways, begins like this
  5. Nicolas Abraham would talk about The Dynamism of Intersubjective Functioning. Abraham, N. and Torok, M (1994). The Shell and the Kernel: vol 1: Renewals of Psychoanalysis.
  6. Exercises in which are the most important ones for any psychotherapist
  7. I’m very interested in the contemporary replacement of ‘there’ with ‘present’, and thinking about why this might be. A successful industry such as the Mindfulness one might be one place to look.

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