Acting out/Acting in

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The term "acting out" corresponds to Freud's use of the German word "agieren" (as a verb and as a noun). It should be distinguished from the closely related concept of "passageà l'acte," inherited from the French psychiatric tradition and denoting the impulsive and usually violent acts often addressed in criminology.

"Acting out" refers to the discharge by means of action, rather than by means of verbalization, of conflicted mental content. Though there is this contrast between act and word, both sorts of discharge are responses to a return of the repressed: repeated in the case of actions, remembered in the case of words. Another distinction occasionally drawn is between acting out and acting in, used to distinguish between actions that occur outside psychoanalytic treatment (often to be explained as compensation for frustration brought on by the analytic situation, by the rule of abstinence, for example) and actions that occur within treatment (in the form of non-verbal communication or body language, but also of prolonged silences, repeated pauses, or attempts to seduce or attack the analyst).

Freud first mentioned acting out in connection with the case of "Dora" (1905e [1901]), noting with respect to her transference that his patient took revenge on him just as she wanted to take revenge on Herr K.: Dora "deserted me as she believed herself to have been deceived and deserted by him. Thus she acted out an essential part of her recollections and phantasies instead of reproducing them in the treatment" (p. 119).

The notion of acting out is closely bound up with the theory of the transference and its development. Though Freud treated the transference as the cause of acting out and as an obstacle to treatment in the Dora case, he subsequently described transference as a great boon to analysis, provided it could be successfully recognized and its significance conveyed to the patient. Acting out is thus attributable to a failure of the interpretive work or to the patient's failure to assimilate it. In his paper "Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through" (1914g), Freud revisited the distinction between remembering and acting out: "The patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out. He reproduces it not as a memory, but as an action; he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it" (p. 150). The examples that Freud gave here involved the repetition of feelings (feeling rebellious and defiant, or "helpless and hopeless") that had formerly been directed at a person or situation in childhood but that now manifested themselves, either directly or indirectly (through dreams, silences, and so on), visà-vis the analyst. Freud's assessment of such instances of acting out was nuanced, for he realized that they were at once a form of resistance against the emergence of a memory and a particular "way of remembering" (p. 150).

Inasmuch as acting out occurs outside as well as inside the analytic situation, Freud went on, "We must be prepared to find, therefore, that the patient yields to the compulsion to repeat, which now replaces the impulsion to remember, not only in his personal attitude to his doctor but also in every other activity and relationship which may occupy his life at the timeif, for instance, he falls in love or undertakes a task or starts an enterprise during the treatment" (p. 151). Acting out and repeating are ultimately the same process, involving "everything that has already made its way from the sources of the repressed into [the patient's] manifest personalityhis inhibitions and unserviceable attitudes and his pathological character-traits" (p. 151).

All the same, acting out in reality could have grave consequences, precipitating disasters in the patient's life and dashing any hope of cure through psychoanalysis. It is thus up to the analyst, relying on the patient's transference-based attachment, to control the patient's impulses and repetitive acts, notably by extracting a promise to refrain, while under treatment, from making any serious decisions regarding professional or love life. The analyst, however, must be "prepared for a perpetual struggle with his patient to keep in the psychical sphere all the impulses which the patient would like to direct into the motor sphere; and he celebrates it as a triumph for the treatment if he can bring it about that something that the patient wishes to discharge in action is disposed of through the work of remembering" (p. 153).

In Freud's thinking, then, acting out was long associated with the transference. 'In An Outline of PsychoAnalysis (1940a [1938]) Freud emphasized the need to clearly demarcate between "actualization" in the transference from acting out, whether inside or outside the analytic session: "We think it most undesirable if the patient acts outside the transference instead of remembering. The ideal conduct for our purposes would be that he should behave as normally as possible outside the treatment and express his abnormal reactions only in the transference" (p. 177).

Many other authors have deployed the notion of acting out, typically when considering personalities more inclined to act out than to remember in the context of the transference. Thus Anna Freud (1968) saw pre-oedipal pathologies in this light, and León Grinberg hypothesized that acting out is a reaction to inadequate mourning for the loss of an early object. Such approaches take acting out to be inappropriate or even disruptive acts precipitated by the pressure of unconscious wishes.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Abstinence/rule of abstinence; Active technique; Act, passage to the; "Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria" (Dora, Ida Bauer); Technique with adults, psychoanalytic.


Freud, Anna. (1968). "Acting out." International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 49 (2-3), 165-170.

Freud, Sigmund. (1905e [1901]). "Fragment of an analysis of a case of hysteria." SE, 7: 1-122.

. (1914g). "Remembering, repeating, and working-through (further recommendations on the technique of psycho-analysis II)." SE, 12: 145-156.

. (1940a [1938]). An outline of psycho-analysis. SE, 23: 139-207.

Grinberg, León. (1968). "On acting out and its role in the psychoanalytic process." International Journal of PsychoAnalysis, 49, 171-178.

Further Reading

Chasseguet-Smirgel, Janine. (1990). On acting out. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 71, 77-86.

Eagle, Morris. (1993). Enactments, transference, and symptomatic cure: a case history. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 3, 93-110.

De Blecourt, Abraham. (1993). Transference, countertransference, and acting out in analysis. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 74, 757-774

Gill, Merton M., disc. (1993). On "Enactments": Interaction and interpretation. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 3, 111-122.

Goldberg, Arnold. (2002). Enactment as understanding and misunderstanding. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 50, 869-884.

Paniagua, Cecilio. (1998). Acting in revisited. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 79, 499-512.

Roughton, Ralph E. (1993). Useful aspects acting out: repetition, enactment, actualization. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 41, 443-472.