Acting out is the expression of intra-psychic conflict or painful emotion through overt behaviour (117).
Such behaviour may be therapeutic in psychotherapeutic sessions. It may serve to reveal to the client the underlying conflict governing the behaviour.
In Psychoanalysis "Acting out" refers to the discharge of conflicted mental content by means of action, rather than by means of verbalization.
Freud first mentioned acting out in connection with the transference. His patient acted out an essential part of her recollections and fantasies instead of reproducing them in the treatment. Freud treated the transference as the cause of acting out and as an obstacle to treatment. Acting out is attributable to a failure of the interpretive work or to the patient's failure to assimilate it.
The notion of acting out is closely bound up with the theory of the transference and its development.
The patient does not remember anything of what he has repressed, but acts it out. He reproduces it not as a memory, but as an action. He repeats it without knowing that he is repeating it. Acting out is a form of resistance against the emergence of a memory and a particular "way of remembering". Acting out and repeating involve everything that has already made its way from the repressed into the patient's manifest personality, his attitudes, and traits.
There is a distinction 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 - Source:International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis, by the Gale Group, Inc.).
Self-injury may also be a form of acting-out, expressing in physical pain what one cannot stand to feel emotionally.
In psychotherapy Acting Out is performing an extreme behavior in order to express thoughts or feelings the person feels incapable of otherwise expressing. When a person acts out, it can release a pressure and often helps the individual feel calm and peaceful.
In Gestalt therapy, psychodrama and play therapy such behavior may be therapeutic and serve to reveal to the patient the underlying conflict governing the behaviour.
Acting Out is a psychotherapeutic technique used in Dynamic psychotherapy.
In Cognitive Analytic Therapy the therapist will work with the client to help understand the choices that the client has in his current situation when he finds himself acting out of the old and unhelpful patterns.