‘Acting Out’ Versus ‘Repressing’


We have two usual ways of reacting to urges (or impulses), moods and thoughts, and both of them trap us and make us even more helpless the next time the urge, mood, or thought comes along. These two ways of reacting are called ‘acting out’ and ‘repressing’, and we can explain what these terms mean by considering anger. Suppose that I find myself feeling really angry for some reason (the actual reason or trigger doesn’t particularly matter). I can do two things with this anger:


[1] I can attempt to relieve my feelings at the expense of someone else by shouting at them or by giving them a hard time, and if nobody is there to take the brunt of my bad humour, I can take it out on my physical environment by slamming doors, punching the wall, or by just being generally aggressive. This type of reaction is ‘outwards directed’ and involves the attempt to control (or clamp down on) the immediate external environment. This is called ‘acting out’ because we try escape the horrible feeling by doing what it wants us to do. This means that we justify the emotion, and ourselves for having it.


[2] I can deny the anger because I find it unacceptable, and ‘put a lid on it’. I don’t want to be angry and I don’t like the feeling of being angry (understandably enough!) but instead of blaming the world, I implicitly (or explicitly) blame myself and try to force myself not to be angry. This means driving the unacceptable emotion underground and ignoring it, and being artificially pleasant and reasonable on the surface, although we can never get rid of the underlying tension that this ‘forcing’ creates in us. This we call ‘repression’ because it is a way of trying to escape pain by saying that it isn’t there – it is control which is directed inwards. This involves rationalizing the situation: we tell ourselves that anger is the wrong reaction, i.e. we justify to ourselves why we shouldn’t be angry.




Reaction number 1 is no real help, although at the time we can easily fool ourselves into thinking that it is ‘the right thing to do’. Acting out does have a short-term benefit of course, and this is why we do it. The short-term benefit is that we shift the responsibility for the way that we feel onto someone (or something else), and this instantly allows us to feel good about ourselves. We don’t actually feel happy, but there is a sort of satisfaction to be had there, even in our frustration. After all, our frustration and anger is now justified! The short-term gain associated with acting-out manifests itself as an immediate easing off of the pressure that we are feeling, along with the self-righteous glow that comes with ‘being in the right’. Because of this pay-off, when I get into the habit of acting-out, it becomes entrenched as a habit in me – in psychological terms, I become conditioned. Basically, I am training myself to react in this way, just as I might train a dog by giving it a reward every time it sits up and begs.Conditioning is an on-going process and not a once-off thing, and this means that every time I act out my anger, I make it a little but more likely that the next time the anger comes along, I will do the same thing again. Therefore, this is a slippery slope to becoming a total slave to anger. There is a similar principle in the theory of anxiety-management, which says that “Every time I avoid a situation that makes me anxious, I make it more likely that I will avoid the next time I find myself in that situation. ‘Avoiding’, we may note, equals ‘acting out anxiety’. The ‘slippery-slope’ principle is of course best known in addiction, because, as everyone knows, every time I act out the urge or craving to have some more of whatever it is that I am addicted to, it makes the habit that little bit stronger than before. I start off thinking that I can give up the drug (or the habit) any time I want, but before I know it my addiction has become a monster that has taken over my life, a monster that it dragging me down more every day. The general rule is: The longer I put off dealing with it, the harder it gets to deal with.




‘Acting out’ is no good therefore. But what about Reaction no. 2, which we have called ‘repressing’? Pretty obviously, this is no good either! Like acting out, it makes us feel better at first, it gives us a sense of instant relief, but the price for this relief is very high. Basically, repression means pushing what I don’t want to see out of sight, and pretending that it isn’t there. There are several nasty problems with this tactic however. For a start, once I shove everything down in the basement of my mind where I can’t see it, I have to keep sitting on the trap-door that leads to the basement – I can’t ever totally forget about the stuff that I have hidden there, because if I do, it might start coming up again. This puts me in an awkward position: I have to be permanently on guard so that I don’t find out about the stuff that I don’t want to find out about, and, in addition, as if that wasn’t bad enough, I have to be on guard against finding out that I am on guard, because if I knew that I was deliberately keeping the basement door barricaded, then that would tip me off that there is something nasty down there – and that is exactly what I don’t want to find out!




There are other problems with repression too. Apart from the fact that I am constantly stressed out without knowing why, because of the hidden anxiety of having to conceal from myself the true situation, I am also storing up big trouble for the future. What happens first is that all the feelings and thoughts and memories that I have hidden away start to amalgamate in some way, so that they all turn into a big undifferentiated mass of not-quite-conscious worries, waiting for their chance to burst out. During the day, when I am busy and preoccupied with purposeful activities, I don’t notice anything. But when my defences are weakened, that is when all the demons come out to plague me. If I am having an ‘off’ sort of a day, then all it needs is one little upset and the volcano will erupt! Alternatively, if it is anxiety that I have been repressing instead of anger (and if we have been repressing one thing, the chances are that we will repress everything else as well) then what happens is that I get afflicted by ‘generalized worry’. Generalized worry means that all the things that I ever avoided facing all come out together in a big floating mass that go round and round inside my head. Because this ‘anxiety cloud’ has so many faces, so many aspects, even if I wanted to deal with it, I wouldn’t know where to start. It just seems too hopeless.




In addition to all that we have just said, repression of unwanted feelings like anger and anxiety means that I have permanently deadened myself – I have lost contact with my creativity, I have cut myself off from my ‘soul’. And so what is the point? What would be the point in saving myself from experiencing difficult feelings, if the cost is that I can never experience any other emotions either? Life becomes artificial and strained. There is no joy left in it, I can never be pleasantly surprised by anything anymore because I am too scared of surprises; because I have set off down the road of controlling, I feel that I cannot stop controlling. It is like telling a lie – once you start, you have to carry on with it. With repression, therefore, it is very much a case of ‘the cure being worse than the disease’.




So if I can’t act out and I can’t repress, what is there left to do? I am caught between a rock and a hard place – I can’t go forward and I can’t go back. I can’t say YES (which is ‘acting out’) and I can’t say NO (which is ‘repressing’). And yet, despite this apparent impasse, there is another way, a way which is so simple and obvious that we just don’t see it. We can understand this ‘third way’ by considering the fact that saying YES and saying NO are both ways of trying to control the situation. To get back to our example of anger, what is happening is that the initial ‘pang’ of anger (the feeling rather than the reaction to the feeling) is unacceptable to us – it puts us in a place where we just don’t want to be. In a way, we could say that this is because there is pain involved, but it isn’t pain in the usual sense of the word. It is more like an uncontrollable urge to do something; if we were to get right to the root of the feeling, we would see that it is rather like a fear of seeing something that we don’t want to see – and so rather than seeing this ‘thing’ we act, and thereby distract ourselves from whatever it is that we don’t want to know about.


As soon as we react, we get trapped in the process of reacting, and so lose sight of what it really was that we were reacting to, and this is of course exactly what we want! The same general principle applies in sulking. The point about sulking is that we do it to cover up – there is always a split second when we see clearly that we don’t have to sulk, but we feel like a fool in some way (or we feel exposed, or vulnerable) and we react to cover this up. As soon as we get into the sulk, we lose sight of the secret motivation that we had for sulking; in fact this is what sulking is all about – it is about telling a lie to ourselves, and swallowing that lie by going into the ‘sulking manoeuvre’. This means that, although there is a deliberate choice to go into a sulk, we simultaneously hide that all-important decision from ourselves so that it feels like we had nothing to do with it. If we didn’t hide this awareness from ourselves, the whole point of the sulk would be lost, since the whole point is to convince ourselves that ‘it isn’t our fault’. We need to distract ourselves from seeing how we engineered the whole thing.

Although the example that we just gave was sulking, the idea of a ‘secret motivation’ is true for all of the compulsive emotions (a compulsive emotion is an emotion that makes us feel that we have to do something). We can therefore say that all such emotions are really ways of avoiding. This assertion doesn’t make much sense at first. What would we be trying to avoid? The answer is simple, although not immediately obvious: we are trying to avoid the subtle pain of ‘not being in control’, which in another sense means ‘the pain of not knowing what is happening to us’. We can make this clearer by using the example of anger. In the first brief moment of anger, there is a feeling of something that is totally unacceptable, something that I have to do something about. If I reflected for a second or two about what this ‘something’ is, I would discover that I do not actually know why I feel so bad – there is some hidden issue there. I know that it matters, and therefore I react, but by reacting so quickly I lose any chance of seeing what the issue really is. Reacting makes me feel good. I get a satisfaction out of it, I get the pay-off (or ‘reward’) of feeling that ‘I am in control’, although this is clearly ridiculous, since if I do not actually know what the issue is, how can I possibly be ‘in control’?


If I paused to reflect, I would realize that the ‘reward of satisfaction’ that comes with acting-out and repression is connected with the fact that I am dodging awareness of the truth. There always is a reward for reacting (obviously, since why would I do it otherwise?) and the satisfaction involved exists in reverse proportion to the pain that I have avoided by the manoeuvre. In other words, the more I distract myself, the better I feel. This feeling of satisfaction occurs whenever there is a slide into comfortable unconsciousness, i.e. when I start believing the lie that I have told to myself. The reverse of this process must therefore involve becoming increasingly uncomfortable, and this ‘pain’ equals awareness, i.e. seeing the truth that I was trying to hide.




But what is this painful truth that I want to avoid? The answer couldn’t be simpler – it is the reality of the ‘here and now’. Anger is a way of avoiding reality, it is what we do when we don’t want to accept the reality of how we feel. This is easy to see if we consider the statement that both ‘acting out’ and ‘repressing’ are games. A game may be defined as a manoeuvre that is designed to distract me from the truth of the my situation – in essence, I say YES to distract myself from the threat of NO, or I say NO to distract myself from the threat of YES. Another way to define a game is to say that it is a way of ‘being in control’ of the meaning of the situation that I am in. It is this feeling of having control that holds the key to what we are talking about here: actually, in the here and now there is no possibility of control (or choice) whatsoever. How could there be? What is, is, and the only sane thing to do is see what is, and to unconditionally accept what is. When I think about it, this is obvious – it is utterly absurd to think of ‘doing a deal’ with the reality of the here and now, of saying “I will accept that it is true if…..”


Reality is reality, whether we like it or not, and any attempt to control the meaning of ‘what is’, is an avoidance of ‘what is’. However, the crucial point to understand is that we all try to avoid reality, all of the time. This is normal – in some way, we cling to the unconscious belief that no matter what happens, we can somehow change it to be the way we want it to be. This point is not usually obvious. For example, if something bad happens to me (if I have an accident that was clearly someone else’s fault) then I will get angry. Yet I would probably say that I am not denying the reality of what happened: I am accepting the reality of what happened, but I am angry because it ‘didn’t have to happen’. I might say that just because I am angry, that doesn’t means that I haven’t accepted that what happened, has happened. And yet, this is exactly what it means. On the face of it I ‘accept’, because it is very hard not to do so, but because I am still pre-occupied with questions like “Why did it have to happen?” and “Why should I have to put up with this?”, this means that I am rejecting the reality of what happened. If I am analysing and questioning then that means I am ‘looking for a loop-hole’: I don’t want whatever happened to have happened, and I am stuck in the mental posture of refusal. Because of this I can’t move on in my life, because ‘moving on’ means unconditionally accepting what happened in the past, and starting off from the basis that ‘it has happened’, rather than refusing to carry on until things are magically made to be the way I want them to be – which they never will.




If I am going over and over the situation, and analysing the causes, then this means that I am unconsciously clinging to the belief that I can do something about it to make it different. If I really knew that there is no way to change what has happened, then I wouldn’t keep thinking about it. I don’t consciously see that I am trying to fight reality, but that is what I am doing when I ask “Why?” – on a deep-down level, I have not truly accepted what has happened. In the same way, if I experience an angry reaction towards the world, this is a way of saying NO, it is a way of denying the reality that I find myself in. This is true for all compulsive emotions, they are all to do with wanting (obviously enough), and wanting means that we crave for things to be otherwise. “I don’t want to be here!” is what I am saying.


How does it help us to know this? Well, actually it helps a lot. If I don’t have insight into how anger works, then I won’t see that wanting is the essential part of the compulsive emotion, and I won’t see that when I try to satisfy the wanting, I am only perpetuating the emotion that I am trying to escape from. Once I see what is going on, i.e. when I have insight into the hidden motivation of anger, then I know that I am trying to avoid being in the ‘here and now’, and I also know this to be an impossibility, because I can never be anywhere else. What comes out of this is ‘compassion for oneself’. Compassion arises at the same time as insight: I see what I am doing, and I see why I am doing it, and I also see that it is impossible. This doesn’t mean that I force myself not to do what I am doing, but rather that I allow myself to compulsively try to avoid reality, and I have compassion for myself as I do so. I have compassion because I understand, and I understand because I have the courage to be there with myself, seeing what is going on.




It is okay not to want to be there! We are not suggesting that I SHOULD NOT WANT to be there’. That is still wanting (it is ‘wanting not to want’) and it is the wanting that is the problem. Positive wanting and negative wanting are both the same: either I want something, or I want not to want something, either way it is a game. Wanting has no place in the here and now because it is denial; the present reality is not something I choose, it is where I actually am. To think that I have a choice in the matter of ‘being in the situation that I actually am in’ is the sickness that is causing my suffering, not the nature of that situation itself. Therefore, when faced with the awareness of this massive reaction of rejecting reality, of saying “I do not want to be here”, it does not help to be panicked into rejecting this rejection. That way, we never get to find out what we are rejecting, and there is no compassion, and so there isn’t the peace that comes with compassion, only the blind, unconscious compulsiveness of the automatic avoidance reaction. This blind compulsion is the opposite of peace, and, what it more, it can never lead to peace because it is fundamentally unintelligent: because it is based on ignoring reality, its results can only ever be more conflict, and more blind suffering.



What we are talking about here is suffering with our eyes open. We are going to suffer anyway, but at least if we have our eyes open we may learn something, and without learning all that can happen is the endless repetition of the old pattern. As we have said, it is the rejection of pain that is at the root of all our problems. But saying this doesn’t make my situation any easier. I already know that I don’t like pain! Is the bottom line that I have to go through hell and bear it? If so, then that doesn’t help me much. In fact, this is not true at all, because it is our attitude that is tripping us up and nothing else. The pain is caused by our rejection of the pain, by our avoidance of what we think is going to happen. What we are suggesting is that the pain is actually to do with our not being able to have things the way we want them. The pain we so resist is the pain of not wanting to let go – it is the pain of our own frustrated ‘wanting’. Once we sincerely give-up on our stubborn insistence on having things our own way, then out of this graceful surrender to reality comes a peacefulness and relief, because we are no longer insisting upon having a problem. Or perhaps we could say that there is peace because we are no longer making an issue out of our situation.


The circumstances that brought about the anger may still be there, but the particular brand of oppressive, ‘closed-in’ hopelessness which was holding us in its grip has now gone. It is not until this closed-in feeling disappears that we realize that it was there, stifling us, and preventing us from thinking clearly – we don’t see the nature of the prison that we are in whilst we are in it. Once we give up our resistance we find ourselves in an open and developing situation, so even if we have to go through pain, the pain is no longer seen as being unfairly visited upon us, and so we do not refuse it, or try to give it back to someone else. Instead, we see it as part of life, the same as everything else, and we just get on with it. For this reason, ‘unconditional acceptance’ of the here and now doesn’t mean lying down to die, but having the courage to see the truth, and carry on living. Neither does it mean being a door-mat and meekly taking whatever crap people give me, but rather it means having the courage to see why I react in the way that I do, and not putting myself in the position where it seems necessary to defend myself and take their games seriously.




We are not talking about a ‘quick fix’ here, but we are talking about something that actually works, something that isn’t just another game, another evasion of reality. In a sense, all those times that we have evaded reality have to be made up for: we have made the here and now into an enemy, and this has to be slowly undone. Conditioning happens easily because it means opting for a short-term gain and ignoring the cost in ‘loss of freedom’; the undoing of conditioning, on the other hand, takes working at, because we have to ‘feel the sting’ each time the impulse of anger comes along, instead of dodging it. Each time we absorb the momentum of the impulse we use up a little of the energy in it, and so instead of becoming a progressively worse problem, the anger becomes less and less of an issue each time. The ‘pain’ is no longer seen as an enemy (i.e. something which has to be resisted at all costs), but as a transformative doorway – a doorway back into reality and out of the ‘nowhere land’ of denial.

The enemy wasn’t who we thought it was. On the conscious level, we identify the enemy as being something outside us, something to be resisted or resented. On the unconscious level of our secret motivation, the enemy is the actual reality of ‘us being in the situation that we are in’, and we are fighting reality itself. When we no longer get totally distracted by the automatic compulsiveness of our anger-reaction, we gradually gain insight into what we are doing, and we see that we are actually attempting to reject the here and now. Because our mind cannot see any other way out of what is happening to us, we end up making a friend of denial, and an enemy of consciousness – which is not a good way to do things! Having insight into this means we see that the enemy isn’t the here and now at all, but rather the enemy is the act of identifying the ‘here and now’ as an enemy, and acting on that assumption. We are our own enemy, and in anger we are attacking ourselves. If I am constantly, chronically angry, everyone else can see that there is no enemy there, just me, giving myself a hard time. I am haunting myself, persecuting myself without realizing it, and all the while blaming someone else.


Being an enemy of oneself is the inevitable consequence of psychological unconsciousness, which is the state of hiding our own motivations from ourselves so we don’t have to see the truth about what we’re doing. Instead of seeing that the problem is my reaction to reality, I project the problem outside of myself – I disown it, I hand over all responsibility. This makes me feel good because the situation has been simplified and made into something that is conveniently ‘black-and-white’. However, the down-side is that as long as I am not facing reality, I will never have any chance at all of developing as a person. I am basically ‘stuck’ and I will remain so just as long as I continue disowning my own feelings, my own emotional pain.


I have fooled myself that I am ‘getting somewhere,’ either through acting-out, or denying (which both involve handing over responsibility), whilst actually I could be more stuck. I am like a fly stuck on a strip of fly-paper! I am ‘doing something about it’ in my imagination, but not in reality. In order to really get out of my predicament I have to first see that I was fooling myself; I have to be willing to learn something that I didn’t know before – I have to open up. This is where the pain comes in, because if we have been busy avoiding the truth, then naturally it hurts to see what we have been avoiding. Unless I see it, though, I will never escape the trap that I have made for myself; I will not learn that truth was never my enemy in the first place. Conditioning, we may say, means ‘learning to believe a lie’, whilst undoing conditioning means learning to see through the lie. Therefore, in order to do reverse conditioning it is necessary to be genuinely interested in seeing the truth. This however is an unusual state of affairs!




What we are talking about here is the motivation of curiosity, which is the same thing as ‘being interested in the here and now’. Here we are speaking of curiosity in a rather specific sense of the word, which we can define as ‘being interested without an agenda’. Curiosity that has an agenda is suspiciousness, and since suspiciousness is only interested in finding out what it already knows, it is not an open frame of mind at all. Needless to say, open-minded curiosity is totally different to our usual motivation, which is based on fear, which equals ‘having no interest at all in the here and now’. It is an easily testable fact that no one ever got angry and curious at the same time. The two are opposites! Likewise, no one ever got anxious and curious at the same time, or envious and curious at the same time, or bitter and curious at the same time. Compulsive emotions exclude any possibility of a healthy curiosity in ourselves and the world we live in, and therefore the ‘cure’ for these unhappy states of mind is simply to get curious, i.e. ‘genuinely interested’.


If the pain that we don’t want to be interested in were a ‘dead-end’ (which is what we think) then we would perhaps be justified in not being interested. But the pain is not a dead-end! It is a cultural assumption (as well as a personal one) that pain doesn’t go anywhere, that it has no value, but the truth – as has long been known in all the ‘wisdom traditions’ – is that pain is a transformative door. Whenever we honestly relate to our own pain we change, and whenever we don’t – then we stay stuck…