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Acting Out

Learning to Hold the Tension

The phrase we began to hear back in the 1980’s about children who misbehaved in school was “acting out.” No one bothered to tell us what that phrase meant, because mostly it was a euphemism for misbehaving. It was said with the same shameful glances at the child as were used when we were just saying that s/he had been bad. But a new phrase was coined and we adapted to it. What it really means, however, is that we can act out what is inside of us.

In fact that is what we are always doing, whether what is inside of us is fear of displeasing an authority figure, intense anger, or a passive/aggressive mix of both. We are NOT acting in. In other words, an external event, circumstance or person cannot create an action on our parts. Rather we are always acting from inside out.

But we can learn to hold the tension. This phrase was coined by Carl Jung, and it meant that we could learn to suspend action while various motivations for action called for our attention. We can stand still and listen while the clamoring voices inside of us seem to be pushing us to act.

So, Joe just got on your last nerve for the last time and you’ve had it. Your emotions are saying get up and show the jerk how it really is! But something else inside you says, “Wait, there’s something else here, let’s look and find out what it is.” And something else says, “I’m scared that if I say something Joe is going to hate me.” And something else says, “Joe is getting away with it again, you have to stop him.” And something else says, “I’m a wimp if I don’t speak up.” And something else says, “ I’m not taking this anymore.” Which one do you obey?

The answer most commonly is that we obey the one with the most urgency behind it. In other words we obey the one with the strongest emotional push. But if we can stand in the middle of all of these emotions and just listen and listen until we can clarify one genuine message, then we are learning to hear the voice of the authentic self.

Learning to hold the tension between the various voices clamoring for our attention is not easy, but when you really do it that first time it is its own reward. Why? Because responding from authenticity gives us peace.

Notice that I did not at all reference what responding from authenticity does for the other person. That is none of our business. How the other person receives our authenticity is not up to us. We’ve been taught that it is, but it absolutely is not. They will respond in whatever way they choose from the clamoring set of voices within them. Because that is all any of us ever really responds to.

But it gives us peace to respond to authenticity, because authenticity puts all the voices together into one single genuine effort. How does that work? Each of the clamoring voices has an urgent need behind it, and behind that urgent need is something else. It is either something that we’ve conjured up from the past, a ghost that runs today based on a need to compensate for something that didn’t happen yesterday; or it is something that has to do with a driving need to live from the rote responses of a particular identity; or it is some energy we have absorbed from someone else’s emotions, and with which we have identified as if it were ours; or it is some compulsive push, etc., etc. If we listen to each of those for long enough to clarify what each is truly saying to us, we get clear on what is true and what is false. And if we can do that without judging ourselves we can decide how to fulfill ourselves best.

The reason I’ve spend so much time talking about morality, and giving what I’ve said time to seep into our veins is because this self-judgment is where we stop listening to authenticity. We hear a certain vying voice and we say to ourselves that we are bad or stupid for feeling that way and we dismiss it. But if we can listen, without judging, we can find out what energy is beneath it.

So, back to Joe. If I listen to all those voices I begin to get it that I have some real stake in what I do here. And the stake can’t be someone else’s behavior, because I have no control over that. But the stake is in what the energy behind my emotion is. Why is there so much emotion generated about what Joe has done? Now I’m looking at emotion as energy, and energy that needs to go somewhere, and do something. Ultimately, I may learn, this way that I’m so angry at Joe because I’m trying to tell myself that I’m unhappy in my job, or that I have an unresolved issues from the past that I’m trying to resolve through Joe instead of more directly within myself. There are many things I can learn about myself by listening to the emotion and then hearing the energetic push behind the emotion. But if I just react without thinking, without processing what’s going on, then I’m just acting out. I act out the emotion, I feel better for the moment and then it starts all over again. Nothing changes and I don’t grow.

Learning to hold the tension is taking authentic responsibility for ourselves and our lives. And taking such personal responsibility is the very definition of maturity. We’ll be talking about maturity in the next blog. Wait for it.

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