If you have or had an eating disorder, the eating disorder behavior and thinking distracts you or blocks you from emotional knowledge you can't bear. Whatever that may be, it's below your awareness. It's unconscious.
But, just because it's unconscious doesn't mean you don't know it. The information is in you. You know it, but you are not aware of it.
Sometimes something or someone will trigger that information, and out it all comes in a passion. But it's still out of your awareness. You start speaking, reacting and acting like yourself or someone else from another time in your life... and you don't know it. You hurtle on without control. This is what "acting out" means. You are acting out your unconscious without conscious awareness.
If you do this almost routinely with another person, it's possible that you trigger something similar in them. They "act out" a section of their inner life that is a match for yours.
If that happens neither you nor the other person is fully in the room, aware of the meaning and ramifications of the exchange or capable of making any adjustments or accommodations to reality. You are both locked in your own histories and battling out a repetitive scenario that has no solution in this form.
It can happen between parent and child, between siblings, between husband and wife. It can happen between friends and acquaintances whose unresolved issues are a "match" for each other.
You can't make progress or come to a resolution when you are caught in this scenario. A powerful wave is carrying you on. You feel righteous. You feel, in a strange way, that you are in a familiar place where you know what you must say and do to prevail while, at the same time, knowing that the response you get from the other person is predictable and familiar too.
An important part of your recovery work is to make your unconscious conscious. Without that you will be vulnerable to this kind of interaction and repeat it when the triggers are present. You can make destructive decisions, be attracted to people who serve to give you an outlet for this acting out, drain your energy and contribute to your unhappiness.
To deal with these traps you need to know they exist, recognize them, and help yourself heal your way out.
Many approaches exist for helping you recognize and learn from your unconscious rather than act it out.
- How do these traps show up in your life?
- Do you know what triggers them?
- What methods do you use to learn from them?
- What methods do you use to catch yourself before such interactions go too far?
* I've seen this dance several times in Bali. The main character is Rangda, uncontrollable evil. The dancers try to drive her away. It's a dance of great passion. What's key here is that it is a trance dance. The warriors and Rangda and later the Barong, are all in trance, as are you when you are caught inthe acting out of your unconscious. The dance is repeated endlessly with no resolution. It's an incredibly gripping experience to see this just as it is an incredibly gripping experience to be in it. The dancers need to be carried off at the end and revived by shamans.
Rangda in a barong- and kris dance performance
Tropenmuseum of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT)
Joanna Poppink, MFT is a psychotherapist in private practice. All appointments are virtual. To schedule a free telephone consultation email