Action Disorder

OVERVIEW: The action disorder formulation provides a way to think about problems sharing the common element of building pressure to do something. While some actions are clearly self/other destructive, others such as work, exercise, or caloric restriction may be prized as adaptive and rewarded by the culture. At some point, we may notice a positive action, such as working late to help pay the bills, has unintentionally become a vehicle for avoiding facing an intimacy problem at home. For our purposes, we are interested in identifying actions with the power to overwhelm conscious choice in the moment.

Pressure to less than conscious action may reflect the unconscious dynamic of selective attention. Here we find the focus on the action itself and its attendant consequences serves a primary function of shifting attention away from some unconsciously perceived threat. In the moment, in “choosing” to focus on the action at hand, we are selectively attending to a known impulse to action cycle as a defense against an unknown conflict or emotional content pressing to break into consciousness.

All of us are challenged around particular core conflicts to stay conscious. This difficulty may be what William Stafford had in mind in suggesting: “For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep . . .” (Ritual to be Read to Each Other). It seems action disorders function like breaking lines for us.

What is adaptive about repeatedly going to sleep after identifying the best practice behavior? Consider this Edward Whitmont quote:

“Any affect or emotion which in its raw and unaltered form is too intense to be controlled by will alone may need its ritual. Without ritual, such energies may inundate the ego and force it into acting out or into obsessive behavior. Ritual brings about containment and acceptance, control of intensity, and ‘dosage’.” (Whitmont, E., Return of the Goddess, p.235.)

This suggests our challenge may be to find a way to relate to and contain those emotions “too intense to be controlled by will alone,” or risk being overwhelmed and driven to obsessing and acting out.

In the sense an impulse to action can’t be contained by consciousness, compulsive behavior and addiction problems reflect container problems. While the behavior itself may be problematic, we want to explore it’s function from a spontaneous ritual perspective; it is negative in terms of degree of self/other harmfulness, and positive to the degree it serves to bind and/or discharge overwhelming emotion in the service of living through an unbearable moment. In the face of unresolved repressed trauma, until we can call on more conscious, life affirming rituals, we will be driven to rely on less conscious negative ritual enactments.

Please note, throughout this discussion I use the small graphic on the time line above to symbolize an internal representation of one’s self in relationship to one’s important other. This image is an invitation to reflect on the deepest levels of consciousness in relationship to the not yet conscious emotional drivers of our experience. In the context of pressure to act, the “other” in this representation may also be an image of the object of the action, for example an unplanned or forbidden food, drink, or purchase. (See Developmental Considerations and Experiential State posts.)

PROCESS FOCUS: Imagine a time line with time moving forward in moments. We start downstream at the point of first becoming aware of an impulse to action. From this moment, designated Conscious to Ego, we note the internal and external factors contributing to the probability of the idea of the action giving way to an overwhelming urge and surrender to the action. Drawing on internal and environmental resources, we design an intervention and feedback loop to control/contain the problem behavior.

When the impulse to action is life threatening, such as severe suicidal ideation or a drug/alcohol/food binge/purge cycle, day treatment, inpatient or residential treatment resources may be required to get control of the action.

Doing what we can to support holding on the action, we now move upstream in time to study the experience of pressure states associated with the emergence of the impulse to action. Here we want to think about unconscious triggers in line with the selective attention dynamic. For me this place on the time line is the betwixt and between layer in psyche, reflecting the imagined threshold between conscious and unconscious experience. (See Murray Stein quotes on liminality post).

We need to find a way to hold on the action and sit/stand/walk/run with the tension of the unknown, watching and waiting for what will emerge. The challenge to think the unthinkable is one way to acknowledge the reality of unconscious to ego experiences and the limitations of an ego based willpower alone in the face of emotional activations.

Christopher Bollas talks about the experience of the “unthought known” and the state of “not-knowing-yet-experiencing.”

William Stafford observes: “I call it cruel, and perhaps the root of all cruelty, to know what occurs, but not recognize the fact.” Having knowledge of an emotional fact, with incomplete recognition of what it means, sets us up for a particular kind of suffering.

With success in holding on the action we may anticipate contact with several layers of experience: a transitional emotional state characterized by anxiety, confusion, ambivalence, and fear, followed by emotions reflective of an acute grief and bereavement process, with associations and memories pointing to both current and family of origin experiences. This is the “blur” associated with the idea that “healing only occurs in the blur.”

In approaching the betwixt and between places, Stein suggests we practice the art of alert reflection. Here we pay attention to all thoughts, feelings, sensations, images, memories and dreams, as they can and do contribute to our understanding of less conscious material. It is important to practice non-attachment to these emerging contents. (Stein and Stein on Midlife, Psychotherapy, and Initiation post)

Turning towards the emotions accompanying the overwhelm and submission to the action, and the suffering experienced by both actor and recipients of the action, we now want to explore the emotional connections between the here and now experience and earlier traumas.

Unthinkably painful experiences begin to surface. At one level, these emotions point to Erik Erikson’s “sense of missing mutuality” with regards to our most basic needs for recognition, security, trust, acceptance, affection, respect, guidance and love.

It appears what has been repressed must find a way to be seen and heard and is now involved, if not instrumental, in setting up a trajectory of painful personal missteps which mysteriously share a common core.

In this regard, the action disorder facilitates a reenactment of the wounding. (See Couple Experiential State Complex: Re-enactment of the Wounding post below.)

While it is essential we take responsibility for any perpetuation of self/other abuses, it is important to remember we each are challenged to gather enough consciousness to bring healing to the wounds of our ancestors, as reflected in the conditions of our family of origin experience. (See Vine Deloria and Jung quotes post)

The developmental considerations and experiential state posts are designed to support a way to reflect on what we may be carrying from early childhood, as it informs what we will bring to new relationships. This will help us get into the idea of transference and set the stage for understanding splitting, projection, and possession in everyday life.

2 Comments on “Action Disorder”


  1. […] action disorder formulation gets at this starting with the observation: “Any affect or emotion which in its raw and unaltered […]


  2. […] getting hijacked by doing. It seemed to be a reminder about the ways I continue to be vulnerable to living life compulsively, or, in other words, evidence of partial cure based solutions […]


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