While body is a vital source of information about our psychic state, feelings give us essential information about our relationship with the world.
Evolution of Feelings
Feelings happen in a part of the brain called the limbic system which evolved as creatures developed the ability to live in social groups. Prior to this a baby dinosaur had a problem if it hatched when its mother or father were still around, as there was nothing in a dinosaur’s make-up to prevent it seeing its young as potential food.
Purpose of Feelings
The point of feelings is to feel them and to have available the information they bring. There is often a misconception that we need to ‘express’ feelings, but the main point of expressing feelings is that it helps us feel them. A secondary aspect to expressing feelings is that it often gives us some of what we need: For example, crying when we feel sad releases natural painkillers which help us bear the pain and also invites the comfort of others.
How is the information feelings bring useful to us? Feelings give us vital information about our needs, particularly our needs in relation to others around us. We feel something and it alerts us that we need to adjust our relationship with those around us.
The Trajectory of Feelings
Feelings begin at a somatic level as affect, which is largely unconscious. They become emotion when we become aware of the sensation of feeling something. To become a “feeling” we bring our mind to the experience of emotion and move it into the symbolic realm by naming what it is that we are feeling.
There is no such thing as “a feeling”, I can’t show you anger or sadness for example, but I know what it is to feel angry or feel sad. So I resist speaking about feelings as if they were a “thing”.
A Typology of Feelings
Sometimes I find it can be useful to think there are four basic feelings and all the other feelings are some mix of these basic “feeling ingredients”. There is some evidence to support this idea, as anthropologists have taken photographs of facial expressions around the world and been able to classify these expressions and link them to these four basic feelings.
These four feelings are angry, sad, joyous and afraid. If I feel disappointed, this is probably a mixture of sad and angry. Grief has elements of all four feelings at different times. If I feel excited, I am probably feeling a mixture of joyous and afraid.
Feelings are highly subjective, and as such tend to have gender and cultural bias. Generally until recent times in New Zealand it was only acceptable for a sober man to express angry feelings, and a woman was allowed to feel anything but angry.
If a woman expressed her angry feelings she would be labelled an “angry bitch”. A few years ago when an All Black scored a spectacular try and the players gathered around and hugged him, there was public outcry about such a public expression of joy between men. In the 1970’s Felix Donnelly wrote a book about New Zealand culture entitled “Big Boys Don’t Cry”.
This allocation of feelings between the sexes “worked well” in traditional NZ culture: A warrior, whether on the battlefield or the rugby pitch, has little use for feeling sad, happy or scared; A mother needs to be able to feel a broad range of feelings in her work; Being able to access angry feelings and aggression is “important” in terms of being in control of one’s environment, including a family.
When a feeling is not permitted to be available to our consciousness it does not go away! It remains unconscious and seeks a channel into consciousness. Hence many women complain that when they know they should be feeling angry they find they end up crying, feeling sad and depressed. When a man feels sad or scared he may find himself becoming angry. This may explain why our psychiatric wards used to be full of depressed women (now they take pills) and our prisons are full of sad and frightened men.
All this has been changing in recent years. Gay men have been quite public in their reclamation of a broader range of feelings. Feminists have led the way reclaiming angry feelings for women. At the same time there has been a new difficulty arising where men are not permitted to feel angry and women are not permitted to feel sad or afraid. It still seems that both men and women in NZ find it difficult to celebrate without using alcohol or drugs.
Feelings and Needs
If feelings give us vital information about our needs, what are link between between these four feelings and needs. If I feel afraid what is it I need? I believe there we can think about a generic connection between these four basic feelings and four basic human needs.
|Angry||Alerts me to the need to set a boundary or boundaries. “Stop right there!” “Don’t touch that!” “Get away from my child!”|
|Sad||Alerts me to needing comforting. This may be from others or I may find a way to comfort myself|
|Joyous||Alerts me to the need to celebrate, a sometimes neglected basic human need. Celebration brings us together as a group.|
|Afraid||Alerts me to a need to protect myself, another, or others. If I feel threatened I need to know otherwise I may endanger myself or others|
Repression, Dissociation and Somatisation
We learn about feelings as we grow up. Initially our parents, sometimes unknowingly, teach us how to understand feelings and what is permitted and what is prohibited. Feelings can feel dangerous, and we learn not to feel them. We can cut off from feelings at a variety of different levels. Most fundamentally we can decide not even to experience an emotion which requires us to dissociate from our physical experience of feelings. The affect may then express in a physical symptom of some description. If we allow ourselves to experience the emotion, we may then defend ourselves against awareness of the feeling, possibly by channeling the emotional energy into a different experience of feeling, as described above.
Feelings and Anxiety
Without the vital information our feelings offer us we will find it difficult to navigate the complexities of living alongside others. We may try and make up for it by trying to think our way through life, but our minds lack vital information. It is a little like trying to drive a car where all the electrics are down and we don’t know how fast we are going, or whether we have any fuel, or whether the engine is overheating. We can still drive, but the experience is a much more anxious one. Similarly one way of understanding anxiety is it is the experience of not feeling, of being cut off from our feelings and therefore our needs.
See also my paper: The Nature of Affect – Freud and Damasio