What are feelings for? Psychotherapy is all too quick to point out the problems that occur when feelings are repressed, but doesn’t say much about the function of feeling itself. Ever since Descartes’, ‘I think therefore I am’, feeling has come a poor second to thinking as a basis for experience. To be emotional is to be misguided.
Yet our values and opinions are largely rooted in a feeling response to the world. Thinking is rarely primary and does not afford action with value. It is feeling that guides action. Without the full range of your own feeling response to life, behaviour has to be regulated by external authority
”Feeling always binds one to the reality and meaning of symbolic contents, and these in turn impose binding standards of ethical behaviour from which (the intellect) is only too ready to emancipate itself.” C. G Jung.
One of the defining aspects of the psychopath, who doesn’t know how to behave, is that he suffers from ‘flattened affect’. I.e. he does not feel. His riding roughshod over others and behaving as he wishes is synonymous with not feeling. Not knowing what he feels deprives him of the means to know what others might feel and so the only guide to behaviour is external constraint.
Madness is often a question of the absence of something ordinary as much as it is about the presence of something exotic.
Of course it could be said that some forms of dis-ease are full of feeling. There are even some studies that have been made which seem to link the onset of schizophrenia with excessive expression of feeling in the family. Closer inspection reveals that what the researchers are describing is not feeling but hysteria. The hysteric is not expressing feeling. He is manufacturing emotion in a dramatic attempt to compensate for the want of genuine feeling. He makes histrionic mountains out of mole hills in order to try and induce some sense of aliveness into an otherwise desolate life. Such counterfeit feeling is an exercise in unreality. Schizophrenic responses to these misrepresentations are only to be expected.
In the town where I grew up one of the boys was very disturbed. He was bright but couldn’t concentrate in class and continuously failed his grades. Eventually he took to drugs, anything he could lay his hands on, and dropped out of school. The last conversation I had with him consisted in his concern that the electrical appliances in his home had turned against him. Apparently the fridge had been particularly belligerent and thrown spears at him.
Both of this poor boy’s parents were hysterics. His mother was the more florid of the two and had once attacked him with a kitchen knife for failing to do his homework. Was she the emotional refrigerator who threatened him with sharp ‘spears’? Of course in public she contained herself a little better but there was always something exaggerated in her gestures. It wasn’t possible to ask her the time without her feigning shock, clutching her breast and sweeping her eyes to the heavens.
The boy’s father was the local vicar. He was peaceable and friendly but peaceable and friendly from fifty paces. When you met him in the street he would throw his arms open wide and run towards you as if you were a long lost brother whilst staring avidly at a point just past your left ear. One day I was sent around to their house on some errand. The vicar was in his study poring over a box of old sepia photographs. Would I like a look? He had been a big game hunter in his time and this was the record of his trophies. One photo impressed me deeply. It seemed to be his favourite and he spent some time telling me the story attached to it. A large bull elephant with great tusks dominated the picture. Hanging from one of these tusks were the entrails of his companion that the elephant had just gored to death.
His friend had died horribly. But he isn’t connected to this event in the least. There is no shred of horror, shock or loss. There is no sense of any feeling about what had happened at all. It has all been replaced by the drama of the intrepid journalist getting the ultimate action shot. How pleased he is with his photography. The focus is crystal clear. The composition is just perfect. It’s a shame the way the colour is faded though.
His sermons had a similar feel to them. They always left the congregation slightly bemused. His gusto made everyone a little depressed. It wasn’t that he was always reminding folk of their sin or painting lavish pictures of hell and damnation. On the contrary, his was a vision of love and light. It was that his message was forced. He was a priest pretending to be a priest, which left his flock playing at being a flock. This was confusing for them because they were already a flock. Perhaps his son was similarly befuddled.
Many forms of dis-ease seem to hinge upon the problem of inappropriate feeling, the lack of it or the faking of it, which can then leave a person unclear about both their identity and their values. Who they are and what they hold good are cradled in feeling which connects them to themselves, to one another, and to the world.
‘’Feeling is vital to the sense of reality and relatedness. When feeling is inhibited or repressed, people and things hold little meaning or value.’’ J. W. Perry.
You hear a lot of talk in counselling and therapy circles about ‘negative feelings’. I get a lot of people who want help with them as though it were possible or desirable to cut them out like some cancer. They forget how lucky they are to have these troublesome feelings where they belong rather than having them somatically expressed in the body where suppression would have them develop into truly problematic symptoms.
There’s really no such thing as a ‘negative’ feeling, just feelings that reflect an uncomfortable reality, that don’t fit with our preferred self-image or seem to lack meaning because they have lost their context. As such, these feelings are like an internal compass pointing to a reality we may prefer not to name or indicating a direction we prefer not to take but without which we cannot be whole.
In his account of Nazi concentration camps Bruno Bettleheim, a Freudian analyst who was in Dachau and Buchenwald, was repeatedly surprised that certain men failed to cope when all his psychoanalytic experience suggested that they would do better than others. He believed that those with strong superegos would survive and could not understand why they did not.
In the famous story by Antoine Exupery (2001), the fox says to the Little Prince,
‘’It is with the heart that one sees rightly’’.
He might have added, ’’and acts rightly too’’. Bettleheim (1991) observed that prisoners would commit suicide at the point that they no longer felt able to respond emotionally to their situation.
‘’One had to comply with debasing and amoral commands if one wished to survive,’ but it was necessary to stay aware of whether this were ‘’good, neutral or bad.’’ ‘’The freedom to feel… was what permitted the prisoner to remain a human being. B.Bettleheim.
What killed the prisoner,
’’was the giving up of all feeling, all inner reservations about one’s actions, the letting go of a point at which one would hold fast no matter what.’’(ibid)
Values, humanity and the will to live itself could only be maintained by retaining the freedom to respond emotionally to circumstance even if one was powerless to effect change.
Conversely, the SS were trained to forgo basic human values by expunging their own emotional responses to the extreme situation of the camps. One of the methods employed in SS recruitment was to have the soldiers rear Alsatian puppies during their indoctrination. Of course the men would become emotionally attached to their charges. At the end of the process they were commanded to throttle the dogs with their bare hands, demonstrating both literally and symbolically their capacity to choke off all feeling that then made their inhuman purposes possible.
People commit inhumane acts against one another because their own humanity has been choked off. When I was a boy at public boarding school, a colonial throwback that made Tom Brown’s schooldays look like a summer picnic, the new-boys always swore that when they became seniors they would never treat the juniors with the violent contempt that they themselves were having to endure. The culture of the school was steeped in institutionalised bullying. Twice daily roll calls were necessary to stem the flow of runaways, a roll called so frequently I can still rattle it off after 35 years.
Sexual abuse was an organised part of a new boy’s inauguration, as were regular beatings and various forms of psychological torture. In fact those same new boys were just as sadistic when they became seniors. It was necessary for them to become so in order for them to repress the memory of their own humiliation. Any real protest, except in the vaguest terms, would bring renewed punishment from above and accusations of being wet from one’s own dormitory. No-one wanted to see their own terror laid bare in another’s suffering.
Lights out provided enough cover of darkness for the privacy of muffled crying. There would be no concern but no condemnation either, for comment either way would validate the fact that someone was in pain. Occasionally the entire dorm would be whimpering, blankets and pillows stuffed into mouths to deaden the sounds. No-one said anything to anyone else and there would be no mention of it in the morning. The bell would ring and it was business as usual.
We could only refer to our experiences indirectly by saying that we would never treat the next generation of new boys in the way that we had. But the actual feelings involved were always dismissed and so the values that might have prevented a boy from repeating what he had himself suffered could not be informed by experience. My first day as a senior is dominated by the memory, not of one event or another, but of being drunk with power.
I sent a new-boy to the tuck shop to get me a coke. When he returned I could see from the level in the bottle that he had taken a sip. My response was to hold a knife to his throat and threaten to kill him.
Years later, aware that there was something un-nameably wrong with my life, I took myself off to the Sierra Madre (mother mountain) for space and reflection. One day I was walking along a narrow path in a shallow valley when I became aware of a great pressure wave, a force of Nature, like a racing storm front, approaching me from behind at speed. I began to run, then dived off the path and into the brush as it overtook me, throwing me down, dissolving me in a grief that only began to take coherant form as it found its expression. It started out as the regret and self recrimination for all kinds of terrible things that I myself had caused others to suffer. Then it became for want of my parents who I hardly knew, and finally I found myself crying for my childhood nurse, Suzzanah, terrible gut wrenching loss.
Finally, as it all subsided, I crawled over to a Yucca cactus and propped myself up. I got out my billy and brewed some tea. There was a little shade, a soft breeze and some friendly whisps of grass. I got to my feet thinking that this was a good spot and if I could triangulate my position I could find my way back here. What I saw was an endless valley dotted with a thousand Yuccas, all with their measure of shade, their bit of breeze, their whisps of friendly grass.
I didn’t need to find my way back to anything. What I needed was always right in front of me.
Later still, as a psychotherapist in private practice, I am often asked, ‘how do you get in touch with grief and pain?” The answer is always the same. It will find you. Once you have interrupted the strategies and lifestyles put in place to occlude it. And you don’t need to go to Mexico to know this to be true, though it does take the realisation that propping up relationships that don’t work, getting sick, and staying in dead end patterns may well preserve you from life’s difficulties and pain, though it does so at the cost of aliveness itself…
The metaphor of the endless Yuccas means that opportunity is always exactly where you are so long as you do not fight what life has to offer.
”Our suffering is as much from resisting the circumstances at hand as the circumstances themselves.” M. Israel.
Years later still, I lost the care of my son in a custody case. I had raised him from a baby and was utterly disraught. In the wee hours I cried and wailed, begging providence to return him. A small voice in me said, ‘your pain is because of your love, would you like for your love to be removed so you hurt less….?”
This article is based on an extract from my new book, ‘Abundant Delicious… on attaining your heart’s desire.’ .http://andywhiteblog.com/2016/06/11/abundant-delicious-hot-off-the-press/