Everyone knows what a feeling is, right? Well, it turns out that this is not the case and many of us are either unable to experience feelings at all, or get thoughts and feelings mixed up.
Early on in my training I had a tutor who would tell us ‘when in doubt, hunt the feeling’. It is arguable that this is the purpose of the therapeutic interaction that enables both empathy and relational understanding to take place.
So what is a feeling?
Feelings are emotional responses that we experience which can then be thought about and communicated using language. Let’s delve deeper and understand how feelings operate.
When we have a physiological response to stimuli – this can be external or a thought process – the cluster of physical responses are called ‘affect’. Affect is primal and is something we find across all mammals. Broadly, affect is a proto-emotion and expresses itself through what we would describe in words as:
Affect is not relational, meaning it neither functions nor is used to communicate feelings to another.
Above affect we have our emotions, which are more sophisticated and nuanced and whose function is to let both us and those with whom we are in relationship know about what is going on for us. Emotion is the link between mind and body, and, affect and feeling. Our primary emotions are:
Emotion defies language in that it can be felt and communicated through relationship and experience. However, effect is communicated using projection and projective identification – the ‘putting’ of feelings into another.
Feelings sit at the highest level and are behavioural and cognitive. They can be thought about and defined in language and conceptualised by another.
How can things go wrong?
Infants do not have the ability to use language and nor do they think using words. They experience affect in their body and communicate their emotions to their primary carer using projection. With early trauma where the primary carer (the mother) has not been adequately internalised, the infant projects their affect out into the universe, rather than into the other. They can neither make sense and soothe themselves nor locate soothing in another and are adrift with overwhelming emotions.
In relational psychotherapy, feelings are communicated through verbal and non-verbal cues but are also present in the transference in the shape of emotion. By receiving the patient’s projections and giving shape and form to them in the therapy, the therapist assists the patient in digesting their emotions and converting them into feelings.
When is a feeling not a feeling?
Often people will talk about feelings when these are actually thoughts. In language this is expressed as ‘I feel that…’. As soon as the word ‘that’ follows the word ‘feeling’, you know you are dealing with a thought.
Why does all this matter?
Integrating thinking and feeling lies at the heart of the therapeutic process. If unexpressed and crucially, unexpressed in a relationship, then a person is likely to remain stuck experiencing the world and their current relationships clouded by past experiences. In the words of Freud: “Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”
Mark Vahrmeyer, UKCP Registered, BHP Co-founder is an integrative psychotherapist with a wide range of clinical experience from both the public and private sectors. He currently sees both individuals and couples, primarily for ongoing psychotherapy. Mark is available at the Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
Further reading by Mark Vahrmeyer –