Thursday, April 3, 2014

More Notes on Feelings and Emotions

When I asked Google Ngram to chart the phrase “getting in touch with your feelings,” I discovered that use of that phrase began after 1960. I used only part of the phrase because Ngram only permits a maximum of five words in each phrase one submits for comparison. And for contrast I used the word “iPhone”; it seemed to me that that brand name should have quite a rapid spike in these latter days. I got the following result:


This sort of thing—the popularization of concepts derived from psychology—had earlier cause me to speak here about “the Culture of Emotion.” 1960 is very recent, but, as I’ve endeavored to point out (here), the origin of this emphasis on feelings, thus the belief that authenticity is linked to feelings and emotions, dates back to the Enlightenment; for details see that post.

Emotions and feelings are, to be sure, used synonymously. In fact, however, feelings are milder, emotions much stronger. The root of emotion is “movement” and, that movement, is from inside out, thus from the body outward. Emotion always hints at action to come; feelings do not; thus there is a difference. The stronger a feeling becomes the more it looks like an emotion.

I got to wondering about the origin of that phrase, that “getting in touch.” The usual “origin of phrase” web sites did not in the least help me, but I managed, finally to discover something meaningful in a book. The following quote comes from there (link). The text that comes just before this quote points out that affective states, which are linked to the body, are able to influence our state of mind—if for no other reason than that conflicts can arise, e.g., between pleasure in eating and decisions to diet.

But exactly how the emotive or bodily component plays a role in psychotherapy and mental health is open to debate. For Freud, it was a matter of “getting in touch with” primitive childhood fantasies that carry an emotional charge. In other therapies, such as primal therapy (Janov, 1970), it is a matter of getting in touch with a buried reservoir of pain and then expressing and discharging it. In many existential or humanistic approaches, it is a matter of “getting in touch with feelings,” which means being willing to acknowledge and label one’s anger, sadness, or fear.
     Client-centered therapy, based primarily on Gendlin’s theory of experiencing (Gendlin, 1969), has a somewhat different view of the role of the affective component. Experiencing is a broader construct than “emotion.” People are said to experience feelings and to listen to their experience. In the process of experiencing a feeling, it is more important to listen to the experience of the feeling than to the feeling itself.
     [Judith Todd, Arthur C. Bohart, Foundations of Clinical and Counseling Psychology, 2005, p. 200.]

The quote is mildly revealing. I took a glance at Eugene T. Gendlin’s work; he is a philosopher and psychotherapist. Here, for instance, is a link to one of his essays which will serve to link him to my subject (link). Considering his influence and the time when he was most active, it seems that psychology owes that phrase to him, albeit by popularization. The quote also makes clear that the roots of this concern with emotion go straight back to Freud and are derived from Freud’s own ideas of repression; revealing repressed contents of our consciousness appears to have a healing effect, in the context of pathology—and perhaps an enlightening effect if nothing is otherwise wrong.

Words, words, words. In Hume’s day people contrasted reason and passion, in Jane Austen’s (who was born just eight months before Hume died) it was sense and sensibility, in ours it is feeling and cognition. As the words change, something new seems to be happening. The truth is that the underlying references are to very ancient and basic facts about human experience.

I am into Ngrams today, so herewith one contrasting sensibility and emotion. It is well to keep in mind that, in the eighteenth century sensibility meant “emotional consciousness, capacity for higher feelings or refined emotion.” The emphasis is on emotion. Sense by, contrast, meant “mind” to Jane Austen; the meaning of “that which is wise” became attached to this word in the seventeenth century. The emphasis here, we would say today, is on the intellect, the cognitive.


The word sensibility was used more frequently in 1800 than emotion, which is interesting. By 1820 the two words were crossing each other, emotion rising, sensibility sinking. Sensibility no doubt underwent a change as it was perhaps benignly neglected. When we say, these days, that so-and-so acted sensibly, we do not associate emotionality with use of that word. What we mean is that the person acted reasonable.

Another example of the way in which words linked to psychology change, take the following Ngram which charts hysterical and neurotic. Hysterical, as a descriptor, was once closely linked to psychology; it was assumed to be dysfunction of the uterus; by now it has come to mean out-of-control emotionality; neurosis, however, never took as strong a hold in ordinary language and has dropped precipitously since its heyday (it peaked in 1952), a period that corresponded to my own most active years in the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment