THE LANGUAGE OF AFFECT: feelings and emotions.

by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on October 31, 2011

I have been thinking about emotions and feelings lately, and about how differently people respond to them. There are those people who treat their emotions and feelings as valuable sources of information, considering them like their third eye or ear, a personal route to felt, implicit knowledge. Such people approach their feelings with a sense of wonderment and curiosity, which allows them to consider what the meaning of their affective experience may be. In psychotherapy this kind of exploration of ones’ feelings is not only encouraged, it is considered a potential source of play, which enriches the possibilities of self experience.

Other people have great difficulty feeling their emotions and considering them a source of information. To them, emotions and feelings are the harbingers of trouble and difficulty, like an unwanted and uncalled for alert to a situation that is best avoided. In a similar vein, feelings and emotions can be experienced as coming out of nowhere, in which case they can frighten us. Either way, when feelings are experienced as alien, as unwanted, as difficult or troublesome, as overwhelming, there is no ability to explore them and wonder what they are about, to ‘play’ with the possibilities, there is only the need not to feel and this requires shutting down. It requires a rigid adherence to whatever is going to help the person not think about it and not feel too much, if at all.

This is often the case when trauma has touched someone’s life. The experience of trauma assaults the individual with non-compatible, unexpected and incomprehensible information (thoughts, sensations, feelings) that overwhelms the ability to think and to make sense of the occurrence, making emotions and feelings intensely de-stabilizing. Thus, better to shut down and be on the alert for emotions that may bring pain and trouble, than to explore the pain and trouble. Often this is not a conscious choice. Or said differently: In the case of traumatic experience survival trumps everything else, so certain feelings and thoughts, as well as their links to personal sources of information will be disrupted and/or altogether aborted. They will be dissociated in order to insure psychic survival.

( for more on this, please see my series of posts on dissociation):

This post is not about dissociation, instead it means to address how we experience our feelings, and what role feelings and emotions play in our lives.

I have often found it helpful to think about emotion and feelings as one way to read the world around us and our response to it. This came from my belief and later, my understanding that affect, feeling and emotion are our first language, and that this language is the one with which we develop an understanding of our environs and a relationship with the caretakers in it. Our feelings alert us to how we respond to the outside world, and how it responds to us. At first this happens in a very personal way (as in pangs in stomach = hunger), and as we establish a relationship to our caretakers in an ever evolving more refined way (as in hunger pangs=she comes and feeds me=no more pangs in stomach=I feel good=she is good=we are good=I am happy) that begins to highlight the relationship between us and our caretaker as the source of contentment or pain. The source of a feeling. At least initially.

What I mean to highlight here is that feelings are part of an interior language that tells us what is going on within us in relation to the outside. As we grow up and begin to acquire a relational language (between mommy and me) that includes thoughts and feelings, we begin to experience more complex emotions. So emotions end up being feelings that have a cognitive and relational component, because a feeling has been identified as having to do with a particular relationship and its effect or impact on us. Again, emotions help us to read our response to people and our relationship with them. They locate who we are and how we feel  in relation to (another).

Feelings and emotions are affective channels for understanding the world and our relationship to it. they have their own, internal logic. Just like our senses, our ability to see and hear, to speak and touch help us to navigate the world, emotions and feelings provide the sonar equipment for this. Thought and cognition, as well as speech and its semantic register come about later and are informed by the language of affect.

So rather than privilege thought and cognition, which may make us feel safe within its language and provide an explanation that appeals to us because it captures something in words, I say, work with your emotions and feelings too. Add this information to your thoughts. Follow your heart and why it is beating. Listen to your gut, pay attention to your irritation, be with your tears. They are a language that is entirely yours and means to get your attention. It wants to lead you somewhere that may need re-visiting.

Here is how Rumi thinks of the same thing, but it sounds so much better when he writes about it:


The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Martha Crawford November 1, 2011 at 3:37 PM

So very well put – so many people see their emotional life as a force that will overpower them, and to which they should never succumb – others “obey” and are possessed and driven to action by every feeling that moves through them. It takes a lot of time and work to learn how to view your feelings as a data source, to understand the information they are offering, and to tolerate and contain the affective ” charge” which should, ideally calls your attention to the data….

Thanks for this!


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