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How Emotions and Feelings Drive Human Wellness and Illness
We live in a world that values our left brain faculties such as thinking, intellect, analysis, logic, quantitative, black and white thinking, exactness and facts. These and the focus on “me”, “I” and on objects outside of us for our consumption are all traits of the left hemisphere of the frontal temporal lobe of the brain. This is often called the masculine aspect of reality.
We also live in a world that still devalues our right brain faculties such as feeling, emotions, synthesis, intuition, qualitative, abstract thinking, vision, art, beauty, appreciation, empathy, compassion and relationships. This is often called the feminine aspect of reality.
The dominance of the left brain and its masculine traits has seen mankind collectively enslave and objectify the feminine for its own personal use and control. Objectification, control and use of objects and other people for self gain is a typically left brain masculine orientation that now threatens our future on this planet.
There is a plague of narcissism in society now that dominates thinking and ideas. We find this rampant “me, me, me” mindset is amplified within business, politics, science, social dimensions and even sadly in spirituality and psychological sciences.
What I notice in my work with clients is the fear of disowned emotions and feelings that condemn that person to suffering from its disowned symptoms, absences and compensating defences. Emotions and feelings are for many a bit like Voldemor in Harry Potter in terms of “they that shall not be spoken about”.
Yet neuroscience is front and centre in exposing the myths around the redundancy of emotions and feelings in humans that the left brain reality would promote. Instead we find emotions and feelings have ascendency in the healing process as being active agents in creating vitality and health, whilst also being the primary currency and mediators of social life and relationships.
Emotions enhance bodymind system function and create resilience against stress. Emotions are that which differentiate our experiences so that we can retain a memory of the risk and reward of experiences we have. They help us to classify all objects in our world into the 3 classes that we orient and relate to:
- Objects we fear, hate or move away from
- Objects that are neutral and so create indifference
- Objects we desire and are attracted to and move towards
We create our values and learn to discriminate between objects from our emotions rather than our thinking and so we order our world more around emotions and feelings than other ordering principles. We also create our relational self and the relational field that we let others into from our emotions.
It is the emotional aspect of ourself that allows us to be social and to assume part of couples, family, groups, tribes and communities. Within those collective spaces emotions allow us to communicate powerfully our illness, wellness, co-operation, competition, and conflicts with other members.
Most importantly emotions humanise us into the reality of “we” rather than just “me” and so allow us to adopt inter-personal considerations and modulation of selfish drives, behaviours and intentions. It is the collective interest versus self interest that is so critically needed now in our environmental, social and the GFC economic crisis which was borne of a left brain self grasping interest and unsustainable consumption of resources.
The bankruptcy of the left brain dominated reality is often seen in middle age after a half life of the pursuit of left brained ego needs. Carl Jung noted the narcissism of the first half of life was expressed through selfish desires such as money, power, status, materialistic objects, self gratification, and domination and control of others in the process of their attainment.
Carl Jung noted that the repressed feminine aspect in us eventually rebels and brings down the rampant masculine out of control self via some form of collapse. This is often termed a middle life crisis and represents a backlash by the disowned and neglected right brain feminine part of ourself that awakens in crisis from neglect.
The awakened impulse is often unfortunately distorted into a compulse. By this the crisis that sees the middle aged dominant alpha male or female suddenly lose their marbles, do a sudden transformation through feeling “empty” and lacking purpose and meaning, often just becomes more “me me me” but in another guise.
In a true transformation the feminine right brained principle must be absorbed and integrated as an inner transformation and a new form of consciousness. Emotions help guide this process. Instead in many adults they are actually acting out of their narcissistic masculine self that fears death as the trigger for the crisis.
If a narcissist wants to feel ever strong beautiful and powerful then the shadow of ageing and death eventually shows up to haunt and defeat them. A recoil from facing this fear and dealing with this crisis is instead to distract oneself and become even more self absorbed to avoid true feelings and emotions in the process.
In this guise the only feminine aspect of transformation is the new younger female riding in the new sports car or Harley Davidson, or that new younger partner living alongside you in the Bali villa. We change the exterior and ignore the interior.
External change is illusory but serves to distract one from inner impulses and realities. The change of clothes, change of lifestyle, and abandonment of responsibilities and adult sensibilities represents a compulsed yearning for youth and indeed a deeper unconscious yearning for an inner feminine transformation.
As psychiatrist Scott Peck would say you are being beckoned down a road less travelled, but for many they instead travel down a road to nowhere (in the words of Talking Heads). Emotions critically serve as a call to attention to what is happening in our inner and outer environment so that we can take adaptive action and respond rather than ignore a crisis, a signal, a threat or an opportunity.
The left brained dominated person will often struggle to cope with their feelings and emotions and so in crisis they will be feared even more as that person feels out of control. Remember that when the flea feels the dog start scratching it burrows deeper rather than jump off.
From a neuroscience perspective the brain relies on our emotions to help organise its complex activities into what is known by The Australian Childhood Foundation as an optimal state we call FACES:
Emotions are an informing energy that assists in the FACES outcome and it is interesting and relevant to note that most mental health issues relate to the breakdown of one or more dimensions of FACES. Indeed emotions are an integrative aspect of experience that helps us to learn through experience, and the emotions trigger the neural wiring in the brain that comes from experience.
As we grow and go through life our body to brain connection allows us to integrate sensory data we receive through experience so we can adapt to our environments so we survive and thrive and grow. The concept of neuroplasticity which is how the brain has the ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections throughout our whole life span involves necessarily an imprint or guidance from the emotional impressions of any experience.
Emotions serve us when they arise in their primary form. By this we say that the emotion is a spontaneous, new and authentic experience, and that there is an expansive release of emotional energy that arises freely from deep contact with oneself.
However many adults have learned to sublimate and repress these fresh and original emotional flows and instead replace them with a patterned response that may be termed a secondary or habitual or patterned emotion. These types of emotional cues may be habitual, feel familiar, are endless and never come to completion, feel and look contrived, and are automatic and trance-like in some people.
Still others either repress their emotions altogether or think rather than feel their emotions and feelings. One form of patterned emotional response is to process them through the left brain in its analytical, thinking, and conceptual/logical constructs, rather than as a right brain flowing, spontaneous, qualitative, fresh experience.
In my companion article entitled Parental Loss and Natural versus Pathological Grief, I explore the emotion we call grief and how traumas and dynamics can suppress primary grief into its patterned or secondary form. As can be seen there is a potential cost to pay for the suppression of our emotional and feeling self.
Buddhism has preached this great fault for thousands of years. It is a common fault of Buddhists to get “lost in their heads” with intellectual debate and meditation which becomes a dry experience devoid of generated emotion. The great fault of not enveloping meditative visualisations, contemplation and reading with strong emotional containers of compassion and empathy is that there will be little neural neuroplasticity impact or change in the person’s reality beyond conceptual minds.
The great fault of most religions as practiced in the West is that religious leaders rely on left brained rules and heady rituals, and our emotions, like one’s shoes, get left outside at the door. There is a risk that such practitioners become “in their heads”, rule based, judgemental, righteous, intolerant, critical, and narrow minded.
If one examines the Royal Commission into Child Abuse now taking place in Australia, we find a consistent theme of left brained people who dominated children by adhering to rules, processes, harsh treatment, abuse and violence. What was noted in every instance was the absence of emotions, feelings compassion or consideration for the victim by the priest, guard, overseer, nun, or Religious leaders.
Whatever religion or social justice order they belonged to never showed up in spirit or in practice. Inhuman practice and treatment comes from the absence of humanising emotions and feelings which rise up and affect us when we act out or are out of order with nature and morals and values.
The left brain dominated approach to spirituality by our major institutions created a consequence of religion and service devoid of feeling, heart or true spirit. Abusive monsters are created where the feminine self is disowned and numbed out of the self so inhumanity replaces humanity.
One of the functional aspects of emotion is that when expressed they inform and provide the impetus to change. A person facing a situation where they are blocked in their impulse to do the right thing may find a flood of emotion that overrides the block and they then take action.
One often sees this in Hollywood movies. In Saving Private Ryan we saw the fear based typewriter carrying press correspondent right at the end of the movie shift from fear based cowardice and grab a gun and confront a group of retreating German troops whom had killed his buddies.
When the German prisoner who had previously fooled him and then escaped and killed his comrades tried to manipulate him again, the coward shot him and asserted his authority over the onlooking prisoner German troops It’s an extreme but graphic example of how arising emotion can flood and overwhelm defences and create an adaptive outcome previously unavailable by another conflicting emotion (fear).
The ability to be in contact with our emotions also colours our perceptual world as the colour of emotional energy then influences the left brain analytical thought and logic senses, creating new conclusions, insights and perceptual possibilities. Emotions are in and of the processing mechanisms of the neural pathways of the right hemisphere of the brain.
A person with an emotionally informed and bi-lateral integrated hemisphere reality operates based on the availability of both the left brained logic and rational self plus the power of emotions and its conduit through the right brained hemisphere of the brain.
Such a balanced person will typically outperform the more traditional left brain isolated type of economic, logic rationalist mind. The bi-lateral integrated brain will also outperform the total right brained experiential, but likely ill-disciplined artist type who lacks drive, rigour and effective impulse restraint and boundaries that the left brain brings to the equation.
Each brain hemisphere requires modulation and moderation from the other hemisphere, but also the missing experience piece that is unique to the other hemisphere. Emotional intelligence implies the availability and integrative processing of both left and right brain faculties.
The evidence from current business theory is that many of our key entrepreneurs had a right brain orientation instead of a left brain orientation in growing up. This often was at odds with our school systems that typically values and rewards and makes prominent the left brain skills of logic, analysis, mathematics, black and white empirical thought and accomplishment.
Entrepreneurs tend to not only view life and situations through a different lens which enables them to spot opportunities for new business models, they often have emotional freedom and courage to be themselves and have that part of themselves present and expressed. If you happen to live from a right brain dominated consciousness then you will invariably have a different lens through which you see life and from which you will spot an opportunity or a point of difference in business.
These often were the distracted children at the back of the class whose attention span was challenged and whose right brain orientation and emotional need for expression was judged. They might have been seen as rebellious, or possibly drugged with Ritalin as they were diagnosed as being ADD or ADHD, and made wrong or crazy.
We wrongly esteem intellect, reason and analysis over emotion, intuition and synthesis even though each are merely different perspectives on reality. After all these years we find MBA graduates (left brainers) are mere commodities whilst the MFA’s (right brainers) are the New Economy thought leaders and new business game changers.
It is not wrong to say that the left brain dominated accountants, engineers, and lawyers popping out of our education system may end up over time being employed by that guy who at school was flicking paper balls in their hair, or drawing doodles on the back of the exercise book, whilst the class practiced algebra and cost accounting.
The old left brain dominated industrial economy is dying and the right brain “experience” and emotional soft factor economy has arrived and is where markets and brands are being built. The truth is we need both types of personality for society to function.
What business is now seeking amongst its left brained workforce of intellectuals is emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence cannot be done without being emotionally available and being comfortable in one’s body with all its impulses, feelings and instincts.
Emotional intelligence is an easy concept to define by a heady left brain person but ever so hard to embrace by the same person once you ask them to engage with their emotions and feelings in order to become that person or mindset. Thinking an emotion or feeling is a left brain dominated fault and the greatest obstacle here as affected people cannot easily swap hemispheres of the brain to embody or get into their emotions.
This is the exact problem clinical psychology faces. It is a science that naturally should seek to position its work to emotionally intelligence principles since it is about our psychology which includes our feminine. However the whole industry has been hijacked by left brain intellectuals who theorise about emotions and then deride them as they cannot be found with left brain empirical evidence based (left brain) techniques or statistics (left brain).
A science that deals with only one half of reality is not a science but they will tell you that unless sensory or any other data does not exist or showup in quantitative models then it does not exist in their world, or is irrelevant in that world. So sadly all they are left with are templates, questionnaires, and cognitive based processes such as CBT as a panacea for all ills.
Freud always said the goal of therapy was to humanise clients but the world of traditional psychology dehumanises instead and often leads to therapists becoming “critical parent” archetypes who expertly pontificate but show no empathy or right brain connection to their clients. The “customer experience” of such practices is that the consumer is deserting such practitioners in droves and seeking a more holistic, emotionally connected experience with a practitioner who has left and right brain integration.
For surely it is the left and right brain integrated practitioner who represents that humanised role model for clients to work towards becoming themselves. A person with little left and right brain integrative capacity has no right to practice with the idea that they can lead another person to that place or outcome, but yet we still live in this left brain paradigm even today in the mind sciences industry.
That is not to say that tools and techniques do not exist to assist someone to use neuroplasticity to bridge the hemispheres and become more integrated over time. The concept of brain gym assists here by causing what we call horizontal integration of left and right brain function via increased corpus callosum bridging between brain hemispheres.
Play, fun and exploration are the easiest ways of cross location firing of neural circuits of the brain. The resistance of adults to engage in these emotional healthy activities shows the entrenched problem we face in society in our generations of emotions gone missing and a block to healing them.
Prominent neuroscientist Dan Seigel reminds us in his ground breaking books “The Mind Up Programme” and “The Developing Mind” how the body and its feelings, impulses and emotions drive our mental, emotional and even physical wellness and development. An absence of emotion equates to illness whilst emotional availability is a form of resilience and stability that promotes wellness.
When we ignore or block emotions and feelings we block out the truth. What we mean by this is that our body and the lower unconscious brain segments (reptilian and limbic centres) are always in truth in terms of what they try to convey. It is only our ego function of the pre-frontal cortex areas of the brain that gives us the ability to lie, deceive, mask over, and repress what is in truth into some form of denial or lie.
Dan Seigel is quite explicit in what he defines as health in humans. In terms of the bodymind he notes that “neural integration is fundamental to the capacity of the brain to create a sense of self …. It is a key process.”. He also notes that hemispheric specialisation to the frontal lobes of the brain mean that the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere need to work together to achieve optimal adaptive states of being”.
What he is saying at one level is that contact with our authentic primary emotions leads to a stronger sense of self, a stronger trust in oneself, confidence in oneself, a holistic self, and awareness of our boundaries, limitations and possibilities. People devoid of emotions lose a dimension of self that is vitalising, enriching, attractive and healthy.
Even our bodies suffer in illness when we repress rather than express emotions. Many illnesses and also the branch of medicine we call psychosomatic medicine, speak of how emotions in the body create illness. Emotions have a direct effect on the body and how it expresses itself.
We know that the expression of an authentic primary emotion relaxes muscular tensions in the body. One notices in therapy that the client experiences a relaxation in the muscles holding that emotion wherever that may be in the body, and that breathing often deepens to an organic relaxed breathe.
Often it is in this very part of the body that pain or a condition exists, or the tense body affects motoric functions or prevents deep and consistent sleep. The reduction in overall and localised tensions in the body can also have the effect of reducing the overall level of nervous system signalling and muscular electrical signal activity.
The quietening of the system means that a person can often then come into contact and awareness of other more subtle inner states, sensations, and energies whilst numbing in the body ceases and frozen postural states become warm and fluid again. This often creates a healing outcome for bodily conditions and afflictions.
The shift in the body will aid in a shift in the mind and the outcome is that there may develop a shift in beliefs, a shift in the self image, self worth, and the ways one organises their own defences, attitudes and relational self to others. Disowned emotions also represent a disowned part of the concept of self so as emotions have permission to be felt and expressed in and through the body then the mental/psychic sense of self becomes original and restored more to its whole self.
When a person is dominated by secondary or patterned emotions then we are often faced with a childhood situation where the child was taught to give up and repress spontaneous expression of their emotional selves. Instead they may find they have to be good, may fear emotional states such as anger, and may substitute anger with frustration, or be critical and righteous instead of angry.
Likewise they may not drop into emotion at all but may maintain a flat unemotional self, or they may do anger and rage a lot but this masks over the softer feelings such as grief and love and fear. They may get sad and disappointed but not do real tears or grief.
Patterned or secondary emotions are a sort of mask and are not experienced deeply, they tend to be habitual and familiar, and tend to become part of that person’s personality (i.e. that is an angry person rather than a person who can be angry). Their emotions may look and feel contrived or forced.
They may also be those persons who do deep histrionic or cathartic emotional expressions as discharge of built up tension. They may do toxic emotional spews on others, be hysterical and noisy rather than fully feel the feeling, and there will tend to be no resolution to the feelings which are either circular or endless in expression.
A patterned or secondary emotion may come from a dynamic we call recapitulation which is basically that person acting as if the parent or caregiver who taught them not to have their original spontaneous feelings, is somehow there again and will again respond adversely if the person processes true feelings. They instead respond with the forced adaptive secondary emotional expression.
Another response is called Identification. Here the lack of permission to have their authentic feelings means they may respond with anger to anxiety or distress in others as their own parent or caregiver met them as children with aggression when they as children were anxious or distressed. The person becomes the emotional expression of the abusive parental figure.
Another form is called introjection where the person treats themselves like the original parent or caregiver did by turning the emotion back against themselves and internalising it rather than expressing it. They may feel a feeling arising and them blame themselves with shaming statements such as “If I wasn’t so ugly then people would like me”.
It is our inability and avoidance to feeling that makes us enact these avoidance strategies which later take their toll on our adult functioning self. An emotionally dead person will suffer as they look and feel different to others with whom they interact and intimate relationships become dry or dead affairs of living civilly like “brother and sister”.
What is worse is that the emotions and feelings do not actually go away but instead go underground into the subconscious and tend to surface as passive aggressive behaviours such as sarcasm, negativity, doubt or cynicism, joking. They may also turn against their repressive owners as illnesses ranging from allergies, anxiety, depression, cancers and a host of illnesses both mental, emotional or physical.
According to Colin Trevarthen who as a neuroscientist is directly interested in the role emotions and feelings play in our human design and consciousness, notes that emotions play a number of key roles as active principles and not mere reactions. These he summarises as being:
- They have healing power because they are active regulators of vitality in movement and are the primary mediators of social life.
- Integration and connection with the regulation of body functions to be both corrective and integrative for living, inside the body of an active, mobile agent or self.
- Attention, orientation, and focussing of perception to find external goals for moving as we pay attention to the outside world.
- Adaptive mapping in the brain of the body in “behaviour space” where emotions judge the different prospects of moving in one dynamic body centric representation of self in time and space.
- Future orientation for action through time through prospective bias about future objects and events and circumstances of the world to anticipate circumstances in the world. Emotions depend on imaginary events and circumstances which also help prepare for adventures in actual experience so we can evaluate and prepare.
- Memories built with emotional ties to past actions inform present and future representations of similar events and objects. There is a reliving of the actions with their feelings in perception, and these feelings may qualify the uptake of information from the present, and so change the processes of motivation.
- Sympathy for intentions and feelings in others are enabled by emotions and allow for co-operative or competitive behaviours, and how well their separate experiences may be shared and understood, either verbally or non-verbally.
- Development of shared understanding in a world of cultural meaning and the handing down across generations the myths, stories, rituals, cultural symbols and values which provide meaning making at the family, tribe or national level, and possibly laws and rules which express these values.
- Language construct has an infusion of emotion to provide context and meaning which provides flexibility, contradictions, jokes, humour, irony etc which are absent when emotion goes missing. Drama is the emotional container for the narrative and musicality and poetic rhythms in creative processes.
One can see that emotions affect us at all levels and are contributors at all levels of function and health. They regulate practical functions of perception, cognition, and memory as well as the generation of co-ordinated and controlled movements.
Indeed the principle of both learning and neuroplasticity as it applies throughout our whole life relies on the presence of emotions as a change agent in the process of adaptation and creating the change or new state. We cannot underestimate the importance of emotions and the role they play in our life.
For that reason emotions and the inclusion of the body in the therapy process cannot be overlooked, dismissed or minimised as is the case with older forms of mainstream psychology and some cognitive modalities of self development.
Part of the reason we in western society have lost our humanity, our happiness and our health in its many forms is that we have disowned our feelings and emotions and relied instead on a cold, unempathic, mentalised form of being and doing. I know of very few adults in society who do not need to do some form of emotional repair in therapy as one of the issues they face when coming into therapy for whatever other presenting reason they feel they have to come to therapy.
The presenting issue as it’s called in our profession, or the reason why someone seeks out a professional for help, will often have an emotional root underlying however the issue manifests in its symptoms. We each need to understand our emotional selves, take stock of how we are with our emotional self, and reclaim this source of vitality and health that is our birthright.