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What is the purpose of emotion?

Every theoretical system has its biases, and gestalt is no exception. Along with gestalt’s bias towards here and now experience, gestalt also has a bias towards emotion and feeling.

There is a general wisdom in gestalt that emotions are Good Things, and that feeling one’s emotions is better than not feeling them. Whilst I agree with this outlook, I had tended to be fairly vague on why I agree with this outlook. So a while back I explored my thoughts about the nature of emotion in order to arrive at a better understanding of my stance on the matter as distinct from what I’ve simply picked up (ie introjected) through training, practice, supervision, and my own therapy.

What I arrived at is a relatively simple maxim: emotions mobilise situations for action.

A simple maxim, but one that requires some unpacking.

Let’s start with another foray into my good friend, the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Emotion: 1570s, “a (social) moving, stirring, agitation,” from M.Fr. √©motion (16c.), from O.Fr. emouvoir “stir up” (12c.), from L. emovere “move out, remove, agitate,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + movere “to move” (see move). Sense of “strong feeling” is first recorded 1650s; extended to any feeling by 1808.

And compare with Cambridge Dictionaries Online:

Emotion: a strong feeling such as love or anger, or strong feelings in general.

Emotions are active forces. Whilst the dictionary definition above captures the sense of strong feelings, it loses much of the background sense of emotional activity. All emotion is bodily activity. That doesn’t mean I reduce emotion to mere ‘chemical imabalance’, only that I recognise the physical basis for the experience of emotion. All emotion involves physical, bodily activity. Hence the background sense of agitation and outward movement expressed in its etymology.

Given that any mobilisation of the body involves a significant investment of energy and resource, the kinds of activity that emotions support deserve attention. This is where simple here and now description of what actually happens comes into its own. What actually happens when someone doesn’t just feel sad but emotes sadly? What happens when someone emotes angrily or expresses fear or hate or love?

What happens is that the situation they are part of responds.

At the heart of gestalt sits field theory, the observation that behaviour is a function of an organism in an environment. In crude terms, my issues are the result of my interactions with my environment, making my behaviour as much an expression of my environment as an expression of myself. I cannot be separated from my environment; at all times, I must exist in some situation or other.

Emotions are distinct from feelings in that where feelings are sensations, emotions are actions that arise out of feelings. There is a notable difference between feeling angry and being angry. That difference is physical activity. Feeling angry is becoming aware of a certain range of sensations that make a range of activity possible. Being angry is an elevation of those potentials into actual bodily expression.

The end result, if a feeling is allowed to grow into an emotion, is that some outward movement is made. Expressions of anger tend to involve raised voices, growling noises, and hitting things. Expressions of sadness tend to involve fallen faces, shedding tears and softer voices. And both have different effects on the situation a person exists within.

When someone cries with sadness, the most common supportive responses tend to be to offer comfort and to ask what’s wrong. The emotion of sadness mobilises the situation for supportive action. When someone growls with anger, again a common response is to find out what’s going on, what’s got that person mad. Where there’s a clear physical threat, the situation can then divide into support for physical violence and peacemaking. Anger mobilises the situation for conflictive action and resolution.

These are simplified examples but my general point is that emotion isn’t just about feeling something in a private internal world. Emotion is physical activity that gets responded to; British culture may be commonly described as generally repressive of emotional expression but even that is clearly a response. And a very instructive response. Where emotional expression meets with hostility and repression the lesson is clear: there is no support for your feelings here, this situation will not mobilise to support you. Other strategies then have to be found for dealing with forbidden feelings without emoting them.

So, how does this underpin my opinion that emotions are Good Things?

Because emotional expression allows for an open and honest expression of need. The result of suppressing emotion isn’t that the feelings out of which emotions arise go away (though we may block our awareness of them); the result is that we find different ways of coping with them that, to a greater or lesser extent, result in our genuine needs being frustrated. And repeatedly frustrated needs become cravings that continue to seek completion in the present out of our awareness.

I say open and honest because I’m not suggesting that emotional expression should always result in a meeting of needs. Rather, it allows for open and honest negotiation, based on the complex needs of other people, and the range of support available at the time. Emotional expression simply allows people to be aware of the range of need in a given situation. When emotions are suppressed, the underlying needs continue to seek completion but secretly and manipulatively.

Feeling one’s emotions instead of not feeling one’s emotions means knowing what one needs instead of not knowing what one needs. Furthermore, being able to express emotions means that when what you need is available, you will be able to get it. When emotions are suppressed to the point that feelings give rise to an automatic shutting down of emotive activity, it becomes impossible for the original need to be met. Think of your need as sitting in a room with a locked door; it isn’t enough to know intellectually what’s behind the door and what it needs. At some point, to be truly satisfied, the door has to be opened to allow what’s needed to get through. Feeling is becoming aware of the need behind the door; emotion is opening the door.

In order to enjoy the taste of your food, you need to chew it and savour it; physical activity that takes effort. Likewise, in order to enjoy human interaction, to be truly satisfied as a social animal, you need to engage in another physical activity that takes effort; emoting.

So, emotions are Good Things, and their purpose is to mobilise situations for action.

~ ~ ~

Photo credit: Emotion by Peter Dutton.

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