Emotional orientation Considering the significance of emotions in the contacting process
Our senses tell us about the world outside of our body, they are the elements from which the “reality” of the world around us is constructed. Only what is available to our eyes, ears, tastes, smells, and our senses of touch and gravity count as tests for what we experience as real, even if we use instruments as tools to help them. In Buddhist psychology the activities of the mind are seen as a sense, too, and if we include these we can also account for mathematics as another building block of our construction of “reality”. We must add, though, one important factor, which is communication, or rather language, to enable agreement among the members of our species about what to consider as real.
The problem with this notion is that we also experience sensations which originate inside our body-mind, even though they may cause voluntary or involuntary external expressions. To these belongs a whole world of what makes up our “inner life” usually referred to as our subjectivity. This consists of our thoughts and other cognitive processes caused by all kinds of bodily excitations and urges, and last but not least our emotions. Thus our senses in complex ways also reach inside our bodies and help to construct some sort of "inner reality”. In this process our emotions are of particular importance; they have to be taken into account if we are to understand the complexity of human interaction with the environmental field. In a way it could be said that the notion of “inner” and “outer” perceptions is misleading because both can be experienced as given phenomena being part of the field rather than of the organism. But that is an old topic of philosophical debate which we may leave aside here. In any case emotions in the sense of affects are usually experienced as part of one’s own subjective experience of what goes on in the outside world. Not that each encounter with the environment is necessarily connected with significant emotions, but obviously whenever our emotions spontaneously emerge they have an important function in allowing satisfactory contacting processes, or avoiding dangers for the organism, and therefore the emotional experience of the client rightly receives special attention in the practice of Gestalt therapy.
There are numerous biological and spiritual connections between external and internal perceptions. But before we can tackle this book's second major topic we need to take some time to consider the nature of human suffering. After all people seek therapy because they suffer and are convinced or have been persuaded that medical or psychological therapy might help them to overcome or at least alleviate their unhappy condition. Hence even Gestalt therapists with their optimistic view of human nature need a deeper understanding about what drives our patients when they are seeking help from us and what indeed we all share as an existential experience.
Hence 1 will begin this chapter dedicated to the role of emotions in the contacting process by considering the phenomenology of physical pain as a paradigm for human suffering as such.
I On physical pain and the nature of suffering
What then is this suffering of ours? Psychic suffering clearly is not an affect, although we feel it. We take it for granted that we know what suffering is, and still the concept immediately eludes any clear identification, as soon as we approach it with analytic intent. Neither can its opposite be reliably defined -happiness, blessedness? Bliss? Yet in contrast to its opposite, suffering is always its own evidence, at least in the experience of the person who suffers. Suffering is a burden, diminishing our vitality, oppressing our Joie de vivre. With this kind of “psychological strain” (“Leidensdruck”) people come into therapy, hoping to shed this burden. At the same time, suffering from psychological strain is on the whole the only motivation sufficient for engaging in this unknown and therefore frightening adventure of getting involved in a therapeutic relationship. Therefore it is important for psychotherapy not only to develop hypotheses about the causes of specific symptoms, but also to develop a deeper comprehension of the nature of suffering as such: to establish that it is an existential constant which cannot be cancelled out through psychotherapy. Neurotic suffering can be alleviated and sometimes even made to vanish; other kinds of suffering can be diminished through economic, political, medical and other means - human suffering per se, though, is immune against all efforts since it is part of human life itself.
This may require exemplification. For a closer look we need to do a phenomenological analysis - as always when we are concerned with fundamental human experience where subjectivity plays a crucial role - followed by a historic-sociological perspective.
Some general remarks
That human beings are suffering beings is so evident that it has never been questioned. This special mentality of suffering is caused by the dual positioning of human beings between nature and culture. In human beings the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - death, illness, war, and hunger - are so closely yoked together that suffering as natural beings and suffering as social beings turn us into beings who suffer each in our own individual way. Human beings are aware of their suffering and therefore always have to question its meaning - and as this question remains unanswerable, simultaneously its significance increases. The connection between meaning and suffering also entails the possibility that sometimes within the suffering person nature and culture mutually negate each other. So it is in death that a martyr and a stoic hero may defy nature, whereas for victims of torture or people who suffer from a progressive dementing process leading to extreme infirmity, anything social is extinguished and nature prevails.
All forms of suffering have their shared root in our individuation, in our separateness, our isolation from a containing whole, since we must be embodied in two different ways: in becoming incarnated in this particular body, which we cannot leave; and in assuming the mask, which 1 use and must use in order to fashion myself as an individual, becoming recognisable to others. 1 am this body into which 1 am born, so that 1 can live this individual life, and 1 have this body - have it at my disposal - in order to survive this separateness and to invest my individuality with significance through gaining social distinction. So, for example, what in lovesickness is quite harmlessly experienced as pain at the absence of the other or from their reticence, when we feel the agonies of passion they turn into an abysmal burning pain about the reality, that individuation separates us irredeemably, cannot be overcome, can never be bridged.
Etymologically, the German words for pain and suffering (“Leid” and “Leiden”) indicate their origin in separateness. Old German “lidan” as a noun means “foreigner”, “enemy”, sometimes simply “pirate” - and as a verb it means “going into foreign lands”, “having to endure foreign lands”. All these imply separation and displacement from one’s own community, from one’s family and tribe, house and home country. Indeed, over and over again loneliness and isolation are major themes in psychotherapy.
In the fact of our being embodied, our suffering has the same root as have our cravings for life. Living and suffering are inextricably linked and so it is no paradox that all attempts at conquering suffering are potentially hostile to life itself.
Attempting anthropologically to distinguish suffering related to our physical existence from suffering based on our social existence leads us astray, as does trying to differentiate psychic, physical and social suffering. It is true that sociology has been able - at a very high level of abstraction - to map two social sources at the root of individual suffering: alienation and anomie (Dreitzel, 1980). Alienation here means a situation where an individual’s creative self-determination (“ego functions” in Gestalt therapy terms) is curtailed by an over-tight, potentially totalitarian web of norms and thus is dispossessed. Forms of alienation range from slavery and various methods of economic exploitation to enforced military service, and it also encompasses everyday suffering through being controlled by others, subjected to anonymous forces. Anomie, however, describes a situation of low orientation, lacking connection through lack of regulating norms and orientating values. This extends from the homelessness of refugees, emigrants and other marginalized groups to the suffering arising from being segregated in any way - to the subtle damage inflicted by the pressure to consume, addictions promoted by the media and the destruction of the family and other groups with whom one has bonds of solidarity. Socially conditioned suffering 1 would suggest is a more or less significant deviation from a mid-point between anomie and alienation; between social chaos and social order, as measured against subjective suffering, and therefore it remains highly variable both historically and culturally. The source of suffering, especially in our industrial capitalism, tends to result in exclusion - subjectively experienced as suffering - of the exploited and marginalized from participating in the processes of social selforganization.
However, subjective experience is objectively manifested instantly in our bodies, and this can easily be seen in health and death statistics. Being excluded from participating in the inter-subjective practice of creating a meaningful form of living for the species, powerfully foregrounds the fact of our isolation through our bodies and thus strengthens the suffering which is already prestructured into our being bodies. Therefore, individuation which is given with our bodies also resonates with any socially induced suffering.
All pain and negativity, engines of dialectic thought, are the multiply mediated, sometimes unrecognisable forms of something physical, just as happiness aims towards sensuous realization and thus gains objectivity. Unhappy consciousness is no blind vanity of the spirit, but inherent in it, is the sole authentic dignity it receives through the separation from the body. It reminds itself negatively of its embodied aspect.
In this way all social suffering is suffering which pre-supposes bodily suffering and also refers back to it. Only when suffering again becomes embodied is it serious suffering in the sense that it has that immovable, objective reality status, which in subjective experience exclusively belongs to physical suffering.
Somatic experience if formed in contacting the environment, through the feeling of being recognized and contained by the other and the feeling of being free to move in the world. It is clear that the different forms of relational discomforts all involve some sort of suffering.
(Spagnuolo Lobb, 2015:25)
Thus psychic suffering always searches for appropriate physical forms of expression. And for this reason physical pain can serve as a paradigm for all kinds of human suffering. Indeed any anthropology of suffering has to take the experience of bodily pain as its starting point.
The concern with meaning is intrinsically tied to suffering. In so far as life means suffering, suffering manifests the question of the meaning of our existence. Ever since Job’s experience it has been obvious that this question has no answer and still the question remains. Pain always cries out for meaning, and in a way we might say that it only exists “when for better or worse it surrounds itself with meaning” (Morris, 1978:327). Nietzsche, on the other hand, maintains with his own emphatic heroism “It was the meaninglessness of our suffering, not the suffering which was the curse” (Nietzsche, 1883:27). In other words, meaningless suffering increases the pain, which in turn can be relieved either through raging against one’s suffering, or surrendering to what one has to endure. The question of what actually has primary importance is impossible to decide.
If living means suffering, then suffering has as many aspects as has life itself, and just like life it will historically show itself in ever different disguises. "Anywhere in the spheres of vital, aesthetic and ethical values one can find oneself happy or touched with pain, suffer”, Buytendijk says in what is still the best study of the phenomenology of pain (Buytendijk, 1962). We could begin - as a first step - by distinguishing between physical, psychological, social and spiritual suffering. Physically, we would be concerned with pain in its basic form; psychologically with depression and anxiety; socially with loneliness and care; and spiritually, we would be concerned with what Kierkegaard calls “the sickness unto death”, the anguish of not-being-oneself and not-being-wanted-by-God (Kierkegaard, 1983). Such a classification offers a first overview of the realms of suffering and the Gestalts it might take in these areas, and that is a real advantage. Looking at the phenomenology of human suffering in much greater detail would lead to as differentiated a tableau of suffering as there are realms of life itself - which means the epistemological value of such a classification would be lost.
Instead, in order to grasp the anthropological core of suffering it is advisable to start with a focus on pain per se. Looking at physical pain we gain insights which also apply to those kinds of suffering which are not directly physical.
- • In the first instance pain happens-, it comes over us, it befalls us, is - from the beginning - part of the precariousness of our physical existence, always threatening us as a danger in exactly the same way that psychological suffering once seemed to be a burden inflicted by fate. Therefore our lives largely consist in fending it off: in our bodily lives we do this by taking material and medical precautions, more recently also through mechanising our bodies; psychologically we use defence mechanisms, as studied by depth psychology; in the social realm we keep it contained through the norms of social contact, and in the spiritual realm we confront it through sacrifice, ritual and prayer. But when physical pain cannot be warded off, it just befalls us - has to be suffered. The same kind of relationship between suffering and defence can be found in psychological pain too.
- • Also, pain can be accepted (“erdulden”) and borne (“ertragen”), for example with stoic equanimity, through religious enhancement and immersion in the Passion, and finally through mystical absorption in love. Equanimity, passion and love are human potentialities for enhancing and deepening what dwells at the heart of any suffering as something we must undergo. The same is true in psychological and social suffering. Margherita Spagnuolo Lobb adds:
Unfinished gestures and incomplete movements tell the relational history of each person. Each body bears the marks of incomplete gestures, and at the same time each incomplete gesture speaks about non-spontaneous contacts, about interruptions in intentionality of contact. Anything that does not find closure is perpetuated. In this case somatic experience may take the form of psychosomatic disorder.
- (Spagnuolo Lobb, op. cit.:25)
- • Beyond all this, pain is inflicted and always a threat. This means that pain has a political dimension: through war and the threat of war, through punishment and the threat of punishment and specifically through torture, pain becomes a constitutive element of power. On a psychological level withdrawal of love and attention is one of the most frequently threatened and applied instruments for inflicting pain.
- • In addition, pain can be eased and thus offers departure points for moral, medical, and psycho-therapeutical discourses and practices each with their own history.
- • Finally, pain can be cultivated as an instrument of an intentional and sought-after state of de-individuation. Paradoxically, the suffering owed to individuation can - through intentional cultivation and enhancement -serve as a desperate attempt at undoing it.
The phenomenology of pain
Physiologically, pain is generated by an electrical and chemical stimulation of nerve fibres which transfer these stimuli to the brain. But what is it that is generated in this way? It seems that pain is composed from perceptions and affects; there is no such thing as pure pain. It cannot be compared to sensations of pressure and temperature which can be measured as physical sensations. It also seems to lack the proprioceptive character of other sensory perceptions. “Pain is given: most of our sensory experience is taken” (Wall,
1977:363). We create our sensory world through perceptual actions. Pain is suffered, is a passive experience. Pain belongs rather more to the class of thirst and hunger, since - as they do - it appears independently of context, has its own urgency, and we don’t get habituated to it. In this way, purely physical pain is different from psychological suffering, which indeed is codetermined by its social, cultural and economic contexts. It comes as no great surprise that recent psychological research has found that positive emotions have a relieving effect and negative emotions have an aggravating effect on the experience of pain (compare Lumley et al., 2012).
Pain tolerance does not mark a perceptual threshold but indicates the degree to which we are inured to pain. But in contrast pain tolerance is not a function of our needs; the way it moves is not attraction, but aversion. And although it isn’t an extreme form of sensing pressure, still it is closest to the sense of touch. The senses which are tuned to distant stimuli - seeing and hearing - can only mediate pain in intangible, immaterial ways. Pain is a kind of core condition of our neural organization (Vincent, 1990:253pp). On the whole, part of this core condition which also applies to psychic pain is made up of perception plus one’s current mental state plus personal experiences from the past. It is this combination which makes it hard to understand pain from a biological perspective. The pain researcher Patrick Wall offers the following formulation: “If each stimulus changes the pattern of activity by adding memory and recall, the code is a shift code which is un-crackable - we have a problem” (Wall, 1977:368). This problem is repeated on the levels of psychic and social pain: the experience of pain apparently is endlessly variable.
Pain is a physical experience of pure negation. Pain is pure being-against-it. Something in me is against me, and I’m against it. I and this “Something” are irreconcilably opposed to each other, each side attempting to extinguish the other. In this way, chronic pain is perennial warfare. Pain as such is never chosen. It can be put up with and even cultivated for the sake of other kinds of aims, but in itself it is never attractive. That is true even for masochists, who are after liberating their fettered delight in living, and are not seeking suffering per se. This can be seen in fantasies of rape: lust which has been jailed is projected onto the aggressor, who forces the jail open. In reality any rape is a catastrophic experience, since the aggressor no longer represents one’s own desired self, but an alien force destroying both jail and the house of desire at once.
In our dual constitution as human beings both having and being a body, pain creates a regression to being nothing but a body. It represents being defencelessly thrown back into a form of existence where we are no more than barely alive. Pain always tends to be total. It starts with the experience that we can no longer concentrate; we are distracted, and it ends with being unable to stay with oneself - I am nothing but pain. Pain dissolves the content of our consciousness.
Pain is being thrown back on to one’s body without any defence and in such a way that we can no longer be in relationship with it. The pain-ridden region appears to have hugely extended itself, overlaying everything else, seeming to eliminate everything else completely. 1 only consist of tooth, forehead, or stomach. Burning, gnawing, cutting, piercing, pounding, pulling, digging, shivering pain appears like a forced entry, destruction, disorientation, a force whirling us into a bottomless pit.
(Plessner, 1970b: 152)
Buytendijk developed an important distinction between two modes of pain: sudden acute pain when one is being injured (“verletzt werden”) and the chronic pain of injuredness (“Verletzt-Sein”). In acute pain gestures and movements are those of panicked flight - pulling away, turning away, etc., with no chance to face up to this pain, to relate to it. In other kinds of pain which occur suddenly - unexpected loss or the experience of an extraordinarily embarrassing transgression of shame thresholds - reactions are quite similar: One is “stunned” or “wants to become invisible”. In injuredness, though, a relationship with one’s self is re-established, albeit with a great deal of effort, and it is like a battle, the agonia with - mostly helpless - rage.
The first type is demonstrated when the person cries “ouch” or “ai”; pulls a face; pulls in his extremities, or if he has been hit in the head or in the body, reaches out towards the place of injury with his hand. In injuredness (chronic suffering) we see a different picture. He sighs, groans, laments, moans in distress and howls. He turns and contorts his body, moves the head to and fro, makes fists and grits his teeth. The eyes are tightly shut or stare with an empty gaze into space.
The differentiation our language makes between pain and suffering has its root, as we can see here, in the phenomenology of our physicality, in different modes of expressive motor activity according to different types of physical pain.
In pain we no longer experience the difference between “inner” and “outer”; it is dissolved. A knife entering the body is experienced not as a knife, but as body. Merely being shown instruments of torture not only generates anxiety and fright, but can actually be experienced as real physical pain. Conversely, we often cannot describe pains originating within the body but experience them as inflicted from outside; and in any case, we can only describe them as such. The only way we can organize our inner experiences of pain is in the modus of understanding the nature of the world of objects opposing us. Thus, when we make an effort to describe our pain experience, we have to resort to experiences we have undergone in the outside world: it burns like fire, it pricks like needles, it pierces like a dagger, is sudden like the lash of a whip, and so on. In this is rooted our tendency towards projection.
The intertwining of “outer” and “inner” in pain is further complicated when perceptual and emotional capacity become extremely sensitized in strong continuous pain - all our senses now become entry doors for further torture: slight vibrations are experienced as an earthquake; friendly light becomes painful glaring; harmless sounds become additional burdens. The traditional village community in Greece had a custom where immediately after the death of a spouse the widowed person would shut themselves away in a darkened room for a fortnight, only receiving food through the barely opened door. Psychologists now call this “sensory deprivation” - as if generally there was too little sensory information coming our way, rather than too much. In psychic pain, too, there is a need to withdraw - rarely accepted by society - corresponding to a tendency to experience any situational demand as an added source of pain. If for instance a beloved person dies, the widow or widower is often unable to organize the practical and ceremonial tasks of burial and needs the help of relatives and professional undertakers.
Pain is a-social - this is the departure point for any social-psychology of pain. The reason for this is that pain resists empathic understanding. There is no emotional memory of pain (we would probably not survive if we had such a memory), which would make us suffer in harmony with the sufferer, as is the case with pure emotions. Other than with those emotions whose uninhibited expression evokes the same emotions in the other, the person who suffers physical pain remains alone in their hell, even if giving free rein to the expressive forms belonging to pain - whining, howling, and crying out loud. For even the witnessed pain of the other, despite not feeling it ourselves, instantly triggers an aversive reaction: we want them to disappear, even fall back on denial. “To suffer strong pain entails intuitive certainty; to hear that somebody suffers from pain triggers doubt in us” (Scarry, 1987:16). And this doubt inflicts double pain on the sufferer, coming also from their communicative impotence.
We say that shared suffering is suffering halved. That is true as long as pain remains communicable, which is only the case when we are concerned with the meaning of pain and suffering. Of course there is a lot we can share with each other about preventing and alleviating suffering. But shared suffering itself is suffering to which we can together attribute meaning and therefore question it. Suffering and pain cannot be shared per se; only by jointly constructing the meaning of suffering can it become a social fact. In this way, when all is said and done, psychotherapy is an enterprise always dealing with existential questions. Indeed, talking - overcoming the wordlessness both attached to and a part of purely physical suffering - will have a healing effect on patients, particularly those who have been traumatized.
The loneliness of people who suffer also consists in the fact that pain undermines our ability to communicate. It eventually destroys it. Initially, in psychic suffering language is reduced to the language of grievance and complaint. With growing intensity, suffering demands one’s full attention; we can talk about nothing else, and even silence has to be wrested from the organism. Physical pain, though, eludes objectification through being worded and eventually - when it reaches high degrees of intensity - it destroys our very capacity to objectify, to distance ourselves from it. The body in extreme pain is no longer a body I “have” but 1 “am” that body, and even that experiencing “I” is reduced to sheer pain excluding all other perceptions.
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing already recognized that “shouting is a natural expression of physical pain” (Lessing, 1901). The sound of pain, though, is pre-verbal, ambiguous, of uncertain meaning. “Our first response to the world is an outcry. We’ve no sooner taken in a little air that we expel it with a complaint, a long cry of pain, which having heard it, nobody ever forgets. What it communicates is ambiguous: ‘I'm here’, it seems to say, T am alive. I don’t like it’” (von Matt, 1995). The cry of pain is an imposition which in turn can inflict pain. It is eerie, since in it something extra-human, demonic, seems to break out from the body. Therefore, it is not surprising that shouting became an object of the civilizing process. At the outer reaches of Europe there are still memories of professional mourners, whose task it was to take up the cries of the people who were immediately concerned and turn them into a communal lament. Lessing remarks, already anticipating Norbert Elias,
I realise, we more refined Europeans of later ages know better how to rule over our mouths and our eyes [than the Greek Gods]. Politeness and manners prohibit shouting and tears. Active valour of the first unrefined age has evolved with us into a suffering mode.
(Lessing, op. cit.: 144)
This also means that a person who refrains from using this one and only modality for expressing strong pains, will doubly suffer.
Looking at all this from Elias’ perspective, it is not really surprising that shouting was cultivated just before suffering became silent. Even today we can read in acting handbooks about the so-called Wolter-shout, that special art of Charlotte Wolter, star actress at Vienna's Burgtheater in the 1890s, when she pushed the art of demonizing women - fashionable on the stage at that time - to ever greater heights (von Matt, op. cit.: 104). Nietzsche in his essay on lying and truth had already celebrated the shouting human as a being still free from all attachment to reason. But in reality the project of the “Übermensch” came to grief with pain: at the very time Charlotte Wolter stylized and cultivated shouting, Edvard Munch’s famous picture “The Scream” was painted (1893), and this has a strange sense of soundlessness about it. All this takes place four years after Nietzsche's breakdown in Turin and at a time when a contemporary of Nietzsche’s - sick and sunk in regression - reported in Weimar of the “long, rough, groaning sounds, with which he cried out into the night" (von Matt, 1995:104). These are stages in a process which could be described as the disappearance of the shout. 1 recall nobody mentioning any shouting being heard from inside the trains travelling to Auschwitz. But perhaps there was nobody there then who was able to hear it.
The most mysterious aspect of pain - and the one we find hardest to come to terms with - is that there is no unambiguous relationship between pain and physical injury. Even Buytendijk’s differentiation between “pain of being injured" and the “pain of injuredness” only describes a difference in how it is experienced and therefore in expression, which does not necessarily have to have an equivalent in the actual condition of the body. In other words, pain does not always have a warning function and neither does the intensity of the pain necessarily indicate the severity of an injury. Early in life we all learn that those very painful injuries of the fingertip - owing to a very dense network of nerves - are not as serious as they feel. Later in life we have to learn to pay attention to the health of inner organs necessary for our survival, which do not always send out pain signals. Pain does not in itself have biological meaning.
1 will illustrate this point with three cases. Firstly, some injuries have no pain attached to them. In the state of injuredness we are mostly dealing with internal illnesses, which cannot be recognized through pain from the afflicted organs, like most kinds of cancer, liver problems and life-threatening weaknesses of the immune system. If there is pain in such cases it means that several organs are already affected and often it is already too late. In suddenly being injured, too, there are cases of stupor following being wounded, phenomena without which we can barely imagine the wars (and medicines) of a time prior to the discovery of analgesics. Stupor happens in borderline situations of our existence, when we dip below the always precarious balance between being-a-body and having-a-body, as in conditions of fright and shock or complete exhaustion and deep depression; or when we rise above and beyond it as in situations of heightened intellectual activity, experiencing the ecstasy of complete surrender; or psycho-pathologically, in mania.
When a human being is - for whatever reason - transported beyond himself, he cannot experience pain. For then, his body has become alienated from him and the digging and burning in him no longer conveys a sense of being-affected in his own body
(Buytendijk, op. cit.: 137)
Apparently, we must be hurt in our sense of Self to feel pain at all. Following similar reflections. Maurice Merleau-Ponty concluded that the unity of body and soul is not a deliberately concocted external connection between subject and object. “It actually happens from moment to moment in the movement of existence itself’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Pain comes in waves, generated through this movement in the body.
Secondly, there is pain without injury. Two well-known cases of this are migraine and phantom pains. Migraine often comes with a particularly severe kind of physical pain which belongs to both of Buytendijk’s modalities, but which has no organic correlative. And even phantom pains, occurring in the empty place where limbs have been amputated - can be extremely painful. Merleau-Ponty made an important contribution to analysing this phenomenon (Merleau-Ponty, 1962:102pp).
And finally, a third example is birthing pain. Its intensity stands in strange contrast to the life-giving function of the birthing process. Buytendijk assumes that the meaning of birthing pains
... exclusively consists in the possibility - since they arise with it - that the woman as she suffers may participate directly and consciously in the objective developmental process of a new life emerging, which separates itself out from the old one thus generating devotion and true surrender of the old life for the new.
In this way we can understand why some women - and decidedly not for the sake of masochism or regressive love of nature, but for the sake of existential participation - fiercely object to the project of painless birth (compare, e.g. Bergmann, 1989).
But this should be left in the realm of their own sovereign decision as long as the lives of mother and child are not in danger. For women easily become victims of religious convictions as for instance that expressed by philosopher Max Scheier, who was inspired by Catholicism: “The same dark pressure of all living beings - to reach beyond itself, seeking ever more life - which shows itself in collective association as much as in reproduction, is just the ontological precondition of suffering” (Scheier, 1923:57). Translated into political praxis this would make women vessels of suffering, if for ontological reasons.
This leads us to a differentiation between suffering and pain as illness which we have to heal or at least alleviate - and pain and suffering as existential afflictions to which we must respond as whole persons. Ever since the Age of Enlightenment. Modernity has banked on an understanding of illness - including the naively enlightening project of a “Sociology of Suffering” (Müller-Lyer, 1914) and the not altogether naive attempts at mechanising life itself in reproductive medicine and gene technology, trying to eliminate pain altogether. In contrast to this position there has always been the experience
... that there is a personal need to experience unhappiness; that for me fear, deprivation, impoverishment, midnights, adventures, perils, mistakes were as necessary as their opposites; yes, to express myself mystically the path to my personal heaven always had to lead through the lusts of my own hell.
Thus suffering and even the most devilish pain would turn out to be learning experiences if nothing else. This then leads - via the New Age principle, that there is no such thing as coincidence - to the question “What does this teach me?” which is indeed helpful in constructing meaning ex post, but may not serve as an a priori for action. Using pain and suffering as pedagogical means relates them to torture and deprives the individuals - whom it is pretending to teach - something of their sovereignty, which alone would allow them to be subjects of insight and awareness. Suffering is never annulled by other kinds of suffering. It is important here for psychotherapy to realize that an enduring threat of pain and suffering can be internalized and may narcissistically be claimed as heroic self-control. However, nowadays it is the threat of love being withdrawn in the family rather than physical punishment; the threat of identity loss through loss of work, rather than loss of freedom in one's working conditions which may create such situations. In any case, the possibility that we experience external pressure as an inner straightjacket of potential introjections at least partly explains the extraordinary inertia with which the powerful and the powerless equally regard environmental catastrophe, even though they do not suffer equally from it.
Most importantly, an anthropological inquiry which does not prematurely leap over the boundaries into metaphysics needs to ask which function is fulfilled by the fact that we are able to experience pain, although strong nonpainful stimuli could do a sufficiently good job as warning signs of biological dangers. Gehlen (1958:73 if.) and also Buytendijk (1948:98ff) referred to the French philosopher Maurice Pradines (1934), who starts out from the observation that only the higher-functioning animals, especially those mammals dependent on touch in bringing up their young, develop a capacity to experience pain in the classical sense. Pradines concluded from this observation - as well as from research into their sense of pain conducted with people with an intellectual handicap - that there is a positive correlation between intelligence and sensitivity to pain. This is not surprising when we realize that pain is not just a reaction to stimuli but that it also gives rise to specific complex experiential Gestalts which integrate various neuronal, affective, cognitive and social components. When considering pain as a function of intelligence, this concept should not be limited to the cognitive dimension and must not be misunderstood as that which can be measured by tests. Instead it may be useful to understand pain as a function of a higher and broader consciousness.
That pain might indeed be connected to higher intelligence or more acute awareness is proved in a different way by the fact that a disturbance in aesthetic order can also create pain. Whenever we encounter sounds which are not tuneful or colours which clash - and we cannot intervene to change them - we experience mild displeasure or actual pain, depending on intensity. Everybody has their own physiological limit with regard to unbearable sounds; sometimes even thinking about them will make us shudder. Here the transition between physical and emotional pain is particularly clear: compared to less musical people, musical people are more likely to experience as pain the perennial sound pollution we encounter in the public sphere, and the same is true for other kinds of aesthetic experience. Essentially, when all is said and done, we are children of our own time and culture. For a person from the 17th century the monstrous noise we create with our machines and loudspeakers would probably be as intolerable as would be to us the smells of those 17th century cities. It is neither the kind nor the extent, the duration nor the intensity of stimuli which explains such pain reactions, but our specific subjective sensitivity about disturbed aesthetic orders, which -according to an observation made by Erwin Strauss (1980:143) - is stronger when we are removed from our own milieu, when we are in foreign places. Whether we choose to correlate a subjectively higher degree of sensitivity with greater intelligence - quite different from a low tolerance for pain -completely depends on how we define intelligence.
Right at the beginning of the Odyssey, Homer introduces a distinction rich in consequence: the difference between destinies as imposed by the Gods, and human responsibility. “No!” he has Zeus say. “How those humans blame the Gods! From us, they say, comes everything bad: though they create, through their own outrageous behaviour, more than their own share of pain”! We have not been able to go back since this: from that point onward, it has been impossible to lay all the blame onto the gods. Indeed, the Greeks had already developed a very acute sense of how blind human beings are regarding the consequences of their actions. This blindness is at the heart of Greek tragedy. Over and over again their protagonists cannot read the signs, fail to comprehend the utterances of the oracle and blindly grope for their fate whose cruelty is confirmed by its extraordinary painfulness. More than in the better-known Greek tragedies, this is shown by Sophocles’ Philoctetes, who enters a holy grove unawares and immediately has to pay for this transgression by being bitten by a snake. Philoctetes’ wound festers and suppurates and pains him. Incapacitated, he is left behind on Lemnos by the fleet on their way to Troy and limps across the stage wailing, groaning and shouting and finding no peace. Even nine years later, when Ulysses cunningly manages after all to persuade the embittered man to come with him to Troy, where his Heraclean bow is required for the final victory, his wound has not healed.
The inescapability and pure negativity of pain together constitute the reason why pain always throws up the question of its meaning. And for this reason the history of pain is not identical with the history of the fight against it. Perhaps another story started even earlier: the story of enduring it and justifying, yes, even celebrating it. In antiquity there was no real answer to the question of the meaning of pain; what was needed was to endure it and to undergo it - and if possible, in such a way as to preserve one’s dignity. "Do you believe you are achieving nothing, when you show self-control in your illness”? Seneca writes to Lucilius.
You are proving that illness can be conquered, or at least endured. [...] Believe me, a good and courageous composure of soul has a chance to be affirmed, even on the sickbed [...] If it does not conquer you, does not make you fall apart, you are a shining example.
In the Stoic teaching of virtuously enduring pain we find the defiantly courageous attitude of nomadic cultures coming to fruition, quite specific to advanced civilizations - in Modern times still to be seen in Native American culture. Chiron, though, wise centaur from the Pelion mountain, preferred death to the unending pain which Heracles’ poisoned arrow had inflicted on him when he was hunting wild centaurs in the mountains. Immortality had been gifted to him as son of a Titan just like Prometheus: the loss of dignity which often comes with pain has sometimes been feared more than death. Today much of this is mirrored in discussions of assisted suicide.
Every religion has to deal with the problem of reconciling God's benevolence and justice with the facts of suffering, pain and generally of evil. Christianity, more than any other religion, has focussed on suffering per se and specifically on physical suffering, on pain. It was Augustine’s achievement in the first place to liberate God - not partially but altogether - from responsibility for the evil of suffering. Augustine's reception of Gnosis in the shape of Manichaeism subsequently generated an ethics of suffering. Being capable of making decisions, human beings as subjects produce moral pain through their sinful lives and therefore draw physical suffering on themselves as God’s pedagogical mode of punishing them. The teaching of Original Sin exonerates God once and for all and puts human beings on permanent trial.
Furthermore, Christianity interprets the death and martyrdom of Jesus as redemptive, his death having been suffered vicariously for humanity. That does not mean, though, that human beings are freed from pain. If anything, it is only the soul which is reprieved: the body still has to carry its own specific cross until the Day of Judgment. In this way, all life is life in a vale of tears which, dependent on God’s grace, cannot be escaped until death. A Christian theology of suffering is summarized by Thomas Aquinas in the formula: “Flesh conceived in sin is forced to endure pain not just according to the principles of nature, but also through the bondage arising from our sinful transgressions” (quoted from Buytendijk, 1948:171). Through this argument, once it achieved power, the church was able to firmly establish the social status quo to which ideologically it still adheres.
Beyond this, Christianity demands commitment to a system of beliefs, similar to the demands Judaism makes, maintaining an exclusive truth claim, demanding complete surrender, as otherwise only Islam requires. Therefore, in
Christian belief we find a special form of hypostatization of martyrdom which in which the threat of death and torture did not resolve in renunciation. Undergoing extreme pain was seen as proof and highest profession of one’s Christian belief. On the other hand. Islamic martyrs are mostly soldiers killed in religious wars or Jihads and there are similarities to Jewish victims of pogroms and the campaigns of Christian conversion. Augustine had already postulated that it mattered not what somebody suffered, but how he endured suffering. In this way, reaching beyond Thomas Aquinas, suffering itself could become a path of redemption. “Whosoever bears his suffering with patience, he has Paradise: whosoever fails in this is in Hell”, Philip of Neri claimed (quoted from Huxley, 1945). Eventually the church was able to develop a politics of pain based on this philosophy, where suffering bodies could even be misused as instruments for celebrating the power of the church. But the obsession with professing one's faith also opened up the possibility of testifying -through the pain of one’s own body - to one’s own true faith, even against the power of the church. This becomes apparent not just in the endless history of the persecution of heretics, but also by the testament of flagellantism, which Clement IV was forced to forbid in the plague year of 1349 - while significantly and simultaneously extending the powers of the Inquisition.
The church has always had great difficulties with mystical traditions. Celebrating pain as a vehicle of profession easily opened the door to personal experience, where in fact the aim was to transcend precisely this experiencing self. Christian mystics searched for love in suffering. “Whoever suffers for love does not in fact suffer and his suffering is fruitful before God” says Meister Eckhart (quoted from Huxley, 1945:292). This experiential possibility survived even in some corners of Modernity - to which it was essentially alien -and was even enhanced into a metaphysics of pain. Thomas Macho, in his study of Simone Weil (Macho, 1993:502) showed this in an exemplary way. “Evil”, Simone Weil says, “is the shape God’s compassion takes in this world”. This statement goes far beyond any sentimentality regarding pain, much of which can be found in trivial Catholic literature of the present time. But Simone Weil is not alone in her position - surprisingly. Buytendijk himself ends his penetrating investigations with applying a positive Christian charge to suffering, which called “The royal road of the cross”:
All natural attitudes and reasonable reflections may finally help to prepare the way which in the end the person himself has to take to find meaning in his own pain - and thereby at best fulfil the meaning of his existence. Not just thinking about this path, but entering into it - since it cannot be shortened nor circumvented, not through psychological techniques, which can do no more than ease the sharpness and bitterness of pain, the only way forward is that of blissful suffering and of redemption, which happens through suffering itself and with the help of God’s compassionate love.
However much the role of the psychotherapist has been compared with that of the pastor, here we see a limit of psychotherapy, which is never permitted to make pain and suffering seem better than they actually are - not even for the sake of spiritual comfort.
But there is also Liberation theology, which understands liberation very much as a matter of this world - specifically, the liberation of poor people from their collective suffering. Liberation theology is attempting to understand human suffering in relation to the fact that most who suffer are in fact victims of organized exploitation and repression. Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, who initiated “Liberation theology,” has done much work on the story of Job (Gutiérrez, 1987). According to Gutiérrez, Job eventually recognizes that the injustice of his suffering is related to the injustice suffered by those to whom he had devoted his energy: “I have been the eyes of the blind and foot for the lame I I was father to the poor” (Gutiérrez, 1987:16-17). The question of why God permits Job’s current sufferings as well as those of the poor, remains as dark for Gutiérrez as it does for Job. He draws not the quietest conclusion from Job's encounter with Yahweh, but rather the revolting one of active love. From an anthropological perspective T. W. Adorno comments: “This moment incarnate flags up a recognition that suffering should not be, that things should be different. ‘Woe says: Be gone!”’ (Adorno, 1966:201). Suffering moves the world in that it wants to disappear, and therefore there will be history as long as there is suffering. The nightmare of post-histoire, the possibly that delight may become insipid, isn’t worth one word in praise of suffering, since all by itself it already cries, "Be gone!”
Abolishing pain or alleviating it to an extent which cannot theoretically be anticipated, whose limits cannot be enforced, is not the task of the individual experiencing suffering, but of the species to whom it still belongs - even where subjectively he renounces it and objectively is pushed into the absolute loneliness of a helpless object.
In this age of environmental destruction - fast turning into the destruction of the whole of civilization - in order to alleviate suffering, the species needs to perform what ancient Buddhist experience points to: We have abundant evidence of the extent to which our greed for consumption - driven by economic production mechanisms - is mainly responsible for those catastrophic developmental processes worldwide. Buddhism has always insisted that the basic source of human suffering is to be found in our greed. From this perspective it seems that suffering is indeed part of human experience as is our ineradicable need to take from our environments whatever our psycho-physical organism demands for its survival. But this can be alleviated according to our willingness to reduce the extent of our desire to our elementary needs. There is, however, a danger of overstretching this view: the path to ascetism leads yet again into pain. Greed may be tamed by moderation; health food does not involve starvation.
Buddhist experience values increased awareness of our needs as well as of our suffering. Through this, some kind of inner distancing becomes possible, not to be confused with what psychology describes as dissociation, a splitting-off - where pain sensation, with bad results, would just be extinguished from consciousness. In his research with victims of the Holocaust and war criminals Robert Jay Lifton has observed “that the core of our human attempt to cope with pain is our damaged ability to feel, a psychic deadening” (Lifton, 1979:173). Here however we are concerned with increased awareness, where the affective part of pain is replaced by an attitude of noticing more objectively. “Thus we find in the essence of pain a separation between subject and body, to which he still remains helplessly attached, that in the misery of suffering which it gives rise to can be found the possibility of its ‘gnostic’ dissolution” (Buytendijk, 1948:185). Another possibility may be a stoic rather than a gnostic attitude.
A martyr can become such a powerful figure for identification because they set the limits of power. Dying is a more powerful testament than pain. Death offers a final and most radical form of asserting one’s identity, in that by being self-precipitated, it becomes a social fact. This is true for Islamist suicide bombers as well as suicide protesters as in the case of Tibetan monks etc. who set themselves on fire.
In pain, though, the person is reduced to being nothing but a body. The path of pain leads from losing one’s ability to speak, to losing one’s perceptual capacities, to losing consciousness. Pain is pure negation in that we are indeed able to repress its expression, but we cannot find an identity through it. Many researchers have wondered why those who are the most severely oppressed - slaves and mercenaries; peons and factory proletarians - only rarely revolt and have not often achieved a successful revolution from within their ranks alone. They are chained to their suffering through their daily drudgery, condemning them to having no effective voice. Mostly their actions are nothing but short-lived avoidance reactions to their situation.
Here too from the start, the possibility or impossibility of giving meaning to suffering is part of the equation. When pain is inflicted in battle, something is always at stake, even if it was just the saving of one’s life. There are victories and defeats and of course the distress of the wounded. This kind of suffering is never as profound as that of victims of torture and of the oppressed, whose suffering allows no meaning to be generated from it; nor does it allow people to actively exert themselves to create such meaning - whereas in the misery and humiliation of defeat there may still be a sense of "having given one’s best”. It is no coincidence, therefore, that etymologically pain has been more frequently connected with punishment than with battle. The Latin word poena in French becomes peine; in English pain and punishment; and in German peinsam, pein-lich, as in “peinliche Befragung”, which means being questioned under torture. In some trauma patients - especially those with a Christian upbringing - the (human) pressure to attribute meaning to what we experience leads to a temptation to understand what has been suffered as something that they themselves have brought about - an attitude which does not aid their recovery.
The fact that pain is so easily inflicted but so hard to empathize with makes the pain of torture into a ubiquitously available instrument of power. Michel Foucault and others have shown (Foucault, 1977) that those cruel festivals of inflicting pain which initially found their climax in the inquisition of the church, during Absolutism, were expressions of an economy of power. They were not really meant to act as deterrents; public martyrdom, painful punishments, blinding and racking, bone-breaking and tearing apart, dismembering and fragmenting, burning and annealing functioned as a power ritual, in which the dis-embodiment of whoever had dared to deny the ruling power was visibly and obviously celebrated through lengthening the time of the torture. In a similar vein, Norbert Elias remarked that a religion whose basis is the fear of God’s omnipotence does not exactly serve any civilizing purpose. He described the process of strengthening internal thresholds of shame and embarrassment and how only once this was achieved did torture as such become less interesting, even if it was the discourse of Enlightenment which made torture topical. Later bodily punishment was more or less abolished and now it is banned from the public sphere altogether. Yet even in the middle of the 19th century the Mayor of London invited guests for breakfast and to see a public hanging, something which would sicken later generations.
Fascism pointed up how much Elias' description of the civilizing process was in urgent need of being extended to the problem of legitimization of power. The horrendous torture practices of the Nazis were only gradually allowed to enter public awareness through the totalization of the war which dulled public consciousness. Torture by now has lost any last shred of legitimacy, but nevertheless still operates in the shadows. It is kept secret, although a widely-known element of all those state apparatuses whose democratic constitutional legitimization stands on feet of clay; sometimes legitimacy is not even claimed. Once upon a time torture attested a legitimate claim to power: today its existence attests illegitimacy. The fact it lives on proves how rare and precarious legitimate rule actually is in our world today. Nothing has done more damage to the claim of the US government that its actions are legitimate - even outside the territory of the USA itself - than the existence of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. “The decisive characteristic of pain is its presence. ... The decisive characteristic of torture is that it exists” (Scarry, 1987:5 Iff).
The effect of torture is not just based on pain per se, but particularly and additionally on the experience of total impotence. This indeed epitomizes the experience of pain, but is not complete until the ability to move is lost through being shackled and imprisoned. An exact analysis of torture - whose scenarios have remained astonishingly similar in spite of different instruments being used - shows that its effectiveness rests in a combination of factors which aim to completely destroy the identity of the victim:
- • The utter immediacy of pain disallows any form of avoidance.
- • The dwelling place, clothing and human relations are themselves turned into instruments of torture: any possibility to withdraw is destroyed.
- • Ritualized self-betrayal by confessing what the torturers frequently already know serves - just as the practice of making victims inflict pain on themselves through their own body movements and postures - to destroy psychic and physical identity.
- • Taking away any shred of privacy to attend to the most intimate needs and requirements of the body - pain, hunger, sickness, sexual arousal, defecation - leads to a complete collapse of any capacity to be separate, to maintain distance.
- • Pain - in this process of becoming total and overwhelming - is objectified in the instruments of torture, turning them into an embodiment of one’s own impotence and the other’s power, so that the destruction of identity is initiated or promoted just by the showing of such instruments.
The current proliferation of torture is based on its being both pre-modern and post-modern, in that the state’s power fills and occupies the private sphere right into the most intimate corners. In this, it documents the insidious destruction of the difference between private and public life on which our civic world used to rest. Only through this phenomenon can we explain why it is not just in states poised at the threshold of Modern times that we find torture. In one aspect, though, it remains as primitive and simultaneously modern as is Fascism, in whose recesses it always thrives best: and that is in its abhorrence of all forms of weakness (Heinsohn, 1995).
Inhumanity needs more than an average capacity to be cold, rarely based on an inborn or milieu-specific atrophy of affectivity [...] but on the will to destroy any form of weakness. And the devil would not have his hand in this process if the destruction had not also been insisted upon in the name of the Highest.
In parallel to the celebration of pain there has of course always been the fight against it. Pain itself aims at its own disappearance: it wants its own negation. But strangely, in the West this fight was a secret one for a long time, and sometimes it was even persecuted. It may have been difficult enough to find more effective agents in nature to alleviate pain than the bite sticks which had been used from times immemorial: even brandy was invented quite late (around 1100). But the Christian apologia of pain with its idea that pain is divinely ordained hindered the search for new materials; and above all it interfered with experimentation in a way that we will never be able to fully illuminate. This is even more astounding as there must have been a misery of pain barely even imaginable today. There weren’t just those excesses of martyrdom and torture but wars and assaults, illnesses and epidemics, too. And there was surgery without anaesthetics.
Besides the use of biting sticks and alcohol, there was widespread use of flames for local anaesthesia and knocking people out to produce black-out as the only available means of creating full anaesthesia. All this in spite of the fact that although datura and opium had been known since antiquity, they were rarely applied since their use in witchcraft was suspected and if they were used at all, it was in the form of so-called sleeping sponges. Ether, too, had already been discovered around 1200 and was manufactured in 1546; Paracelsus instantly recommended its use, but another 300 years had to pass until it was first used medicinally. Even laughing gas, discovered in 1772, took another 72 years before it was first used. Doctors - given a lot of leeway to get things wrong - stood under threat of severe punishment for using it. Added to this is the fact that since the Enlightenment, self-control increasingly has become a bourgeois virtue, especially for men. The civilising process generates a new disciplining thrust which was primarily enforced in the military, in schools, in sport, but also in hospitals and factory halls - demanding that bodies be disciplined to bear pain.
This disciplining thrust also represented a step on the as-yet incomplete pathway towards the sole reign of men, in that complaining and tears were defamed as being womanly, expressing a wicked sense of justification since birth pains were definitely considered to be divinely ordained. Fascism, still alive in some nooks of health care services, completed this development through making the victims themselves - women in the shape of mothers and nurses - into the most important agency for mediating this kind of repressive heroism.
Nevertheless, there has been a revolution in the fight against pain. In the 19th century we see the application of inhalable anaesthetics, ether and laughing gas, as well as a generous use of opium and hashish; in the 20th century a large group of new analgesics were synthesized, some working peripherally, others centrally. It is due to them that the recent decades’ delusional war against opium and hashish as intoxicants was even made possible. They became the condition for enabling a great extension of surgical practice and democratizing the fight against pain.
Still, we are far removed from the leading of pain-free lives, which always remains a Utopia, since with the possibility of fighting pain, pain tolerance is diminished. At present there are about 10 to 15 percent of the population who are regularly taking pain killers. An unknown number of people suffer from chronic pains, especially muscular and joint pains, headaches, tumour-related and gynaecological pains. But continuous use of analgesics leads either to pain-killer dependency or to worse damage - as in the catastrophe of thousands of victims of opiate dependency by medically prescribed pills in the US. The question keeps arising why so-called “side effects” so often overshadow intended effects. There are millions of people who suffer from pain as their primary diagnosis, i.e. people for whom pain cannot be shifted even after many years of treatment with various therapeutic agents. Tragically, in itself the misuse of analgesics is one of the major reasons for conditions where pain is the only symptom. Any chronic pain represents a very personal life history, where physical, psychological, social and cultural circumstances make up a biographical Gestalt (DelVecchio et al., 1992) demanding psychotherapeutic attention.
Just as in other large experiments for alleviating suffering and pain - for example in development aid or more generally when muscle power is replaced by machines - it seems that there is a dialectic at work which ensures that the means of alleviating pain in the end leads to an increase in pain or just shifts it in some way. The phenomenon that unexpected and often unwanted consequences follow planned social action shows that life is indissolubly interlinked with suffering. It is consistent therefore that the project of a pain-free life today has found a much more radical path towards success, and that is the gradual abolition of the body through organ substitution and neural networking. “The acute question about the meaning of suffering touches on the gnostic experience of the unity between living and suffering, on the existential harmony between Weltschmerzen and jubilant redemption rhetoric” (Macho, 1993:500). But this is our current, mainly Western experience; Eastern cultures have always lived with a far less dramatic understanding of “existential harmony.” And what if it were true, that developing sensitivity to pain had a functional relationship to the development of intelligence? Could we then interpret this lowering of the pain threshold as a sign of growing intelligence? In any case one challenges the other in that there is a need for ever new and more differentiated pain killers, which have to be discovered and invented through scientific intelligence.
We never seek out pain as such - but it can be cultivated as a means for achieving other purposes. Historically, the connection between pain and eroticism comes to mind which is represented - unsurpassed - by the name de Sade. In an age of mass production of violent pornography and horror videos it is hard to understand the 18th century’s fascination with the works of de Sade. It must have been a concurrence of two civilising currents which created such a receptive climate - the removal of the taboo regarding sexuality through what Foucault described as the “discoursization” of sexuality (Foucault, 1979) and a tendency towards mechanising and disciplining all life processes. Neurologically it is known today that pain and pleasure receptors are situated quite close to each other, and one can easily tilt over into the other, depending on personal sensibility and tolerance. Through the work of psychoanalysis, we now know a lot about the historic role of masochistic and sadistic impulses in the complex household of drives and instincts in human beings. Through discoveries made by evolutionary biology we know how strongly power and submission as archaic dimensions are still alive and operative in human sexuality - not necessarily overt but covert and certainly in fantasies as demonstrated in the bestselling success of E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey.
For quite a long time now, a particular behaviour has attracted the attention of psychotherapists (Sachsse, 1994) - the intentional “cutting” of arms and legs, which can go as far as scalding and burning parts of the breast and belly; and systematic poisoning. Here we are concerned with people who escalate their auto-aggression into a war, obsessionally enacted against their own body with the paradoxical aim of breaking out of the prison of numbness erected against what they experience as the unbearable pain of their biography. This mad attempt at driving out suffering through pain is usually conducted in secret. Here we are dealing with a pathological border-line case of cultivating pain, which nevertheless is symptomatic for our culture (consider for example the popularity of films by and with Mel Gibson).
Culturally though, what sticks out about the relationship between pain and eroticism, of violence and sexuality, is its predominantly voyeuristic quality: child pornography, bought and sold worldwide, is a historical first and simultaneously a symptom of a general, always morbid-erotically coloured fascination with imagined violence. A flood of images revolves around the threshold values of life: death and sexuality. It is as if our culture needs to remind itself in just this drastic fashion of what secretly seems to lose value: the certainty of a body capable of suffering, the very source and centre of our experience of the world. The problem is that even the most extreme images in a visualized world no longer suffice to assure us of our bodies.
This is why - beyond images - in this culture many people are perennially in search of ever-new extreme physical experiences, where overstepping pain limits is accepted and even consciously intended. With regard to the dialectic of having-a-body and being-a-body, here people are looking for a state of total being - in contrast to the prevailing tendency towards an alienated sense of the body having to be available, under all circumstances, even in infirmity and unconsciousness, of which people can be ashamed. Paradoxically, a personally self-determined form of having-a-body is carried to extremes. When the body is under extreme control, in controlled peak performance a state of being is sought where control turns into pure being-a-body. At the limit of death and in extremes of pain life clearly eludes any inclination towards virtualization and regains its old certainty. Control seems to emancipate itself from the will and becomes independent; identity is lost and the boundary between subject and object begins to dissolve. This state is desired by some as an opening into the world; others are seeking relief from the pressures of (self-)identification through a peak experience. This borderline zone, this experiential realm between this peak experience and one’s normal state is physically characterized by pain and psychologically by anxiety, which step-by-step begins to be experienced as painful bliss and excitement fired by fear. We now know that the body’s own substances, similar to opiates, are set free and contribute to the experience. Yet those in search of such experiences are not just addicts of their own body’s self-produced drugs nor only depending economically and/or psychologically on the public of their spectators but looking for an increase in their awareness of being alive with the aid of self-discipline which they stick to alone and in the face of pain. They are not trying to plumb the depths and limits of sociality, but the depth and limit of their own individual capacity. Extreme physical experience is an apotheosis of individualism. There are indeed milieu differences between “smart” sailors and extreme climbers and those countless numbers who undergo strange exertions to prove their quantitative body power by achieving a record regularly noted in the Guinness Book of Records. What they have in common and what is at stake here is the desire to enhance one’s sense of individuality and uniqueness.
But we cannot separate a secure sense of individuality from a secure sense of reality. Ontogenetically Ego identity develops with and through the discovery of external reality as a physical and social Not-I. Being sure of one’s identity and of one's reality is always inter-connected. And this connection is in danger of being torn apart in the stream of images; permanently threatened by the virtualization of the world. This, too, seems to provide a reason for people to search out physical violence: in pain inflicted and in pain suffered -although barely verbalized or truly imagined - the body reconstructs itself as the first and last evidence-base of all experience. Whether one inflicts pain on oneself as secretly as possible, common in more socially elevated milieus, or whether one looks for it in the gang which exclusively lives for the confrontation with its opponents - created for just this experience, as it happens in youthful violent milieus: these are issues of social status and one’s outlook on life, which, though, do nothing but cover up the central theme. Philosopher Dietmar Kämper pointed out that our culture tends to expropriate our bodies through imagery:
The body’s becoming-a-picture is continued through the dis-embodiment of images. The process is accelerating so much that images in the new media already fade as they appear [...]. It is possible, that as the civilizing process continues in this direction of ex-carnation, all flesh will become word and image; desire may just get lost.
The search for extreme physical experiences is already a way of taking counter measures, an attempt at restoring the body to its rightful place, and this reincarnation leads easily into and comes about through pain.
Evidence for this can be seen in the mediated content of the pictures themselves. They are about extreme carnality, with scenes of violence, faces torn by pain and bodies smashed; they also show sexuality in all conceivable forms. In the shape of reality television, they even show actual birth, illness and death, as well as a vast range of intense emotional expressions - all extreme situations of our physicality. But there is also an increase in images of extreme experiences in sports, long a part of advertising - images of tough encounters with mountains, the sea, and ice - those specifically chosen opponents to whom the actors are addicted with something like a love-hate bond. The imaginary aspect of these images is the dream of liberation from images, which the average customer wishes for when watching football, working-out in a fitness club or when jogging - a dream which a minority pursue in the Sahara, in the Himalayas or in Antarctica.
Simultaneously the desire for re-incarnation is fed by a spiritual longing for overcoming individuality, for dissolution of our existential separateness, the root of all suffering. It is significant that in the search for extreme physical experiences the longing orients itself again by choosing the Western pathway of increasing performance via body control, through the border-line realms of anxiety, excitement and bliss; through pain towards transcendental liberation.
Eastern traditions in contrast seek to silence the body not only by suffocating all sensual and emotional expression but by controlling all body movements in the strict discipline of a Zazen Sesshin or in cultivating movements in yoga and martial arts. The overall aim here is increased awareness. Severe suffering, however, diminishes and disables awareness, as does severe pain. But just as analgesics can alleviate physical pain to the extent that a reflexive relationship with it becomes possible again, in the same way psychic suffering can be alleviated through empathy and verbal exchange to a point where awareness can grow again. For a diagnosis, doctors need very specific descriptions of their painful experiences from their patients, because there is no objective measuring of pain. And psychotherapists need to teach their patients to again sense their repressed sufferings before they can work through them together. The utterly human desire to be rid of one’s pain must not lead to a phobia regarding pain, since radical de-sensitization of pain - as we know from our experiences with drugs and intoxicants - is always followed by an emotional de-sensitization. Pain and suffering are not just related to each other, but identical in that they are inextricably connected to the body, in that they are an expression of life itself, proving that life always defines itself also through its negation: from the start it is not just defined by growth, but also by its transience and death. Awareness as embodied mindfulness is a modality of consciousness through which this dialectic relationship can be emotionally experienced, denying itself to both growth euphoria and pain phobia, as well as to an apathetic acceptance of supposedly God-given or fate-inflicted states of pain and suffering.
Only by abolishing the body could we realize a pain-free life which then no longer could be called life. Therefore, the question is not whether human life will always be connected to suffering, but why the role of joy in human experience has been given very little attention. For as with laughter and crying, desire and pain are twins, and so are joy and suffering; none can exist without the other. This is the reason why Gestalt therapy does not promise happiness to its practitioners and patients; its promise is to make life livelier, to increase our zest of life through embodied mindfulness.
2 Emotional expression and emotional experience
On the anthropology of the emotions
It is perhaps astonishing that in spite of a growing body of empirical research in psychology and the new field of neuro-psychology, Gestalt therapy has so far not produced a theory of the emotions congruent with its theory of the contacting process - a theory which does justice to their role in the practice of Gestalt therapy. The reason, 1 suspect, is to be found in the unfortunate survival of a deep alienation between a psychology dominated by operational empirical work in the behaviourist tradition and European phenomenological philosophy, and the German school of Gestalt Psychology. The theory and practice of Gestalt therapy is deeply rooted in both these frames as well as drawing from other sources like American Pragmatism. This lack is all the more astonishing since around the year 2000, a sudden proliferation of interest in the subject of the emotions occurred labelled the Emotional Turn in social sciences. This led to an extraordinary increase of academic as well as popular literature about the nature of emotions.1 But a closer look at this literature reveals that very little research has emerged which would really help to understand the importance of emotions in our everyday life, in our culture, and specifically in Gestalt therapy. In the following explorations 1 will attempt to formulate such an approach towards understanding the existential significance of human emotions generally - and for the process of Gestalt therapy.
When I began to work on the first edition of this book (Dreitzel, 1992) there was still little interest in this topic. Emotions were not considered a serious object of reputable philosophical or scientific study. The Cartesian cogito ergo sum still served as a barrier towards taking a closer look at what was considered to be irrational impulses. There were notable exceptions, though; practitioners and theoreticians who had the courage to ignore this paradigm, in search of enhancing the creativity of their studies. Most of them were inspired by Husserl’s Phenomenology (such as Max Scheier and Maurice Merleau-Ponty) or biology (Charles Darwin and Paul Ekman) or both (like Helmuth Plessner). Others were inspired by Sartre’s and Heidegger’s Existentialist philosophy (such as Ludwig Binswanger). Another significant exception is the ingenious Australian musician and engineer Manfred Clynes who developed a highly original approach to the empirical study of emotions. He combined a phenomenological view with a scientific methodology and arrived at what, in my judgment, is the best theoretical model for understanding their role in Gestalt therapy.
1 should mention here that there have been notable attempts as early as the 1970s at approaching the topic of emotions by some researchers into motivational psychology. The American author of the most comprehensive presentation of these studies, Carroll Izard, was - unsurprisingly - also working as a psychotherapist, particularly with children (Izard. 1977). All these contributions have influenced my own enquiry into the nature of our emotions and their meaning for Gestalt oriented psychotherapy.
Emotions have great significance in the contacting process in general and specifically for the practice of psychotherapy for two reasons: anthropologically speaking, emotions have a powerful action orientation; and they have great significance in helping us to understand how psychopathology reflects culture-specific channelling or repression of emotional expression. Ever since Darwin’s famous study The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Darwin, 1872) these two aspects of our human emotionality have been polarized and used to challenge one another; biological ideas about the universality of human emotional expression have been used to trump culturespecific relativistic ideas of the purely social determination of emotional life (Darwin, 1852; Ekman 1980). Due to the valuable work of a few outsiders amongst the scientists researching emotions, we can now consider the controversy between universalists and relativists as resolved. We now have studies enabling us to take account of the interactive significance of the emotions.
The philosopher Agnes Heller in her A Theory of Feelings provided us with an analysis of the importance of emotions for our everyday life (Heller, 1980a). She dispenses with the false and unfruitful polarization of the emotions and the mind, returning the emotions to a place of philosophical exploration of issues worthy of questioning - as they already had been in Spinoza’s ethics for example. Thomas Scheff. well-known through his sociological analyses of psychopathological labelling processes (“labelling theory”), with his analysis of the experience of emotional catharsis (Scheff, 2007) has re-awakened the interest of interactional sociology in the problem of emotions. Of greatest significance in our current context are explorations into the functioning of emotional communication conducted by Manfred Clynes. It is through his investigations that it has become possible to consider the role of the emotions in the contacting process in a way which can be empirically validated (Clynes, 1976; 1980a).
Before looking at these investigations in greater detail, some conceptual clarifications are necessary since neither scientific nor everyday language is really clear and unambiguous with regard to emotions. In the social sciences the meaning of concepts like emotion, sensation, affect, mood, passion depend on an author’s theoretical position, whereas our everyday language either makes distinctions of feelings or disregards phenomena depending on their culture of origin. For example, some Western languages distinguish different degrees of intensity in one and the same emotion, as in “anger” and “rage”, while not having even a single word for others. For instance, Clynes reports that Balinese people have a word for our reaction when we suddenly see something overwhelmingly beautiful. And even closely related languages carry untranslatable nuances when naming a range of emotions. For example, the English word “reverence” is neither adequately translated (into German) by “humility” (“Demut”) nor by “awe” (“Ehrfurcht”). Everyday language, therefore, is essentially an unreliable guide through the psychological domain of the emotions. On the other hand, sometimes everyday expressions can be quite revealing, showing the significance of a specific emotion within the tradition and present situation of a culture, and for the process of setting and maintaining social norms to which the expression of feelings and emotions are subjected. The word “Angst” (fear/ anxiety) for example seems to have its indefinable undertone only in German, motivating the French to differentiate “le Angst” from “1’angoisse” and the English-speaking world to talk about the “German Angst”. Some other terms for emotions are class- or gender-related: vulgar expressions especially -usually connected with sexual arousal or body secrets - are typically avoided in upper-middle-class talk and often would not have even been known in puritanical circles.
Before attempting an enquiry into the social nature of emotions, we need to clarify what the subject to be explored actually is. I will establish some definitions, a terminology I will use in the following exploration. Let us be clear that from a phenomenological perspective such terms are not to be confused with facts in the material world but taken as linguistic agreements or conventions which have emerged historically and point to subjectively experienced states of consciousness. For the sake of clarity, 1 ask the reader to follow my linguistic suggestions throughout this enquiry.
Firstly, I would like to distinguish emotions from bodily sensations, moods and passions. Bodily sensations are always part of any emotion, but they can also appear without emotion, lacking the emotions’ evaluative, relational character regarding the environment. Sensing hunger and thirst informs us about our bodies lacking something, though not how to assuage it. Physical pain often does not offer an assessment of what is wrong with us. It does not tell us from what ailment the pain arises and neither its intensity nor its locality offer unambiguous indicators (see this chapter, section 1).
Moods indicate dispositions towards a specific emotional orientation, becoming relevant for action as soon as a concrete contacting situation is as when a man coming home frustrated and exhausted by a long working day greets his joyously barking dog with a kick. The whole of the environment then takes on a specific emotional colouring; everybody knows the phenomenon of the same environment seeming grey today and rosy tomorrow, depending on one’s mood. Moods are generated either by subjectively irrefutable environmental influences (for example by the weather) or from overspill: emotional residues from other satisfactory or unsatisfactory contacting processes as particularly in dreams. Moods also have a completely physical side, as shown in the way they can be influenced by drugs. The disposition towards certain moods, such as inclining towards a “depressive prevailing mood”, can also be influenced by psychological and social factors; for example, through strengthening an individual’s competencies for dealing with difficult environmental factors and an increasing ability to achieve nurturing experiences, as well as through directly changing the environment. In the first case we are dealing with pedagogy and therapy, whereas the second is dealt with through technology and politics and also through art. Moods are different from emotions in that they are lacking emotions’ cognitive function; as opposed to emotions, moods disregard the specifics of a particular contacting situation, don’t take account of the special new quality of phenomena but instead - in the form of emotional prejudices - colour each new situation in such a way that everything appears in the same light as before.
Like moods, passions also have a quality of persistence not belonging to emotions, arising spontaneously in contacting processes. Unlike moods they do not arise from a conjunction of individual deficits regarding the culture of the environment: passions are culturally enabled and symbolically enhanced fixations on either desired or hated objects of past or future contacting processes. Love, for example, can become a consuming passion - especially in a situation where the desired person is socially or physically unreachable, such as in a fixation of cultural significance (Luhmann, 1989). Even hate can become a passion, if or when one is forced into a social unit with the hated person, for example a marriage or a village community; or in response to persecution, interrogation or torture by the hated person, particularly when revengeful action achieves a special cultural significance, as for example in a manhunt.2
Perhaps it is a response to the deep conditioning of our behavioural orientations by our consumerist habits that passions as a cultural phenomenon have gone out of fashion - at least in the form of an emotional clinging to desired or hated objects or persons. But there is also a way of holding on to excitement without a human being as “object” and this kind of passion seems to fit better with our wasteful, throw-away society.
Here we also have to consider the multitude of activities accompanied by the thrill of pleasurable anxiety (“Angstlust” is the appropriate German expression) when undertaken with the kind of obsession characteristic of passionate behaviour. They are usually tainted with a physical or economic risk - and only undertaken voluntarily by the well-to-do, one would assume. Mountain-climbing and motor racing are modern examples; gambling and hunting more traditional varieties of passion whose aim is not satisfaction but excitement. Today we see more and more high-risk varieties of sport and adventure with people looking for the experience of meeting limits (“Grenzerlebnis”) which they hope will extend their Ego consciousness and transcend it. Here we also find our culture’s fascination with speed and acceleration. Raised blood pressure and adrenaline in these experiences operate as anti-depressants which can create dependencies. But without realising it, we are always in search of a goal - some kind of happiness, a satisfaction, peace at the end of the road - and the more speedily we proceed the sooner we seem to get there. This explains why we love the car for leisure activities: it enables us to disregard our disappointment at reaching the end of the road and not finding whatever we were unconsciously seeking: we just set off on further journeys, disregarding our disillusionment.
In comparison, emotions proper (some authors here speak of affects!) arise spontaneously in the immediate context of particular contacting situations. They have their specific place in this process and either promote or impede it. And they can also arise - as we will see below - in a distorted form as backlogs of earlier incomplete contacting processes, residues from over-controlled expression and from processes of repression. Otherwise, emotions are situational evaluations by the organism of the current state of affairs in the organism!environment field and are experienced through the body and spontaneously expressed in body postures and facial expressions. Initially this definition asserts the evaluative function of emotions particularly emphasized by cognitive psychology. Emotions are not “irrational”. The polarization of “clear reason” vs. “clouded emotion” has long been overcome by the humanities: in fact, emotions always contain a “rational” evaluation of the respective balance of power between subject and object in the contacting field - as realistic or unrealistic as the perceptive potential of the individual is sharpened or dulled. 1 feel secure or threatened, attracted or repelled, loved or hated, and through these emotions 1 evaluate my relationship with my current environment. This assessment happens spontaneously, immediately, without conscious intention but with full engagement, not at all like an evaluation by the intellect, which presupposes distance and intentionality. It also differs from simple reflexes, which impulsively by-pass perceptual functions, missing the object and failing to exercise an orienting function.
“To feel something means to be involved with something”, as Agnes Heller says (Heller, 1980:19). At the contacting boundary the feeling human organism is directly and committedly participating in their environment.
Each emotion pushes us towards a direction for action; towards the object, keeping close to the object, away from the object, and towards a particular action modus - to destroy, to preserve, or to avoid. In this way we experience emotionally the situation in the current organism/environment field, gaining motivation for action in and through our bodies. The reason for the embodied nature (“Leibhaftigkeit”) of this experience is that normally the emotions are driven by need, which in the form of lack tends to be the driving force of the contacting process. It is this elementary embodied connection with need which gives to the judgement of the heart so much more power to motivate action than the more distanced judgment of the intellect. It has to be conceded, though, that this modality produces a lower level of differentiation. Therefore, emotions are strongly motivating evaluations of the environment but with relatively low discriminatory power - the reverse is true of the intellect.
The embodied nature of emotions finds immediate physiological expression. Each emotion is accompanied by a range of physical processes apparently arising in specific combinations and varying according to the intensity of the emotional situation: changes may be experienced in the rhythm of breath, the pulse, sometimes blood accumulating in certain areas of the body (in the head when blushing, in the genitals in sexual arousal, or turning pale with fear or rage); also, there are sensations of cold or heat or we may sweat excessively. Most important though are hormonal excretions. We know most about the role of the sexual hormones and that of adrenaline (Vincent, 1990). There is a plethora of literature online on recent research findings regarding the relationships between hormones and emotions.
Some authors distinguish emotions from affects thus separating their physical aspects from their orientational functions (among others, recently Seyd, 2016. From a phenomenological point of view, this does not make sense: the experience of an emotion is always that of a unity of physical sensations and motivational judgements. Indeed, it is this unity which constitutes the extraordinary power which unrestrained emotions may develop.
There have been many definitions of emotions as bodily conditions on the part of a psychology which modelled itself on the natural sciences, understanding the subjective experience of emotions as a simple derivative of physiological processes. But laboratory experiments studying this assumption have not delivered the desired outcomes - feeling something implies being involved; emotions are phenomena of the organism/environment field, which also but not only seek to express themselves through the body. Their embodied nature (“Leiblichkeit”) accounts for their overwhelming presence; like needs, they cannot just be repressed but they can be blocked, inhibited, channelled and controlled - a fact rooted in the significance of emotions for human survival.
But emotions are not just spontaneously-experienced bodily phenomena: they are also cognitions, being spontaneously and mimetically expressed. This is the defining fact allowing us to decipher the other important function of emotions apart from their orientating function: they also serve to signal and communicate; they do not just inform the organism but also its environment. Just how this happens in detail is the subject of two very different research orientations which together have finally confirmed the thesis of the universality of human emotionality and the modes of its expression; 1 refer to the research studies of Ekman and Friesen (regarding the mimetic expression of emotions) and Clynes’ studies regarding the nature of the forms of emotional expression.
Based on decades of study, Ekman and Friesen have been able to show (in both of their books Ekman / Friesen, 1972) that at least seven emotions are accompanied by distinctive facial expressions recognized across cultures, independently of race and level of civilization. These seven emotions are surprise, anger, hate, fear, happiness, contempt and disgust. Importantly - largely by exaggeration - human beings are born actors, capable of intentionally reproducing the relevant facial expression so that these come close to being convincing approximations of the spontaneous expression of the emotion. We will see that this capacity for mimetic reproduction of emotional expressions has immense significance for the functioning of social interaction. How does it happen that the muscular facial movements (and bodily postures not studied by Ekman and Friesen) universally expressing certain emotions coincide in all humans? Must they be considered with reference to the theory of evolution as the result of species-specific learning processes? Ekman I Friesen maintain they are fairly sure that there is a “face-affect programme, which is located in the nerve system of all human beings and which connects specific facial muscle movements to specific emotions” (Ekman I Friesen, 1972:138). But the triggers for this programme and their subsequent action patterns are socially learned and culturally variable; emotional expression can also to some extent be repressed. Yet to achieve living together peacefully in societies with mixed ethnic populations and diverse identity cultures, the discovery of the universality of emotional expressions is of immense importance.
* * *
For the understanding of therapeutic processes, the creative studies done by Manfred Clynes are of even greater significance. It is unfortunate that their reception has been somewhat limited, most likely because they extend beyond commonly accepted academic boundaries. Clynes starts with a question which is significant for him as an artist: how is it that music has the power to evoke emotions, and why do some kinds of music apparently do this more effectively than others? Here again, questioning what we take for granted is the first step of a fruitful scientific enquiry.
Doubtlessly motivated by his experiences as a practising musician, Clynes acted on his observation that initially an emotion is always expressed in movement which lasts for a certain time.3 Microanalysis led him to discover that each elementary emotion has a specific spatial-temporal form of expressive movement belonging to it. Clynes calls these the “essentic form” of an emotion.
Essentic forms now show themselves to be the basis of any emotion, no matter in what modality; in this way an expressive musical movement, the sound of a voice, a dance step and an expressive touch can partake of the same essentic form, when they intend to express a specific quality [...]. The nervous system seems programmed to be able to produce these forms precisely as well as to recognize them precisely [...]. In this way they are windows, bridging the gap between individuals, allowing communication of emotions and thus permitting emotional understanding between them.
(Clynes, 1980a, in Plutchik / Kellerman, 1980:273)
This extract contains his most important finding: emotions are based on universally biologically-determined “essentic forms” (a similar assumption had already been suggested by Izard) which can however express themselves in very different media or “modalities”. The more a medium is culturally specific and/or sophisticated, the more learning and experience is required to understand it. The anatomy of the human face is the same everywhere; this is why the “essentic forms” expressed in facial movements can be universally recognized. Also, everywhere we recognize the angry or loving tone of a human voice, no matter whether we are familiar with the language. Dance and music are examples of media pre-supposing a more specific learning experience - it is necessary to gain some understanding by attuning ourselves to the dance and music traditions of a different culture.
But even here emotional contact can be made which transcends all cultural boundaries - the reception of classical Indian music in Europe or the great significance of European music in Japan and China are proof of this contention.
Communicating emotions is subject to specific genetically determined organizational principles which, of course, are very important for the role of emotions in the contacting process. Therefore, I will discuss now in detail the six organizational principles or in his words: “basic biological design properties that appear to govern the dynamic communication of emotions” which Clynes discovered (Clynes, 1976:18, 25, 43, 53).
- • Exclusivity
- • Coherence
- • Equivalence
- • Complementarity
- • Increasing intensity
- • Objectless emotion
- 1 Exclusivity: Only one emotional state can be expressed at any given time. This does not mean that so-called mixed emotions cannot be expressed, where what is being expressed is the condition of the mixture. It is not possible though to express tenderness with one part of the body while expressing anger with another, as in so-called paradoxical invitations to action and other contradictory communications, discovered by studying communication patterns of schizophrenogenic families (Chaney, 2017). We are not dealing here with the contradiction between two simultaneously expressed emotions, but with contradictions between emotional and semantic levels - when, for example, something negative is expressed with a smile, or some positive content occurs in an angry voice.
- 2 Equivalence: It is quite possible to express an emotional state in very different “output modalities”. Beginning with the body, Clynes used nothing but the pressure of a single finger in his studies; but of course, the face has special communicative significance due to its frontal position in the body and its extraordinary richness of expressive possibilities (see also Plessner, 1953). The role played by body posture is also important in the therapeutic context. There are postures emphasizing and reinforcing the expression of some emotions; some that contradict the emotion and interfere with its expression and some that have no impact at all. Leaning back, for example, will check the expression of anger while a bent position or crossed arms and legs might interfere with the expression of joy. In this we can easily see how chronic postures can impede the vitality of emotional communication between people. There is no need to further emphasize the importance of the voice in the expression of emotions, since much work is being done on the voice in Gestalt therapeutic practice. The voice comes close to music - especially in singing -as a medium of emotional expression. The principle of equivalence goes further, though: just as a word has the same connotations whether spoken or written, it is even possible to replace the sound of the voice speaking that word with modulations of the hands used in sign language.
- 3 Coherence: Independently of the chosen expressive medium, the expression of a specific emotion is determined by a brain programme. It ensures that inner experience and the expression of emotions are more or less in accord. "There is a connection between the physiological appearances -the character of the movement and the corresponding psychic experience. The nature of this connection is one of the most remarkable phenomena in nature”, Clynes concludes. Epistemologically it may be considered as an explanatory principle in the phenomenological analysis of emotions. It remains to be seen whether brain research will one day be able to use it as a viable hypothesis. Indeed, Clynes’ discovery of “essentic forms” has major implications. Significantly, it explains how our sensory capacity serves to help us recognize whether an emotional expression is genuine.
When an emotion - in whatever medium - is coherently expressed, that is in relatively close harmony with its “essentic form”, then the person expressing it experiences an increase in the quality of their emotional expression, while the audience or addressee experiences what they hear/ see/“feel” as authentic.
The “essentic form” seems to create its own power of attraction independent of socially prescribed behaviours or inveterate inhibitions: apparently, an expression of emotion through the body always tends towards authenticity. To recognize the truth of this contention, just observe children: it is not because they are small and sweet that we are so easily touched by their pain or swept along by their joy; it is due to the authenticity of their emotional expression, not yet socially restrained. Emotional expression has the power to embody the “essentic form” and thus communicate it, just as the quality of such embodiment gives satisfaction to the person expressing the emotion. And what is true for the body also holds true for other media where approximation to the “essentic form” must be practised. The more the expression succeeds in being authentic, the greater the satisfaction experienced in the visual arts, in music, in dance, in the theatre; a good artist will not give up until they have achieved optimal approximation to the “essentic form” of whatever they want to express. This, indeed, is the mark of a great artist.
- 4 Complementarity: Both expression and recognition of an “essentic form” are regulated in the central nervous system in the same way, so that a clearly expressed form is equally clearly received. This perception is not only cognitive, but the perception of authentic emotional expression triggers an appropriate emotional condition in the person perceiving the expression. Clynes explains this as resonance, by contending that as a species we share the same biological programme of “essentic forms”. Therefore, there cannot be an emotional resonance between bees and human beings for example. But between human beings and dogs there does seem to exist a weak complementarity, since dogs seem to respond to expressions of anger, fear, grief or joy in human beings - probably due to the smell of minimal secretions of sweat and through their hearing.
- 5 Increasing intensity: The intensity of an emotional state is increased -within certain limits - when the “essentic form” of the emotion in question is a-rhythmically but repeatedly expressed. When we study the spatial/temporal units of movement constituting an emotional expression, we can understand how this kind of intensification comes about. It appears that the experience of an emotional state gradually comes closer to its “essentic form” as it is repeated. At the same time, these repetitions are also experienced as an energetic relief through their correspondence with specific physiological processes, reaching a point of satisfaction or saturation after a period of time. If the repetition of the expression of an “essentic form” is interrupted for neurotic or social reasons before this point of satisfaction has been reached, one achieves a less than satisfying degree of intensity of the emotional experience (i.e. the interactional relationship of need and object). Consequently, frustration is experienced, and emotional residues remain. Everybody knows this from experiencing premature interruption when sexually excited. Incidentally, Clynes also found that there is some variation in the duration of specific “essentic forms”, just as the different emotions vary in the length of time before reaching their highest degree of intensity (Clynes, 1976:156-7). Between the expression of one “essentic form” and the next, there is a short pause whose duration also varies, and which cannot be omitted or extended without doing damage. During this pause we experience some degree of satisfaction from the recently completed expression of an “essentic form” and a sense of preparation and anticipation of the next, pressing towards expression.
In this context Clynes established an important finding: if there is a mechanical - that is an intentional - attempt at reproducing an arbitrary rhythm in the rate of repetition, an increase in intensity does not happen. In this form of mechanical repetition therapists will recognize a form of defence used unconsciously by some patients when they are asked to repeat a particular form of expressive gesture. In this way the therapist’s intention - to enable a patient to achieve increased emotional awareness through experiencing an emotion expressed with greater intensity - easily gets aborted.
6 Objectless emotion: Emotional states can be experienced and expressed without there being any connection in the experience itself between the experiencing subject and an object. Normally we think about emotions in connection with human relationships. But the very fact that the “essentic form” expressed in a piece of music can move us into similar emotional states shows that there is a direct access route to those dormant pure emotional qualities. 1 would call these experiences “sentic” contacting processes. When I actually listen to music (rather than just noticing it in the background) of course it is the object of my desire; but the emotional quality which it transmits is not the result of a spontaneous assessment of my relationship to it. It is an essential part of the object with which I’m in contact, a contact with a special “sentic” quality.
Clyne’s observation even goes beyond the possibility of sentic contacting processes: It is possible to project oneself into an emotional state without any external prompt by a-rhythmically repeating an expressive movement as closely as possible to its “sentic form”. The reader can easily experience this. Make a fist and hit the air several times whilst shouting “Ha!” as you breathe out and you will experience a feeling between anger and rage rising within you. This is often used in political demonstrations or in the demagogical use of slogans in political speech. Another example: sharply pull down the corners of your slightly open mouth, simultaneously turning up your nose as much as possible, and then think about a dirty toilet - many people will experience a gag reflex associated with intense experiences of disgust. With a little practice it is even possible to dispense with imagining an object and still experience the emotion quite clearly. This is for instance practised in Tibetan meditations: the complete withdrawal of the emotion from its object in our consciousness while at the same time focusing our awareness on the pure experience of our present emotion is a useful method to control rising anger and an urge to submit to violent impulses. This capacity to produce objectless emotions is important, since it is the foundation of our ability to empathize with others.
The experience of such generalized emotional states has two aspects: firstly, the experience contains a whole Gestalt of bodily sensations specific to an emotion, which can be quite subtle. When we experience joy the body always feels light, whereas in sadness it feels heavy. Each emotion is accompanied by tensions in specific parts of the body. The phenomenology of these experiences has not been investigated much,4 but of course they are important for clinical practice. Significantly, instead of being embedded in a complete experiential Gestalt, vanishing once the Gestalt fades, bodily stresses can easily solidify and turn into symptoms if the emotional experience is interrupted prematurely and not allowed to develop until such time as it is saturated. This, for example, happens when an important emotion like mourning the loss of a loved person is repressed.
Secondly, these objectless emotional states have a kind of “knowledge” about the relational constellations and attitudes belonging to them. Attitudes of helplessness and hopelessness are aspects of sadness, which in contrast to grief is a mood bordering on depression, which may at first be experienced as objectless, because it was caused by forgotten dreams of the night, or a drop in the air pressure related to the weather, or a lack of light during the winter season. But such sadness tends to generate a kind of memory connected with parting, loss, separation, helplessness and despair. These memories and fantasies show how our consciousness has an immanent tendency towards seeking objects, or even to create objects. Phenomenology has termed this tendency the intentionality of consciousness. This is shown by the fact that our brain, deprived of sensory stimuli. normally reacts by creating hallucinations. So the possibility of experiencing objectless emotions extends to moods and therein has its specific dangers, while in emotions they are, as we shall see later, the precondition for empathy.
The above illustrations do not exhaust Manfred Clyne’s investigations into the role of emotions in human experience. They have further implications. But with this sketch I have created the basis for a much more detailed description of emotions in the context of the contacting process.
At this point let me briefly summarize what can most importantly be said about emotions from a phenomenological point of view:
- 1 Contact emotions (affects in some psychological terminology) are physically experienced states, containing in both actual and imagined contacting processes judgements regarding the actual situation of the organism/ environment field and providing the motivation for action.
- 2 The potential for experiencing certain elementary emotions is genetically determined through our central nervous system.
- 3 Each of these emotions has a specific constant “essentic form”, which remains the same no matter which mode of expression we choose.
- 4 To each emotion belongs a specific combination of physiological phenomena, which in experience are condensed into specific physical Gestalts of the relevant emotions.
- 5 Apart from the psychic experience and the physiological event, a third element is part of every emotional state and that is a series of expressive movements a-rhythmically following each other.
- 6 The quality of emotional expression is less dependent on the chosen medium of expression, but rather depends on how close the emotional expression is to its “essentic form”, and whether it has come close to the saturation point of intensity, thus determining to what extent others involved or watching are also moved.
- 7 Emotions do not necessarily require an object, if they are expressed coherently. The function of generalized (objectless) emotional states is to allow empathic reaction.
Of course, human beings are what they are only ever as potentiality. They may or may not realise their potential. Which of these anthropological potentials can unfold and flourish and which will be blocked or choked off depends on the cultural context of the society in which we live. On a micro level, Clynes was able to show the same expressive movements for the same emotions in US Americans, Mexican Indians, Balinese people and Japanese Zen monks. Ekman and Friesen were able to demonstrate the same play of facial muscles in Americans and in Japanese people when confronted with horror movies - as long as their subjects felt unobserved. In a social situation, though, the Japanese exercised a high degree of expressive control, allowing them to watch horror scenes and still produce a polite smile. (Smiling is not, as we shall see, the expression of a contact-emotion but rather a gesture). At present, our own (Western) society shows two discrepant tendencies: a relatively high degree of expressive control and a simultaneous informalization of everyday modes of behaviour. Repressing emotions, however, has a significant effect on whether we can cognitively encompass the emotional experience, because without expression an emotion cannot get close to its “essentic form", nor can it achieve intensity. Lack of information about what is going on in the organism/environment field is the unavoidable consequence.
3 The fore-contact emotions
Aversion and attraction
Not every contacting process per se begins with strong emotions. In Gestalt therapy practice I often experience that once there is a loosening-up of intro-jected expressive controls and clients gradually become more sensitized to subtle emotions, they display a surprising degree of emotional vitality. But when emotions arise in unobstructed contacting processes and when they do not, remains a question.
In his interesting exploration of the commercialization of human emotions, Arlie Hochschild (1983) argues that emotions do not appear until a newly perceived reality collides with our expectations - as if emotions were always connected to a moment of surprise. In my opinion, this is true for many emotions but definitely not all: I mention this hypothesis because it is useful in therapeutic practice. In any case, it is safe to say that authentic emotions always break routines; they leave behind the known, loosen up habitualized territory. This does not necessarily follow from a surprising new experience or object but it can be a deepening of what we are familiar with, as we gradually discover new perspectives and dimensions, as in gratitude, or love, or with some aesthetic experiences.
But how many basic emotions do human beings actually have? How many elementary emotions does our central nervous system have as experiential possibilities? And which of those emotions, for which our language provides us with a name, have an “essentic form”? We do not know yet. For instance, the emotions the mimetical expression of which Ekman and Friesen studied, as mentioned above in Section 2, Emotional expression and emotional experience, have been differently selected than those in Clynes experiments. There is no unanimity about the number of emotions in human beings. We can only count those for which Clynes provided empirical evidence: anger, joy, sexuality, love, hate, mourning, humility, gratitude and bliss.5 This list in itself will raise questions. Sexuality? Perhaps it is less surprising that sexual arousal is a specific, distinctive emotion (quite different from love!) and not just a bodily sensation, since it is obviously directed towards an object in the environment; yet we do not have a name for this emotion. On the other hand, there are language problems usually neglected in merely behavioural research designs. For instance “awe” (“Ehrfurcht”) and “bliss” (“Seligkeit”) have completely different meanings in the German language rendering adequate translation almost impossible, which is not to say that they or similar emotions do not exist in this culture. Yet, if people do not have an experiential knowledge of these words -which their culture may neglect - this does not mean that they are lacking the disposition for these emotions. After all gratitude, too, can be an emotion, not just a social convention, which is rarely experienced in an authentic way; and rumour has it that there are people who have never loved anyone!
According to the research done by Ekman and Friesen (Ekman I Friesen, 1972), some of the emotions Clynes investigated have genetically-determined mimetic expressions, while others seem to lack such anchoring. Perhaps mimetic expressive modes only developed for those emotions whose communicative function was of paramount importance for survival and human evolution. The mimetic expressions of joy, anger (rage) and sadness are unambiguous. Surprise, fear, disgust - emotions having a clearly corresponding facial expression - were not investigated by Clynes. Possibly aversive feelings like fear, disgust and surprise - when related to fright - cannot be investigated using a method based on touch.6
In any case, 1 believe that we are dealing here with emotions which also have an “essentic form”. And not just these three: in the following reflections 1 take as my departure point the notion that all the feelings spontaneously emerging in contacting processes are variations and shades of basic emotions with specific “essentic forms”. Admittedly this notion has to be proved by further research. In any case it is important to differentiate these from composite emotions like jealousy (consisting of anger and fear) and emotional attitudes like motherliness or meanness: these are the results of individual and cultural socialization processes and can be significant psychopathological reaction formations. I will consider these below.
Having to some extent clarified the character of contact emotions (affects) as opposed to bodily sensations, moods, passions and emotional attitudes, we may now proceed to find some order in the confusingly complex landscape of emotions by connecting them with the phases of the contacting process. We can differentiate between five groups of emotions which have specific functions in this process: some of them belong to the fore-contact phase, others to the phase of orientation and manipulation. Some are characteristic of the full contact stage of integration, while others belong to the post-contact phase. Only anxiety (“Angst”) and emotions of shame constitute a special case; unlike other emotions, they block or inhibit the whole contacting process instead of supporting it or avoiding it altogether. They can emerge at any point of the contacting process. We must therefore differentiate between:
- 1 Emotions of aversion and attraction (fore-contact);
- 2 The aggressive emotions (orientation and manipulation)
- 3 Relational emotions (integration)
- 4 Appreciative emotions (post-contact)
- 5 Inhibiting emotions
Let’s start with the emotions related to the fore-contacting phase. These emotions motivate the organism to either turn away from the object, leave the field or even take flight - or alternatively to proceed into the environment, approach the desired object more closely and thus to change the environment or what is experienced as foreground in it. They create a more or less significant aversion or attraction in the organism/environment field.
Anything capable of remedying lack in an organism comes from the environment. Some things we are already familiar with; others remain somewhat strange and yet others are completely new to us. When we allow our senses and our intellect to open up and be stimulated by this specific environment, we become aware of an appetite we barely noticed before and simultaneously an interest arises, guided by our appetite. An organism which is too hungry knows nothing about curiosity; it grasps whatever is available. Curiosity arises from the gap between need and surprise; a certain distance from one’s need allows an intellectual to develop interest which is an attitude of mind; but here, in the moment of the contacting process, it arises as a feeling which can be described as burning. As children, we all knew what it meant to burn with curiosity. What is in this bag? What is behind this curtain, this closed door, the garden fence?
The need for something new, the root of our curiosity, is universal. It motivates us to playfully try something out: let's see what this is; let's find out how this works. It is a kind of “interest-less” interest because it does not at first narrow our horizon with an attitude of searching guided by wishing; instead, it opens itself to the emerging world of the new - whatever that may bring. In curiosity we see the specifically human intertwining of dependency on our environment and our openness crystallized into emotion. Curious interest is the fore-contact emotion per se, and an incapacity to experience it will always constrict the soul in a particularly repressive way. Hence M. V. Miller even claimed that curiosity is to Gestalt therapy what libido used to be for psychoanalysis, the driving force of our creativity (Miller, 1987: 18-22; See also Dreitzel, 2018, Part 1, 1).
The excitement experienced when we are expecting something new is of course always permeated by some fear of the unknown, and this fear can colour the whole emotion when we are challenging ourselves or intending to present ourselves to others. Arousal as a part of curiosity has many variations, from the nervous and sleep-interrupting anxiety before a journey to the much “hotter” arousal when we harness our capacity before an exam or any other special challenge; or the fever of stage fright which only paralyses if one tries to repress it. The burning (pre-) desire to look behind the curtain easily turns into agitated shivering before the performance. It is important to note that the similarity of stage fright to the debilitating emotion of anxiety (or excitement) which limits our contacting ability must not be confused, either theoretically or practically. Stage fright is an important vehicle for contacting the audience and connecting the content or form of one’s own presentation; it mobilizes energy, stimulating the senses and giving a special vitality to one’s motor functions, allowing the performance to be a real success. Shivering before the entrance is energy, already vibrating with the activated emotions. However unpleasant the symptoms of arousal may be, they must not be anxiously strangled since they are necessary for discovering again and again that relaxation is experienced only in moments after entering the stage - a discovery only made retrospectively since all the energies which only moments ago were manifested in stage fright are now absorbed by the action on stage, leaving no room for self-conscious reflection.
Sometimes curiosity is satisfied; sometimes whatever we have discovered wakens our interest even more. This now is no longer an “interest-less” phenomenon but we are completely engaged with one object, one person or group, one problem or idea. Something in the environment has aroused our special interest; we feel irresistibly, magically attracted; again and again, we look in the relevant direction; we eavesdrop, and wishes take shape in our thoughts. The underlying feeling is being-spontaneously-attracted, for which we do not have a useful word in our language.
Of course, much has been written on feelings related to erotic attraction. But this is not the same as being or falling in love, which is less an emotion than a mood, and - provided it lasts for a while - easily condenses into passion. Being in love can develop from the feeling of attraction but usually we notice it only next morning, when the world looks rosy and thoughts start circling around. Then, being in love easily intensifies and becomes an obsession, considering nothing real other than itself. In our era of the subject, this is experienced and often accepted as a source of legitimization sui generis. This state of heavenly madness no longer has anything to do with the original experience of being attracted (Peele I Brodsky, 1975), except that it creates a permanent readiness to keep on surrendering to this feeling. The emotion of attraction informs us that here is something or somebody who will not just satisfy our needs in general but will come very close to our particular wishes and dispositions. Being in-love though makes us truly blind, in that through the gross selectivity of our perception, we are fixated onto a single person. The expression “love at first sight” more accurately hits the mark regarding spontaneous attraction - in that talking about “love” is a retrospective interpretation. But the expression clarifies the fact that spontaneous attraction is not confined to things erotic but can easily be applied to other aspects of human beings as well as to objects, landscapes or artefacts.
A third essential emotion of attraction is longing (“Sehnsucht”). The German word and its association with “addiction” (“Sucht”) already indicates how easily longing can become a passion or at least a mood. Yet we must not overlook the fact that longing is also a contact emotion, which sometimes bubbles up with the sudden vehemence of pain. Longing is the connection between a strong need with the recognition that it is unrealisable here and now. Here we are dealing less with survival and more with higher-ranking needs. When we need food, we speak about hunger and not about longing for food; and when we are dealing with sexual need, we only speak about longing when we are concerned with a specific and beloved person whom we wish to make love to. This is probably related to the fact that basic needs announce themselves through the body whereas the higher needs require the intercession of the soul, something we find in longing. Longing therefore informs the organism twice: that it is dealing with a strong need which should not be under-estimated, and that it is moving in an environment unable to satisfy this need as currently presented. This is why longing motivates us to move elsewhere or gets us to manipulate the present environment in such a way as to make it more satisfactory. Not that this attempt is always successful, as Goethe's Werther proved. To become entrenched in longing is an act of masochism, though.
These three emotions of attraction - curiosity, erotic attraction, and longing in fore-contact are juxtaposed with three kinds of aversive emotions: fright, fear and disgust.
To be frightened is part of the context of surprise. As with disgust, it is unclear whether these reactions are proper emotions (with an “essentic form”) though surprise definitely creates a specific facial expression: open mouth, eyes wide and eyebrows raised. If all this is accompanied by a sharp intake of breath, we have a full description of the so-called “startle reflex” to which some authors attribute a key role in the whole system of emotional excitement (Chance, 1980). Our language does not have an unambiguous word for this; fright unavoidably describes a negative surprise, and fright quickly turns into fear and dread.
But of course, there are positive surprises too, like bad ones leading to short term paralysis of the motor function and accompanied by sharpened sensory perception. It is as if the whole body remains still for a brief eternity, uncertain where to go, to turn back or to approach. Positive fright generates curiosity, while negative fright turns pausing into freezing. A threatening surprise sets off a kind of pretend-I’m-dead reflex, as victims of rape often describe their experience. In some people this freezing with fright has become chronic: they don’t move much and stare at others with wide open eyes - a reaction formation (See my discussion of reaction formations in Dreitzel, 2004. Part IV, 1). This expression corresponds to the sensory experience of feeling cold and numb, as if one had received a blow. These sensations can persist for some time if the fright was serious, even if the occasion has already passed. Fright, therefore, mobilizes the senses but numbs the limbs and especially the mind, so at first there is no chance of a clear orientation. Sometimes there is a kind of blind, impulsive motor reaction: one jumps aside to avoid something surprising without considering where one leaps; or automatically lashes out at the spectre.
Fear is much more observant. Unlike fright, fear is an emotion looming slowly before it fully unfolds, only to recede when danger has passed, or flight has been successful. I use fear to denote the emotion which arises when there is real and concrete (or imagined) danger, as opposed to anxiety which is an emotion of vague, non-specific threat. Although in everyday parlance, the words fear and anxiety are often used synonymously, it is important to distinguish these two emotions. What I call fear is an emotion of aversion in forecontact; whereas anxiety is an inhibiting emotion (compare Section III, 6), blocking internal arousal. Fear - as opposed to fright - does not lead to a freezing of motor functions; instead, it mobilizes energy for flight or avoidance. Faced with great danger to life and limb, people are capable of extraordinary physical achievements: fear opens up dormant energy resources. Fear also sharpens the senses; perception is wide awake and intent. "Blind with fear” only applies to people who block their sense of danger because they are frightened of arousal, something which in real danger can lead to “headless flight” rather than looking for cover and a safer hiding place. Fear has an important orientating function, even in the relatively peaceful territories of modern civilization, and we don't repress it without damage. Fearlessness is characteristic of psychopaths unable to experience their fear - this does not just lead to self-damage but also to unnecessary environmental violations.
In our civilization, the real problem with fear is related to the abstract nature of our most significant dangers. We cannot picture the reality of atomic warfare; our social and political imagination is over-stretched to fully grasp the ongoing ecological destruction of the planet; we cannot imagine what tripling of the world population, or the advent of digital capitalism really mean - and yet these are real dangers which we should all fear as the possible consequences of an age of surveying capitalism (Zuboff, 2018). Other appropriate examples are the nuclear catastrophes at Chernobyl and Fukushima. The fact that radiation cannot be experienced through the senses became the real cause of confusion regarding the source of danger; fear with a clear object turned into anxiety seeking an object by fantasizing and speculating about the meaning of vague notions leading to uncanny dread. Such events and processes must be made tangible so fear can retain its orientating function. The question though is how people can be emotionally mobilized regarding a permanent threat. Contact emotions do not persist for long; they quickly reach their saturation point and then decrease in intensity. And they cannot be perennially re-stimulated; the organism defends itself against depletion through emotional over-stimulation by becoming blunted. Everybody eventually reacted to Chernobyl and Fukushima by using the defence mechanisms which best suited their character.
This process could be observed everywhere, not least in politicians as well as in the experts responsible for generating information. And yet, emotional responsiveness towards those extraordinary dangers threatening humanity at this point in our history is very important, for emotions are the living substratum of moral attitudes, which become empty gestures without them. Still, it is likely that new and even greater catastrophes will not have an emotionally stirring effect. Instead, we need well-regulated documentation to generate engagement because it also allows distancing and creative forms of enlightenment in conjunction with the discovery and revitalization of old, as well as new, expressive modes of fear. What makes fear such a “rational” emotion is that it doesn’t invite us to flee when it is too late but advises us in time to cleverly avoid unnecessary risks. In order to be able to play this role, it needs to be felt, and must be expressed. That requires the kind of courage lacking in “anxious” behaviour, which in reality is nothing but worrying from a position of habitual security. Fear is an uncomfortable emotion - it certainly does not feel good. Therefore people tend to avoid it by denying facts and calling them “fake news” or taking flight in paranoid fantasies, or blaming "them”, those “up there” (recently named “elites” - a subconscious admission of one’s own lack of education) or the immigrants or the blacks or Jews or gays or whatever minority is close to hand for racial discrimination in one’s culture. This demonstrates the importance of cultivating emotional sensitivity, which may also encompass a certain amount of courage or capacity for endurance.
Even more directly than fear, disgust - the third aversive emotion - pushes us towards avoidance. Just as elementary as fear and fright, disgust is deeply engrained into our biological destiny. Everybody knows emotions of disgust and we can universally recognize and empathize with its mimetic signs. But this emotion seems to be particularly susceptible to idiosyncratic formations and cultural re-organization. The universality of disgust appears to have an ontogenetic and a phylogenetic aspect. It seems that disgust is alien to babies: spontaneously and without gagging they spit out what they do not like or what they feel is unwholesome and they do not feel uncomfortable with the excretions of their bodies. Only slowly - and not just through the socialising hand of the mother - emotions of disgust develop, which indicate the gradual development of firmer ego boundaries on the level of the body; that food is Not-I and the excretion No-longer-I is not experienced as such to begin with. We are dealing here with an early learning process which seems to be particularly sensitive: if separation from this cosy confluence of milk and faeces is forced upon the child too early, it can be permanently formative - just a slight interference with these functions of separation can have consequences. Milk and faeces therefore are always two significant triggers for disgust.
The phylogenetic root of emotions of disgust is its survival-related significance in warning us away from decaying matter. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that our sense of smell was called a “lower sense” and discredited - and yet it is of paramount importance. Before something decaying might be eaten, its bad smell warns the nose through “this most intimate intaking” (“innigste Einvernehmung”), as Kant formulated with his usual precision (Kant, 1907) of the finest particles and substances. The resulting emotion of disgust is an almost insurmountable barrier against assimilating that substance. And just as disgust has a particular history for everybody, leading to specific individual aversions and irritabilities, in the same way disgust has a cultural and civilizing history in every society, lending very diverse forms to triggers and coping mechanisms in spite of its universality. It is well known that with our current standards of disgust we would barely have survived a visit to a medieval city without perennially gagging, and even Enlightenment Paris is described by Corbin, historian of smells (Corbin, 1988) in very similar terms. Or, to choose a very different example: not so long ago, spittoons were a civilising achievement;7 today the threshold for disgust is much higher, spittoons themselves arousing disgust and spitting itself is deemed to be in bad taste.
Culture and society exert extraordinary pressure on the occasions for and modes of expressing emotions and this particularly shows when disgust is not just avoided by the canalization of bodily excretions,8 but also in the cultural transformation of the boundary of decomposition in the art of cooking. Gastronomic culture has truly managed to make all sorts of decaying foods palatable - cheese and wine are just the most significant examples. But here, just as in the civilising arena of hygiene, it is true that it does not only require collective learning processes but also individual ones to catch up with specific cultural standards. Children have no time for culinary delights and what they consider favourite foods quite often arouses disgust in those with a refined taste.
In view of these complexities it is not easy to determine when such emotions of disgust should be considered “healthy” or even “natural”, and when they assume a phobic character. Altogether, it seems that raising the threshold of disgust serves the organism; after all a sharpened sense of disgust would not just be beneficial in bulimia but useful perhaps even in view of our standard “hamburger”. Again - at least at our stage of the civilizing process - the greater danger does not come from emotions that are too strong, but from repressing and avoiding them. The potential to experience disgust is an original part of our psycho-physical equipment; avoiding feelings of disgust can for example lead to the gag reflex getting rusty and becoming incapable of immediately expelling damaging food. Childhood memories may be strongly experienced in this realm but truly it is the influence of the culture into which the child is socialized. So Muslims might feel severe disgust when served pork in Western countries, while visitors from the West might feel similarly put off when confronted with dog meat in China. Conversely, we also find an avoidance of emotions of disgust within our own culture - when instead of it being experienced as a quickly passing sensation, it becomes chronic and produces a phobic attitude. Then and only then is disgust damaging - in fact it is disgust of disgust - and especially damaging when this emotional position is fixated onto something for which the organism has a natural need. The classical example of course would be neurotic disgust in the context of sexuality.
Occasionally, a generalized attribution of emotions of attraction and aversion may be problematic and it should not be taken as dogma. It is important not to forget that we are working here with an ideal, typically simplified model, which does not take all specifics into account.
These considerations of the fore-contact emotions may not do enough justice to the fact that contacting processes are complexly intertwined. In actual interaction processes between human beings there often is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing so that overlapping is normal - especially between the first two phases of the contacting process. For instance, frequently it is only after getting in closer contact and thus obtaining more information that erotic attraction arises or even feelings of love may emerge. Of course, the opposite may also happen: more experience generating more information may also lead to sudden aversion. Still, it is important to recognize that the emotions I have been discussing up to this point belong to the fore-contact phase. If they appear in the second contacting phase, usually something has been overlooked. This “something” is often one’s needs and that usually has difficult consequences. Neglecting the fore-contact and jumping immediately into the second phase of the contacting process - symptomatic of a hysterical neurotic process (Dreitzel, 2004) - usually leads to frustrations and disappointment.
Emotions of attraction or aversion often decide whether and how further contact happens or not. If however such contact has a permanent basis, as for instance in marriage, the fore-contact is even more important - not only in sex, but even more consequentially for honestly sharing one’s real needs, urges and dreams.
The differences between aggression and assertiveness
Systematically following on from the fore-contact emotions, I will consider the aggressive emotions belonging to the phase of orientation and manipulation. In describing the contacting process in chapter 111, 1 have already talked about warm anger and cold hate and about the delight in taking the initiative, in grasping, in pure action, when we grapple with our environment. 1 also indicated that sexuality is part of this context. In fact, here we can clearly differentiate three emotions - rage, hate and sex. The delight in initiative is not really an emotion per se; it is more a bodily delight which accompanies the energetic expansion of the organism into the environment, when we throw ourselves body and soul into contact. But as soon as we meet an obstacle, there is anger. The different forms of anger we experience are simply less intense forms of rage and hate, easily sensed once we pay attention to these differences in the subtler variations of anger.
Like all emotions, aggressive emotions seek physical expression. Rage “rises up”, and will out; we feel hot, the face turns red, the eyes are slightly contracted and glare without properly perceiving (it is possible to be “blind” with rage); the mouth is slightly open and the lips curl away from the teeth. This snarling facial expression is not a phylogenetic remainder of a threatening gesture observed in many animals (Lorenz, 1980), but the expression of an oral desire to fragment whatever resists, a desire to bite, familiar to us from sexuality. Particularly the muscles involved in voice production are stimulated. Even with the slightest experience of anger, we inadvertently raise our voice and a person wild with rage wants to yell out and thereby get rid of their rage.
In contrast, the voice of cold hate as an emotion (in contrast to hatred as a passion) is not so much sonorous as cutting and sharp. There is no oral - or any other - desire in hate; motor energy tends to be held back, only to hit out suddenly and abruptly. Correspondingly, blood is drained from the face (pale with “rage” or hatred), and the lips are pressed together. Whereas rage surges against the resistance of the object - which often is desired and loved - in order to de-structure and refashion it, hate looks for a way to annihilate it; tries to remove it altogether. Anger, then, can soon be reconciled, even if de-structuring has not been fully accomplished. Hate on the other hand easily turns into a passion, wanting to sink its claws into an opponent it cannot remove - and thus eating itself up. In the political arena this kind of strain shows up in loss of rational orientation; a recent example may be observed in the behaviour of the US President, Donald Trump.
That we rate sex amongst the aggressive emotions isn't just due to the systematic order of the contacting process. It is interesting to note that amongst the emotions Clynes investigated, the “essentic form” of sex as an emotion is most similar to anger, whereas the “essentic form” of love resembles that of mourning (see Figure 4.1)- and both these latter emotions belong to full contact, the third phase in the contacting process.
Sex and rage have the same appearance, except that in sex the blood rises not to the face but into the genitals. There is the same almost irresistible urge towards motor expression, including using the voice; a delightful sensation of heat and - more clearly than in rage - hard and intermittent breathing. Completely different in sex of course is its culmination in orgasm, indicating (at least on a physical level) satisfaction, and as a physical experience of full contact providing a bridge for a transition between a purely sexual experience and an emotion of love. Up to this point, sex is an aggressive emotion: arousal is triggered by sexual stimuli in the environment, creating a need-related orientation and unfolding of emotions, while an encounter is shaped into erotic contact. If desire is a fore-contact emotion, sexual arousal is a feeling of the second stage of the contacting process: orientation and manipulation.
But is it not rather an instinct than an emotion? This is true for the sexual urge, of course. The fully inflamed sexual desire however has all the characteristics of an affect or, as I call them in this context, a “contact emotion”. The expression “to fall in love” is a euphemism for this longing and desire to possess and be possessed physically as well as psychically and while the mind is busy figuring out the possibilities of seduction, the body seeks to express its desire in all kinds of movement from stroking to kissing, from dancing to intercourse. Sex is an aggressive emotion situated in the contacting process
MEASURING ESSENTIC FORM
Figure 4.1 Measuring essentic form
between the longing of fore-contact and the satisfaction of full contact with its typical bodily expression of feelings of internal burning, the heart beating and other sensations of hormonal arousal together with all the symptoms of grasping part of our environment in order to integrate it into our own organism.
Aggressive emotions have a quality of disruptiveness, of anarchy; they are about changing things. These qualities make them suspect to those engaged in the civilizing task. Indeed, a certain fierceness characterizes their essential motoric expression, making them appear uncivilized. Therefore, aggressive emotions are typical victims of internalized affective controls. In societies advanced in their civilizing process, disturbances of aggressive functions and repression of aggressive emotions are part of the normal neurotic make-up of the population. Maybe this does not immediately make sense, considering the amount of conflict and violence in families, the readiness for (and incidence of) quick sex outside them, and the pervasive spread of pornography in modern culture.
But it is just the inability to properly experience anger and the (mostly social) impossibility to fully express it which leads to violent outbreaks in the private realm and to public violence when street demonstrations get out of control.
There are helpful exceptions though, like many kinds of sport - especially football and baseball - which provide a civilized outlet for aggressive energies; civilized because the need to follow rules is more or less strictly controlled and these rules are themselves a product of an ongoing civilizing processes. (It is reported that in Ancient Greece during the Olympic Games, a wrestler was once disqualified for biting off the testicles of his opponent...) The search for modes of expressing aggressive feelings without resorting to violence is always an important task of the civilizing process because the internalization of inhibitions against their expression shows that anger which is actually expressed may also indicate the return of the repressed. Whoever does not express their emotions cannot experience them in a genuine way. We sense the pent-up energy now looking for an outlet (and men too often finding one in a wife or child) against which we have to build ever stronger barriers. “Silent anger” and “held back rage” - like held back sex - do not lead to affective energies being guided into “more productive” channels, as a simplistic version of sublimation theory stipulates. Instead, they remain stuck with the incomplete situation and again and again divert attention from new tasks. The power of retroflected energy is never to be underestimated, especially in therapy.
5 Smiling, laughing and crying
Emotional gestures and emotional expressions
As we have seen, human modes of emotional expression are not tied to specific modalities of speech, bodily postures or mimetic expressions. One can search for an approximation to the “essentic form” of a specific authentic emotion in the facial expression of a person or equally well in a poem. Wordsworth described poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity” (quoted from Miller, 1980:80). But of course, in direct interaction the body is the medium of emotional communication and is of primary importance (Dreitzel, 1983b: 179). And the human body is singularly well equipped for this task. A perpendicular backbone facilitates the subtly expressive potential of the human posture; sitting, walking or standing frees the arms and hands not just for the use of tools but also for speech and gesture. We can move the plane arrangement of eyes and mouth with the help of hundreds of very fine muscles, allowing for the incomparable polymorphism of the human face. And finally, only human beings can laugh and cry, thus possessing two expressive modalities of such singular experiential and expressive power that we must specially focus on their role in the contacting process.
But before that, 1 shall say something about smiling, this distinctively human expressive gesture which - beyond the undirected cry - is actually the baby’s first medium of communication. Even before laughing and crying are differentiated from simple bawling and develop in their own ways, the child is able to smile. Until recently this was thought to occur at about five weeks but according to new insights, smiling occurs at the latest from day three. Initially functioning as a recognizing reflex, very soon this gesture is used intentionally. Smiling is the Ur-gesture of human beings: promising peacefulness and friendliness. Whilst remaining inscrutable, it reveals and conceals. Smiling is at the opposite pole to raging. We enter this world crying; with smiles we conquer it. Crying brings mother; the smile keeps her there. A person who no longer smiles believes that there is no more to gain, or that everything has been won already. In no other expressive gesture can we see the specific relationship we have to our body, its “ex-centric positionality” (Plessner, 1970), which allows us to use our bodies in both in an instrumental and an expressive way in relation to our world.
Smiling therefore is not the expression of emotion; it is in fact rather useful for hiding it. The gesture of smiling indeed needs to be distinguished from a flash of laughter which has many nuances and shades of intensity. When we say “I had to smile”, we mean more accurately “I had to laugh a little”, since laughter arises suddenly. We can repress it (with some effort), but only at the expense of authenticity. The gesture of smiling can, with some practice, be produced at any time as long as we are in control of our senses or better still, in control of our gestures. As opposed to laughing, which expresses a momentary emotional state in the organism/environment field, it designates an attitude and an intention. The attitude is that of inner balance, of being at peace with oneself and the world as is conveyed by the Buddha’s smile (which nevertheless is somewhat replicated in our “satisfied smile”). The intention is to signal one’s own peacefulness and to secure that of the other - an intention habitualized in our smiles when we greet somebody. And of course, inner attitude and outer intention do not have to coincide; for that reason, smiling, more than other expressive gestures, can become an instrument of deception and concealment, a weapon in the artful game of social masques.
Just because it is possible to learn to smile without mirroring an inner attitude, smiling easily connects with introjects. “Keep smiling” as an injunction, particularly for people in service sector jobs, can easily turn into the mask of a frozen “social smile” not easily dropped. This was analysed with great perceptiveness by Arlene Hochschild, using the example of American air hostesses (Hochschild, 1983). Even more frequently (and significant for Gestalt therapeutic work on inhibitions of aggression) it can be observed in the inveterate reflex of the smile that says: “Don't be angry with me!” just after uttering a critical remark, working as a reaction formation to repress the excitement anxiety (Dreitzel, 2004). This embodies our early experience that very few people are impervious to a smile. As a reflex however, this smile merely takes the sharpness out of a critical remark, making it blunt and not very effective. Nevertheless, with its thousands of nuances, smiling is the hardest to read of all expressive gestures. While it is surprising how many variants we can accurately assess instantly, there is also a great deal of scope for astonishing discoveries regarding our own expressive possibilities, as well as when observing other people’s facial expressions.
In smiling, human beings control themselves; in laughing and crying they lose control. Laughing and crying after all are modalities of emotional expression and not expressive gestures; they have something involuntary about them. We are taken over by them because emotion finds an expressive outlet through them. It is possible to smile without emotion, but it is quite impossible to laugh or cry without it. In smiling we signify something; in laughing and crying we simply are. In extreme cases, sobbing or uncontrollable laughter reduces us to shaking. In laughter and crying we do not really express a specific emotion, although there is no question about the close affinity of laughing to joy and crying to mourning. But joy and grief do not necessarily express themselves in this way nor are laughter and crying fixed to them; we can laugh with love or gratitude during sex, when relieved of a burden or simply about a joke. And perhaps more tears are shed in longing or in being touched by the fate of another than in mourning; and after all there are tears of joy and gratitude.
It is strange that crying has been even less investigated than laughter. For Freud, the involuntary nature of laughing signified an energetic discharge arising from the fact that a joke bypasses the censoring unconscious - a theory which indicates a history of mostly painful experiences with norms of propriety. Bergson saw in laughter the sudden flow of “élan vital’’ “mechanically” brought to a halt by humour. But today we can appreciate the funny robot-like movements of an assembly-line worker in Chaplin’s film “Modern Times” crying with one eye and laughing with the other.
In his classic study on “Laughing and Crying” (Plessner, 1970) Helmuth Plessner was the first to see both phenomena together and to develop a phenomenology of these expressive behaviours of relevance for therapists, too. Plessner was able to show that in both laughing and crying we see a breakdown of the “ex-centric positionality”: our insurmountable condition of having and being a body - which also explains why only human beings are capable of laughing and crying. The triggers can be very different but apparently we always experience a breakdown of our normal experience, the subject playing to the gallery coinciding with itself. The “I” and the “Me” in George Herbert Mead’s terminology become identical and no longer allow the individual to take a position vis-à-vis the world.
In laughing, one’s personality is taken out of the equation: it just disappears. The “I” has vanished into the rupture of the world. Though Plessner thinks that there is something superficial about “even the heartiest, most humorous laughter despite its arising from the depth of emotion”, this can be seen differently. “Human beings respond in this way with immediacy, without including themselves in the response. Thus, they become anonymous, a reason for the infectious power inherent in it” (Plessner, 1970:125). Only if one assumes that depth dwells in an isolated individual does laughter become superficial.
On the other hand, we easily have the impression of depth when we seem to plunge deeply into ourselves and the world around us is lost in the maelstrom of our own self. Just as we are beside ourselves in laughing, so we withdraw into ourselves in crying and the desire to hide (ideally in mother’s lap) is greater and qualitatively different from social bashfulness and consideration. In laughing, we do not lose ourselves; it overcomes us too explosively, and frequently we are safe in the laughter of others and supported by it. In crying though, ego boundaries are gradually dissolved; we tumble into a sea of tears, the nose is running, the face swells, the body seems to dissolve. So we cuddle or curl up, protect and cover ourselves in this position of defencelessness, securing outer boundaries even as inside everything is dissolving. But here we come to the next section; the emotions belonging to the phase of full contact.
It remains to mention that laughter, like crying, can be used defensively. As well as the strategically-used crocodile tears which some people can activate, there is the especially neurotic crying which mostly expresses feelings of impotence and resignation and therefore of hidden aggression. Crying can deteriorate into howling, just as laughing can become inane: both are reaction formations. At least as remarkable as neurotic crying is the fact that in our society many people can no longer cry. Perhaps it is also true of laughing but that there are men who have not been able to cry since childhood is an established fact and proves the extraordinary power of culture-specific affective controls. Just because it is the inner life which pushes outward in crying, crying is more subject to cultural shaping than is laughing. This attitude towards crying is symptomatic of the social significance we attribute to the public presentation of interiority. The history of howling (Berkenbusch. 1985) has discovered that in the 18th century it was fashionable for men to cry. Now, it is conventional for men to refrain from tears in public and to feel ashamed if unable to do so.
In crying it is particularly easy to force or repress that which, if uncontrolled, always represents a strong emotion. In this case too we have a very fine sensorium for what is authentic. Plessner claimed that true crying has its own unmistakable expressive form, and Clynes showed that laughter has its own “essentic form”, as if it were an emotion9. People who live in a culture of restrictive emotional expression need to re-sharpen their sensorium through observation and experience when they are confronted by strong emotions - in Gestalt therapy for example.
The most important thing we can learn from Plessner’s analysis is that laughing and crying embody a specific conditionality of emotional expression - specifically the collapse of inner distance resembling a transitory Egoloss (more accurately in Gestalt theory, a loss of the ego functions of the Self). Their authenticity and intensity can be observed directly in the loss of self-control. It is therefore quite possible that laughing and crying appear with emotions not usually considered in this context: in extreme fear perhaps or in embarrassment. And they don’t have to be an emotional expression, as long as we experience the fragility of our reality, as in confrontation with a paradox. Even beyond emotions we laugh about a joke and cry with pain when reality suspends all our ego functions. In laughing and crying we react to the contact boundary - in Gestalt therapy terms the only reality we psychologically experience - and it presents itself to us as a Zen koan: no answer can be grasped from within the system, but only beyond the boundary.
In the context of aggressive emotions laughing and crying can also appear, expressing experiences of absurdity and helplessness; we laugh about other people when their behaviour is both typical for them and “out of context”, not fitting the situation; but we can also cry about another person, when momentarily we are in despair about their inertia. In this case laughing and crying turn into aggression, they are directed towards change. More frequently, in this contacting phase they contract themselves into reaction formations and - in the form of cheeky or flippant laughter or in the shape of compassion-craving wailing - in that case they interfere with a sensibility for the emotions of aggression as they arise, as well as with their expression.
6 Beyond the moment
Laughing and crying can arise in any contacting phase, but they have something like their home port in the phase of full contact where subject and object merge. The reason for this is that in laughing and crying - as in the timeless emotions - the sense of time gets lost. They express a condition, a timelessness beyond the transient, each moment containing eternity. This is why clear laughter is the brightest expression of joy, and deep, dark crying is the most significant expression of grief. In grief and joy time seems to be suspended. And it is just the same in the other emotions of full contact: awe and bliss, being overcome by beauty, the emotional experience of having an intellectual insight, and above all else, love. All these emotions are beyond time. “Time is righteous and has no concept of intimacy” as beautifully expressed in a poem written as part of some Gestalt therapy work.10
The peculiar timelessness of love and other emotions which I consider here consists in having left behind all motivation; in phenomenological terms, they have no intentionality. They are Ego-less emotions because they already have what other emotions seek: a connection, through which contacting subject and contacted object are completely absorbed in each other where the “I” has disappeared into the “Thou”.
Peris & Goodman (197) call these emotional experiences transcending our sense of time “concerns”, a word which entails having somebody's well-being at heart.
These emotions do not seek to change anything: only to preserve. It is important to recognize that they are not just permanent companions of relationships or latent emotional positions which may manifest in full contact, but psychic experiences of timelessly being in union with another human being. Paradoxically, in mourning it would be being at one with the emptiness left behind by the loss.
It is perhaps easiest to understand this when we experience joy, which can present itself as mood as well as a contact emotion. We can enjoy this and that without it being anything special that were enjoying; joy is the expression of an existential state, making us laugh and our hearts leap. Indeed, the whole body becomes the medium of expression, as we know from the manner in which children jump and leap in their characteristic expression of joy.
Awakening joy does not require a particular connection to something; indeed, at times the unexpected is more effective. For example, an appreciative affirmation of some habit or character trait or a flattering recognition of some ability are more likely to generate satisfaction than joyous delight.
It is harder to see that the timeless emotions are not connected to relationships, especially where love is concerned. But what 1 mean by this word is, as we all know, difficult to clarify. The sentence “I love you!” can mean very different things - like “I want to possess you”, “1 find you sexually irresistible”, “I want to share my daily life with you”, “I admire you”, “I approve of your actions”, “I find it easy to picture you as the father/mother of my children” - or simply “my heart overflows right now in your presence”. Only the last sentence speaks of a contact emotion of love; all the others are wishes, attitudes and judgements. Love as an emotion is similar to joy but has a slower, gentler motor expression, as if heavier in body and more intense, even while it has less brightness about it than joy.
But language and its images quickly fade; there is good reason why timeless emotions are favoured by poetry, for the art of poetry entails merely hinting at something by omission, preferring metaphor. Love as an emotion spontaneously appears in the contacting process and of course, disappears with it. Indeed, we may be blessed with a special person who is able to evoke these emotions in us again and again. But in that case other people too will benefit from this overflow. Because the essence of this emotion we call love is an over-flowing, being filled with the respective you and if it is easily evoked in one person, it flows towards the just and the unjust alike even as they appear in view. Love is not an emotion of attraction: it does not differentiate between “1 love you - but not you”. Whoever or whatever stimulated love, as an emotion it is directed towards a “Generalized Other” as George Herbert Mead termed it (Mead, 1934); the general “You” appears before our eyes in a specific manifestation. Love as an emotion therefore is not a strong form of (personal) affection but a letting-go into a state where the “I” is so strongly absorbed in the “Thou” that the “Thou” too can no longer be a specific counterpart, being generalized into the existential orientation of this moment. For this to happen, it is not necessary that the heart of the beloved should also overflow at this exact timeless moment.
If this view of the contact emotion love is perhaps difficult to verify in our everyday experience, this does not devalue its phenomenological truth. What is special about love as an affect is that it always points beyond even its timeless moment to an unfathomable indescribable phenomenon potentially available to all of us.
Just how much subject and object are transcended in the timeless emotions of full contact is even more obvious in awe, reverence and bliss, the religious emotions. 1 already mentioned that Clynes and a student of his were able to discover an “essentic form” first for “reverence” and later for “bliss”. When we say that a person or a symbolic object fills us with reverence or that we are overcome with reverence when we see it, it implies that we sense an aura, a charisma exuded by the object or person, generating something like a “holy shiver” - awe. Reverence denotes the emotion arising from something larger, different, transcendent, which grabs our hearts - it is triggered by a person with a particular aura or by a sacred object, or holy space.
Apparently, it is not so easy to expose yourself to experiences of such religious emotions on your own. Alone they are difficult to express and therefore difficult to intensify, perhaps because they directly connect us with the experience of the small and finite nature of our individual existence. It is natural that people take each other by the hand and jointly go in search of what each of them already has within. It has always been and still is the function of religious rituals to provide social forms for expressing such emotional experiences, safely containing the individual in the group.
Miraculously, the emotion of being blessed can also arise outside any religious context and sometimes Gestalt therapeutic work in particular creates the conditions for this emotion to arise. "Blessedness” is too strong a word for what 1 am exploring here, even though it is the same emotion, if slightly less intense. 1 am talking about the emotional dimension of the experience of suddenly understanding something, a sudden clarity, a Gestalt being completed, a “mini-Satori”. This “aha!” feeling as it is sometimes called - the eureka'. shout of Archimedes - has an element of relief, because the painful search leading into so many cul-de-sacs has now come to an end; there is also an element of satisfaction - the work is accomplished, a solution for the problem found. And yet, the “aha!” emotion is not about the self: it is again a sense of being filled with something other, something not coming from me; a small enlightenment.
The “aha!” experience is a moment of stillness, of thrilling clarity; one’s body image is slightly shivery and above all light, just as it is when filled with joy - as when Archimedes is said to have run naked out into the streets, shouting full of joy with his discovery. When, in the context of Gestalt therapeutic work a patient is overcome by such an “aha!” emotion, it is a sure sign that the shared therapeutic effort has succeeded; that the patient has been able to finish a situation, that a Gestalt has been completed. In the therapeutic situation such peak moments are rare, since it is often much later and outside the therapy setting that the insight gained shows its full impact.
Of the timeless emotions, it is grief which concerns psychotherapists most. 1 do not mean sadness, which is a mood, but the experience of loss. The significance of the loss determines how intensely we experience grief; it tends to be strongest at the sudden death of “a significant other” (sociology’s neutralising language). But we also know the milder forms of grief when we have to say goodbye to loved ones, when going through a separation, or in wistfulness at the end of a significant period in our lives. Grief is the paradoxical experience of being in full contact with an emptiness, with a loss, and so we can understand - as Paul Goodman says - “how terrible (it is) for if there is neither Ego nor ‘Thou,’ the emotion is as of an abyss” (Peris & Goodman: 198). It is part of our special human emotional condition that we cannot say goodbye, cannot separate from the disappearing Gestalt without falling into this abyss. We need to allow time to heal the wound properly rather than leave it to fester. As with any other emotion, grief too has its point of saturation when appropriately expressed, after which it gradually fades. But here the expression deceives, since grief leaves us not satisfied but exhausted and empty; the organism needs recovery. Gradually then the emptiness will be replenished by a new zest for life and new contacting processes will become possible.
Usually a deep sobbing is the strong, spontaneous expression of grief. It shakes the whole body, knees buckle, back is bent (Plessner, 1970). “Grief work” in psychotherapy though is something quite different from this spontaneous emotion of grief. For it is also part of mourning to express the anger and pain connected with the loss inflicted yet often repressed. Here, too, ritual helps. 1 did not really understand this until in Greece 1 experienced the truly bone-shaking cries of lament uttered by a woman who had lost her husband very suddenly through heart failure and was now receiving condolences from her friends and relatives at the entrance to the village church after the service. In these cries, rage, pain and grief were fused into a primeval sound, requiring all her strength to eject it. But nobody tried to calm or soothe this outpouring: quite to the contrary, her two strong young sons held this heavy woman tightly; gripped her by the arms to keep her upright; pressed her against the church wall. Without their help she would have slid down to the ground in exhaustion. The next day this widow followed a custom which to us seems barbaric: she shut herself into her darkened room for forty days; food was brought to her. Total withdrawal - a human being barely existing. And while this ritual prescribes the duration of withdrawal without reference to a concrete situation, it seems that it achieves something similar to that which individualized psychotherapeutic guidance and companionship achieves in our modern social context.
Both strategies attempt to resolve the same problem. It is too easy to turn away from the vanished Gestalt and allow new stimuli to capture us instead of daring to stare into the abyss. Ann Clark in her splendid presentation of grief work in the context of Gestalt therapy says:
This means, though, that we overlook an integral part of transformational processes. De-structuring and forming are inseparable parts of the cycle of change, growth and development. When we plan ahead and search for beginnings before the end is reached, we live for the future without noticing the present and without completing the past. This results in incomplete situations, unfinished relationships, unfinished endings and distorted new beginnings [...] We cannot really move away from our grief, but retroflect it from a sense of depression at the root of it all. It is all-pervasive to the extent that we get in the way of the cycle of growth [...] Grief is a necessary stage, required for the process of de-structuring in the Gestalt cycle.
Grief therefore is a timeless emotion in which the old contacting figure gradually dissolves. Thus it is a painful emotion, naturally embedded in a process of mourning which also contains emotions of anger and rage. Like Kübler-Ross in her work with people dying (Kübler-Ross, 1974), Ann Clark in her work with people in mourning was able to distinguish several stages of this process. At first there is a stage of withdrawal, where one feels small and reduced, overwhelmed by shock or sometimes relieved from longstanding concerns; in any case debilitated and unable to attend to practical matters, “to do the necessary”. Happy are those who have help and support in this situation and can afford to do what the organism requires in this situation - just withdraw. After this follows the phase of anger, and thirdly the phase where we have to accept our fate and work through it (“existential acceptance”).
The second phase is of special significance for the work of therapy. Ann Clark distinguished three types of anger here which often remain unexpressed: first, anger, stemming from earlier unresolved situations, especially those where grievances were harboured but remained unspoken. In the present mourning situation all the old and buried complaints re-emerge, strengthening the current grief through an added dimension of anger and rage. Added to this is present anger about the other’s absence when we need help, when we need advice, when we want support. And finally, the existential rage about fate in general: why do we have to lose in order to win, die in order to live?
1 think there are two symptoms to which a therapist should pay particular attention. On the one hand, anger about the dead person or a person who has disappeared is often repressed because expressing it is not permitted - the principle “de mortuis nihil nisi bene’’ (do not speak ill about the dead) is a de facto social norm initially applicable during the time of mourning. On the other hand, there is an insidious tendency to project existential rage - which if anything should be directed towards God - onto the loved one whom one mourns. This creates a double interruption of contact followed by a secretly smouldering resentment towards the dead person.
Grieving as a process of separation and saying goodbye (Tobin, 1971) entails more than just feeling grief and experiencing the pain of loss. The organism goes through a cycle of paralysis, expression and withdrawal and comes into contact with other emotions as well as grief, especially anger/rage; but also of course, fear. Grieving will turn into grief work when other long-hidden emotional issues like helplessness, emotions of guilt, of frustration and resentment play a role; left-over affects clouding pure grief. But in a society supporting individual modes of adjustment rather than collective ritual, a coach for instance or some other untrained advisor accompanying the grieving person may be a problem: in any case Clark warns
... that it is the therapist who has not had opportunity to work through these experiences on a personal basis who is unable to be helpful in this work; who doesn’t even notice the problems or explains them away with answers from established diagnostic, religious or philosophical contexts.
Finally, 1 would like to mention an emotion which shows the integration of full contact in a particularly beautiful way, an emotion rarely counted as such and in German it doesn’t even have a name: the emotion for the beautiful. Does it even exist, an emotion for the beautiful, a kind of rapture, when we want to distinguish it from our aesthetic recognition of harmonious proportions? Firstly we have to distinguish between causes and triggers of an emotion (especially when any talk of beauty and the attending emotions is strongly conditioned by culture) and then we need to describe the gift of being able to feel it. “Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder” we say, and that is true in a very specific way: it is not things per se which are beautiful, but through them we have the experience of beauty. And yet this experience consists precisely in being touched by things and being stirred in a way which replenishes to the point where there is no longer any room for an observer. The feeling for beauty, no matter how culturally determined our responsiveness may be, has nothing to do with aesthetic considerations - categories and judgements always require distance. Instead, the experience of beauty overwhelms us, wiping out all distance and for a moment dissolving the beholder who becomes one with this beauty. That is why in the face of overwhelming beauty our eyes fill with tears. In the emotion for beauty we merge with the sensual appearance of the experienced object and even when we say somebody is “lost” in the contemplation of a beautiful object, in fact this timeless moment of fusion only lasts for the shortest time. However, we must not mix up the emotion of erotic attraction with the feeling for beauty, since often in such mixing introjected aesthetic standards are used to channel and block erotic arousal which definitely does not have this quality of timelessness-and-beyond-this-moment. Rather, the emotion for beauty has an aspect of surprise, even of shock, and despite all our preparing and searching we will quite unexpectedly get lost in it. And so the first spontaneous expression, similar to being shocked or startled, is that it takes the breath away, and then finds expression in involuntary sound. The vowel for beauty is “o”, while that of disgust is “e” and that of satisfaction “a”. (For a fuller account of this see Berendt, 1983:40pp). In beauty as in all emotions, access can be blocked by desensitization, or buried through lack of stimulation. This rarely becomes an issue in psychotherapy - perhaps it is mentioned too rarely. Even while - or perhaps because - all aesthetic judgement is extinguished in the emotion for beauty, we feel secure and at home in this emotion so that the emotional experience of beauty has healing power in itself.
At the end of the contacting process, when saturation and satisfaction have either been achieved or turned out to be unachievable, and the Gestalt which was discovered and created starts to pale, the evaluative function (of lesser importance in the timeless emotions) gradually comes to the fore again. The emotions of the post-contacting phase are spontaneous appreciations regarding the contacting situation coming to an end; they show us the degree and quality of satisfaction reached and orientate us with regard to possible action and relationship consequences arising from this contact. In principle such judgments of course can be positive or negative, indicating “More of the same the next time!” or “Never again!” Moreover, the appreciative emotions apply either to the subject or the object as they separate out during this phase of post-contact, becoming differentiated again as parts of the organism/environ-ment field. From the combination of these alternative judgements we get a fourfold pattern of emotions arising in the post-contact phase (see Table 4.1):
Table 4.1 Patterns of emotions arising in the post-contact
Regarding the subject
Regarding the environment
These emotions too arise with many nuances and in varying degrees of intensity, but they tend to have a gravitational centre.
By “pride” I mean not the character trait, but a spontaneous feeling of contentment with what has been done and what has been achieved. It is an emotion of strength and self-confidence arising from newly-won certainty regarding one’s own energy resources and creative abilities; we can now lean back and relax. The emotion of pride oscillates between a rather passive emotion of satisfaction, such as one feels after a satisfying sexual experience; and a jumpy, sparkly joyous emotion about work accomplished, such as following the completion of a task. In other words, this emotion can arise after work as well as after pleasure. We often experience this emotion, but in a repressed and inhibited way because we so rarely allow its expression.
Here, too, it pays to look at children who have not yet strangled their pride by introjecting norms of false humility: their behaviour allows us to best observe the unashamed expression of this emotion. Their eyes gleam; the face is slightly reddened, often still covered with beads of sweat after effort and excitement. And then follows the action motivation which is part of pride: announcing and exhibiting their accomplishment, not just to evoke attention - which of course serves to validate and thus assumes psychological significance - but more to invite participation in the joy of achievement and the riches of fulfilment. Children return from their big adventures and want to show us what they have found, discovered and built. It is this spontaneous desire to share which removes vanity from the emotion of pride as long as its expression is not repressed. Only in such a case do we find that embarrassed puritanical pseudo-modest self-regard, which has nothing of the desire to express our happiness in being allowed to participate in a part of creation. Therefore, people can express pride in having given birth to a child, or even having fathered one, without anybody taking offence or thinking it egocentric. Pride as an emotion expresses happiness; whereas pride as a character trait just covers up the uncertainty of a person of itself.
Gratitude by comparison is a quiet emotion, and much rarer. Just as there are people who never experience love, so there are people who do not know the emotion of gratitude. 1 do not here speak about a moral attitude, a vague feeling of obligation or about a social convention. Those perceptions exist too and there is nothing neurotic or suspicious about them. 1 already mentioned the fundamental significance of the universal norm of reciprocity, the ferment of very diverse forms of socialization processes. Individual deficits with respect to assimilating norms of reciprocity are disturbances of personality function and especially part of the psychopathic character. Gratitude, as an emotion rather than an obligation, is one of the deepest and most beautiful experiences of which human beings are capable.
“Gratefulness is heaven itself’, according to William Blake, thus moving it close to bliss. Of course, it is quite possible to be grateful without specific reason, as if having received a gift from life itself. Even then the emotion of gratitude looks for a way to express itself through giving; just as one feels enriched, to enrich the environment in turn; a readiness to take care of the other. This isn’t just a motivation for action stimulated by gratitude but exactly its expressive quality; it is part of the expression of gratitude to turn towards the other, to give them a glance, perhaps a squeeze of the hand, a kiss, a loving embrace - and above all and strangely, with tears. Tears of gratitude are not those of crying; rather a tender wetness in the eyes, not just veiling them but also making them look warm. The quality of giving in the expression of gratitude is generated by turning towards somebody, by warmth, through opening oneself.
Beyond this, gratitude wants to push towards giving in action but without the quality of exchange or compensation, since gratitude as an emotion, utterly different from gratitude as a convention, knows from the outset about the impossibility of restitution and is not unhappy with it - completely different from emotions of guilt.
Certainly, a desire to look after the other can arise from the experience of gratitude, wanting to maintain in them a small part of one’s own world. But that is already a result of contacting processes belonging to the realm of personality functions. In the moment of contact itself the point is to find the right sign, to discover the appropriate symbol to carry the emotion, and express this as a turning-towards. In therapy it is important to offer support in this process of finding expression, but particularly to be able to emotionally accept the client’s emotion of gratitude. The grateful person needs a counterpart, since without a response their emotion enters a void and may sometimes even turn into hate. It is however part of quite common narcissistic disturbances in therapists to be quite unable to tolerate such gratitude: it is too close for comfort and the gratitude of the other is warded off instead of being accommodated.
In no way do all contacting processes take a satisfying course. Very frequently - too frequently - barriers become insuperable and our strength and abilities are insufficient, or there is a lack which at present cannot be managed. We are frustrated; still hungry, still longing; we feel disheartened, dejected and empty; our emotional sense of self comes close to a zero point. In short, we feel powerless, despairing even. In this emotion, too, the evaluative function is immediately obvious: “This is too big a bite for me, let it go; admit failure, look for another more easily achieved possibility”. The emotion of despair is the emotional acknowledgement of our weakness in relation to adverse circumstances, in a specific environment, here and now. Naturally, we do not always feel impotent when a contacting process has not gone as satisfactorily as we thought and hoped. Normally we only sense a certain dissatisfaction, something like an ungratified need, leading in turn to the next attempt; and a slight anger which will mobilize energy for the next effort.
The experience of capitulation is the real emotion of feeling powerless; of failure; we feel that we have reached the limit of our strength. The expression of powerlessness is that of despondency: lowered eyes, defeated inward-turned body posture, flat breathing and paralysed motor expression; a weak voice. This minimization of all expressive contacting functions is indeed quite effective: help is offered quickly by people who are so inclined, but exploitative responses are not uncommon either. From this it follows that the power vacuum of impotence creates an undertow. This doesn’t make emotions of helplessness any more pleasant; loss of all power is a terrible emotion since the pervading lack is connected with the certainty that it cannot be assuaged through one’s own resources. Perhaps the ultimate experience of being completely ineffectual still lurking in our bones is that of the hungry baby crying in vain.
Therefore, it is not surprising that we prefer to avoid this feeling; either we project our weakness onto the other and fancy ourselves stronger than we are - or, more frequently, we use our remaining strength in repeated furious attempts, even when their futility has long been established. This can become dangerous. When a person, either forced or from neurotic fixation, gets stuck with a situation where they cannot move ahead and do not live out their needs and energies in a different way, impotent rage turns to despair and a failure to see any further possibilities; or the organism devours itself in selfdestructive psychosomatic illness. But if the unpleasant feeling is allowed (and we are not in an objective situation of lack, for example in a famine), then we see that retreating and renewed gathering of strength is indicated until re-orientation is possible, leading to more fruitful contacting territory.
Felt powerlessness as a contacting emotion, as opposed to a life attitude, informs us of the limits of our strengths and possibilities, protecting us from dangerously overrating ourselves and from unrealistic fantasies and wasteful stubbornness. Implicitly this means that this emotional experience is typical for a society in which the individual is of greatest importance, as is typically the case in modernity. Norbert Elias, as well as Richard Sennett (Sennett, 2013), have argued that the service classes in feudal society did not experience this kind of impotence because the social order of strict hierarchies with their rituals and rules of respect in which everybody “knew their place” compensated for their lack of power. It makes more sense to me and seems more realistic, however, to assume that sheer dread of draconian punishments generated extreme self-control. This was especially true in areas where the inquisition was particularly strong as well as during the bitter religious wars following the Reformation.
If supporting growth is the object of psychotherapy in modern times its first task here is working on blockages of emotions of impotence, while the second must be to support realistic assessments of the patient’s limits as well as their talents and power. Neuroses do not just consist in feelings of inferiority but also in feelings of superiority. In this way the American expression “shrink” (originally “head shrink”) for psychotherapists has a core of truth.
Things are the other way round when we talk of guilt rather than powerlessness. Guilt feelings signal not a diminution of one’s own strength and qualities, but of the environment, specifically through our own immediate agency. Damage has been done or an injury inflicted unnecessarily to satisfy a genuine need - that is the most important aspect. A spontaneous feeling of guilt in the just concluding post-contacting phase unmistakeably indicates that the environment has been diminished in ways beyond the necessary exchange processes, serving to balance lack in the organism. Destruction and obliteration in the sense of de-structuring of obstacles on the road to the Gestalt one touches are normal constituents of any contacting process. We don’t feel guilty after eating a meal (although some vegetarians would qualify this statement) or having killed a midge on our arm; nor when, with justifiable anger, one shames another into contributing their fair share, or gets a disruptive member of a group to shut up! In such cases we mostly experience satisfaction, relief or sometimes regret; but not guilt.
But when we have unnecessarily hurt somebody, either through careless neglect - for example when causing a car accident - or in anger relating to a different situation; or even perhaps consciously taking such damage to the other into account or intentionally inflicting it, then we feel spontaneously guilty. The immediate expression of emotions of guilt is the body drawing back; we bite our lips or automatically take a step back, as if able to turn back the event, undo what has been done. And that is the action motivation belonging to guilt - to repair the damage, to restore the previous state of affairs, to exercise active repentance.
Before we can allow guilt feelings to come into awareness, we easily imagine that we will never be free of them again, or at least that one’s Ego, one’s own capacities, will be unbearably curtailed. The only solution is to open oneself to the experience of guilt. True - as opposed to neurotic -feelings of guilt are immediately transformed into those of remorse, to which in a way they are identical. Remorse now shows the way out of this limbo of guilt: to do something to bring healing for the guilty person as well as for the environment. The fact that in German the word “guilt” (“Schuld”) and “debt” (“Schulden”) have the same etymological root makes psychological sense, since this kind of guilt also needs to be repaid. But just as we cannot always give where we have received, we cannot always heal where we have inflicted damage. In all crime against life itself, the most dreadful part is that death is irrevocable. In all guilt we experience our transience, and that is perhaps why our resistance is so strong. Remorse will create a change in our attitude towards everything in life; it gives a moral dimension to the organism/environment relationship. Therefore, it is really important to show the repentant person ways and means of restitution. That is sometimes a therapeutic task, often a political one, but always a social pedagogical one. Robert Jay Lifton empirically investigated victims and perpetrators of the mass murders in the Holocaust, in Hiroshima and Vietnam and knows more than anybody else about the psychology of guilt problems. He says: “This kind of guilt is the (arousal) anxiety of responsibility” (Lifton, 1979:139).
In the final analysis, guilt always arises when we take more from the environment than we actually need and change it more than is necessary. No psychological theory can determine how much is too much. It can only name the conditions under which remorse becomes an action-orientating force. Morality is a social code intending to ensure the survival of the individual; whereas ethics can be understood as an individual's code for the survival of the species. Guilty emotions will only arise from having harmed moral norms if simultaneously one has also violated one’s own ethical norms. And such norms cannot be socially introjected codes of conduct: they grow from the experience of life’s richness and its vulnerability. In the end ethics is, according to Theodore Sturgeon, “a reverence for your source and posterity. It is a study of the main current that created you” (Sturgeon. 1953:237). Ethics arise from reverence for life - first of all for your own.
8 The inhibiting emotions
Being anxious and feeling ashamed
It is easy to confuse emotions of guilt with those of shame, although these two emotions differ significantly from each other. Peris discovered early on that there are emotions which do not promote and advance the contacting process, but rather hinder and inhibit it. In Ego, Hunger and Aggression he talks about the emotions of anxiety and shame as “the quislings of the organism” (Peris, 1992)11, the traitors to needs, inhibiting and impeding. Guilt feelings are not part of these inhibiting emotions, since they only appear in the post-contacting phase and because through remorse further contacting processes are initiated, giving them a specific direction. Also it is not appropriate to lump the inhibiting emotions together with emotional attitudes and habits, which are character attributes of personality. They are reaction formations of the emotions, just as a phobic attitude, for instance, develops from the fore-contact emotion of disgust, or repressed anger is gradually consolidated into resentment. In contrast to these “incomplete emotions”, as Peris called them and which 1 will deal with in the next section, shame and anxiety are emotions complete in themselves and have their own discrete and distinctive forms of expression. They are basic emotions which seem to belong to the anthropological endowment of human beings, found in all cultures and in all people.
How is it possible then that emotions - an unalienable part of human nature -can become “traitors” to the very contacting processes which have such elementary significance for our ways of being in the world? What does it mean that human beings are equipped by nature with emotions inhibiting the contacting process? The significance attributed to the emotions of anxiety and shame in the therapeutic process also depends on the answer to this question. Nevertheless, in the first instance they require a sociological answer, since the anthropological function of emotions of anxiety and shame rests on their ability to psychically anchor and direct the expression of social civilizing processes.
From the outset, homo sapiens is essentially oriented towards symbolically mediated interaction with other human beings and does not know any natural way of being beyond “culture” - culture which we have in our language and also in our bodies from the outset. There is no such thing as a human being not culturally formed; human nature is nothing but this constraint to embody ourselves in culturally available forms as social beings. The exchange between organism and environment can only be seen as self-directed if one considers specific enculturation as a necessary and essential part of the process itself and not as a neurotic or pathogenic deviation of a primary natural process. If this were not so, the theory of the contacting process would be nothing but a biological relapse away from the insights of philosophy and sociology as applied to the anthropological significance of work, language and expression (Honneth I Joas, 1980). Nor is it the case that in normal emotions of anxiety and shame we find unpleasant introjects of social origin manifesting themselves. In fact, emotions of anxiety and shame are a direct expression of the elementary socialized nature of every individual; of our always being socialized from the beginning. We find them in all types of societies, even if their function in Modern society is closely connected with issues of our ongoing or endangered civilizing processes. In present-day therapeutic work, it is important to distinguish between neurotic introjects and healthy internalizations in the service of the preservation of the standards of our civilization (Dreitzel, 2019).
In order to understand the essence of the emotions of anxiety and shame we have to start with understanding what is positive about these inhibiting emotions. 1'11 start with the emotion of anxiety. As already discussed in the context of aversive emotions, I do not mean fear of a concrete threat or danger, but rather the unpleasant experience of excitement anxiety which shows in a feeling of constriction in the chest and throat, sometimes appearing as arousal in a new strange contact and always connected with a disturbance of the free and easy flow of breathing. “The excitement is interrupted; breath is held: this is anxiety”, in Goodman's succinct description (Peris & Goodman: 188). But excitement is not a state - it is a movement, a flow. Interrupting an arousal is like damming up a river; the energy no longer turns outward but is directed towards “averting the attention, distracting interest in other things, holding the breath, gritting the teeth, tightening the abdominal muscles, retracting the pelvis, tightening the rectum etc.” (Peris & Goodman: 189). It is as if the threat were arising from one’s own organism. And indeed, other than in fear of external dangers (including the fear of illness in one’s own body which can, paradoxically, be experienced as an environment outside of oneself, because we not only are our body, but we also have it) it is one’s own needs and appetites exuding the threat, whose unfolding in sensorimotor excitement is inhibited by anxiety.
One’s own needs, though, can only become a danger when their immediate satisfaction - by these means and to this extent - touches social prohibitions and instructions which have already been internalized. They have become inveterate, second nature, and in Gestalt therapy terminology, they have become assimilated. Hence under these conditions the satisfaction of needs would damage the very social nature of the human organism, whereas if we violate un-assimilated introjects, we will experience vague guilt feelings not leading to remorse. This means they do not really motivate us to change our behaviour since introjects inhibit life, our individual pursuit of need satisfaction, without necessarily interfering with basic rules or values of our society.
This can lead to chronic anxiety conditions seriously damaging the organism. The difference between neurotic and healthy anxieties lies in the difference between fully assimilated “display rules” (Ekman I Friesen. 1972) and neurotically introjected ones. Of course, there are social conditions whose rules of expression are so hostile to life that they can never become second nature. Hence they will usually be sabotaged, often subconsciously, and therefore not function perfectly (Dreitzel, 2019). Always, excitement anxiety will be an emotional reason for a dissonance in the organism/environment field, for touching a sore point in the always fragile relationship between individual and society. Only in the shape of social interests can needs be legitimized; only in the shape of needs can societal interests enter the motivation of social role players (Dreitzel, 1980). Thus there is always an un-integrated residue of needs and emotions remaining, which are impossible to assimilate and keep setting off arousal anxieties.
Such anxieties have nothing to do with fear of punishment; when one disregards them and allows the action to take place anyway there are no guilt feelings. The quintessential pervasiveness of the civilising process regarding all aspects of the unity of body, soul and mind, which Peris & Goodman call organism, penetrates more deeply than the cultural norms of conscious behaviour; it concerns the general capacity for excitement in the organism, which is somehow suspected of wanting to override with animal immediacy the requirements and necessities of the social intermediation of need satisfaction.
This applies particularly to the context of production and distribution of goods requiring division of labour which entails the social organization of desire. Be there in time, never be sick or tired, do not get pregnant, don’t demand vacations and be neither tempted nor victimized by sexual harassment. These workers do not need cafeterias or toilets; they don't smoke; they are not prone to moods, don’t need emotion for orientation and motivation. They do not waste time chatting and they don’t criticize their superiors. In short, they could be said to be perfect and function like machines. Human labour must compete with robots and artificial intelligence - these machines never go on strike, are always active and more civilized than people - if we define civilization simply as a set of rules restraining the needs and instincts of our bodily nature. This would, of course, be a rather primitive definition of civilization. Actual civilization is much more, it entails cultivation, a refinement of our gifts and talents for understanding this world and creatively adjusting to its challenges. Yet the disciplining pressure of this one-dimensional world of capitalist production, distribution and services is constantly growing - and perhaps this is one of the reasons why outbreaks of uncivilized actions and the appearance of shameless behaviour seem to be on the increase in Western societies today.
With anxiety and even more with shame, society protects itself against the demands of the individual through countermanding arousal and by temporary interruption of the contacting process. Therefore in some ways all anxieties are social anxieties. How do I act in such a way that 1 do not violate a taboo, ensuring that others continue to consider me one of them? And since it is never completely clear what is taboo, and to what extent, or how 1 should behave in order to be like others, there are reasons enough for being anxious. But only people who have internalized too few standards of behaviour -whose socialization regarding norms and values has been chaotic - will experience this kind of social anxiety as a pervasive character trait.
Normally, anxiety only appears when the organism is already quite aroused and the expressive functions, arising where the motoric will to express emotions encounters socially determined standards of expression, the “display rules”. Excitement anxiety regulates expressive human behaviour so that these “display rules” are normally complied with.
But where these rules are very rigid, there will be a great deal of excitement anxiety and there will be forms of behaviour (reaction formations) with the function of preventing such anxieties from arising. This can easily be observed in therapeutic situations: anxiety kills arousal even before tears can show in a man's eyes, securing the maintenance of a social standard of expression. Or anxiety paralyses a woman’s motor expression just at the moment where she senses anger rising up, and through that she guarantees the socially expected passivity of female expressive behaviour, perhaps by smiling or keeping her voice low and soft. If anxiety and shame are traitors to the organism, in the same way they are the spies of society; they react like a seismograph to the merest deviation from the current standard of the civilising process preventing malfunction or even its break-down.
Autonomous behaviour, therefore, can never mean behaviour free from anxiety. Indeed, what matters is not to avoid anxiety, not to ban it from experience through the many forms of defence (see Chapter VI, 2) which are part of everyday practice for all of us, but to feel the anxiety and to stay with the breath. Only in that way can anxiety turn into action-motivating emotions like fear or rage or quite simply the desire to create and to express oneself. As we have seen, this can easily be understood when we investigate stage fright (see discussion in chapter IV, 2): The catalyst for transforming anxiety into the ego functions which the respective contacting process needs is the breath. In letting go into the breath when exhaling the individual gathers themself anew and enters into relationship with society again.
In the emotions of shame and embarrassment we can recognize even more clearly the civilising function. In any case, excitement anxiety and the emotion of shame are two sides of one and the same phenomenon: anxiety appears before expression, shame follows; both have the same function - to safeguard the social dimension of the organism - and both work according to the same principle: they inhibit and potentially prevent a person's initiative, activity and especially their expressivity in the contacting process. In excitement, arousal becomes paralysis; in shame, desire becomes agony.
The first important point in understanding the emotions of shame and embarrassment is to note that we are dealing with one emotion manifesting itself with very different degrees of intensity. The words confusion, embarrassment and shame mark differing degrees of intensity of the emotion. It expresses a diminishing capacity to distance ourselves from the experience which provoked it. For example, a compliment can make us bashful, but usually it is not difficult to overcome the bashfulness through a distancing action. And even when I feel embarrassed about something, at least post hoc there is a subject capable of acting to try to expunge the embarrassment. In shame, though, we are not dealing with something that “happened”, an action or an uncontrolled expression in relation to which 1 can take a position, even while I myself originated this act. I myself am at stake. 1 feel ashamed of myself, I as the source of all my actions, as a whole, am the origin of the offence. Therefore the wish for the earth to open up and immediately devour me follows - my personal identity must disappear. Such reaction presupposes the existence of a social environment in which the individual as such has a high value - as is typical for modernity. Many sociologists have called individualism the most important mark of modem societies. Georg Simmel, one of the founders of modem sociology, observed this development early on in an essay on shame (Simmel, 1911):
The deep alternative permeating life in every aspect requires a prior cultural decision - whether the individual is to be considered part of a whole or whether he is himself a whole - before we can understand whether the emotion of shame can actually be experienced. Only the concept of the totally independent individual completely responsible for himself constitutes the context for this tension to even arise, depending on whether individuality is emphasized or played down. This characteristic friction is incompatible with close relations between the individual and the group as a whole. [And importantly he added] Groups that completely absorb the individual are characteristically free of feelings of shame [...] As soon as we feel solidarity with a group, the contrast between what we are and what we should be vanishes.
These last remarks were particularly perceptive at a time when the study of the psychology of the masses had only just began (Le Bon, 1885). Simmel’s observations are important in my present context - because they seem to indicate that the civilizing process shows that shame is an important internalized safeguard against the danger of lapsing into inappropriate responses. It is potentially - and quite frequently - weakened through participation in groups or group activities, according to the norms it endorses. There is, indeed, much evidence for this observation which requires further analysis.
Thus, it seems safe to argue that shame is the typical emotional indicator of the second phase of the civilizing process. It requires that we re-evaluate whether the individual should be considered as a personality in their own right. This development began with the urban bourgeoisie during the Renaissance in northern Italy. Of course, this process took centuries to gain enough momentum to become the new basis of the civilizing process in its second stage: it was characterized by previously externalized rules of behaviour becoming internalized, a development spearheaded by the new middle classes especially in Protestant countries and their Puritanical enclaves. In these social environments, deviance from internalized rules and values was at first punished by smear campaigns initiated by religious and secular authorities, just as shown in Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous novel The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne, 1850). Simultaneously, this process also began to generate private feelings of shame.
A significant proof that shame and embarrassment are shades of the same emotion, with different intensities, is that the “sentie form” of their expression is identical: blushing, the wish to cover oneself, to hide. In bashfulness we blush easily and we turn blood red in shame. Whether this reaction appears to the same extent in all people - assuming that the expression of this emotion is not repressed - is difficult to say. Darwin noticed that the phenomenon of facial engorgement also happens in dark skinned races. The wish to cover oneself indicates that the origin of embarrassment is experienced as nakedness, even if we are not dealing with “skin shame”.12 The disguising smile of embarrassment is a gesture of concealment, simultaneously asking for forgiveness. And if we cannot turn away and hide when we are embarrassed about being overcome with emotion, we cover our face.
The more intense the emotion of shame, the more we are inclined to hide anyway, to make ourselves invisible; but even with the lesser feelings of embarrassment we can observe a slight turning away of face and upper body. The function of these different forms of expression is always the same, namely that what is visible of my person - that which, involuntarily and unawares, has become visible from behind my controlled social façade, is to be veiled and hidden so that my nakedness is covered, the embarrassment effaced. The catastrophe experienced when we are overcome by a very strong feeling of shame also implies that it is no longer possible to express it, since if the whole person originates it, the offence can only be removed by removing the whole person. In shame the individual aligns with society and extinguishes itself.
The second important point for understanding the emotions of shame and embarrassment is that they are triggered either by damage to or destruction of one’s social identity, through a temporary loss of bodily control or interactional competency. Perhaps this can most easily be understood when we compare emotions of shame once more with emotions of guilt. The latter are responses to norm-violating behaviour, avoidable since the person had all the relevant competencies: they trigger sanctions geared towards a subject which acted consciously and with free will or possibly through negligence. Conversely, emotions of shame and embarrassment are triggered when something "has happened” to the person as a physical body, normally a loss of self-control or containment or of good social form - a “loss of face”. It is possible to excuse oneself by falling back on something which in turn triggers shame: reduced mental capacity. But significantly, by observing shame and embarrassment instead of sanctioning it, we overlook the behaviour in question, saying to ourselves that “it is just too embarrassing”. The social identity of the person is in question.
Significantly, shame occurs in modern societies when the supposed autonomy of the individual fails and is felt and experienced as helplessness in relation to events and developments beyond our power. Hence our societal culture generates a strange mixture of shame and guilt feelings at any time. It has been suggested (Hermann, 2017) that a general bad conscience can be easily mobilized in the educated middle classes of the West with respect to past crimes of colonialism, racism and wars and is in fact a secularization of the old myth of the fall of man - an idea particularly focused on in Lutheran theology. While Catholicism believes that Original Sin is forgiven through baptism, Martin Luther claimed that the fall of man can only be made well through unconditional belief in God, even though this cannot be achieved as such but only be given as grace by God himself. Whether this theology penetrated all forms of Protestantism to such an extent that its secular form is now completely pervading our culture seems to me debatable. Yet the conspicuous general morality of the liberal middle classes is an interesting phenomenon which needs explaining. In any case this “Protestant morality” is either cause or symptom of our shame- and guilt-generating culture. This culture is now strongly reinforced by the growing awareness that our moral problems are not confined to the sins of our ancestors but manifest themselves in neglecting the causes of climate change.
Modernity’s stake in individualism excludes any concept of collective guilt. Thus the descendants of generations of perpetrators of environmental misuse may feel a responsibility for being part of an exploitative nation or the Western world as a whole, or for being part of our present culture of consumerism causing the ongoing destruction of nature, and will tend to develop feelings of shame as the emotional expression of their moral attitudes - sufficiently uncomfortable for many to try to make financial donations to dispel such feelings. Only as individual members of our society can they emotionally shift into guilt feelings which motivate them to get involved in practical work - for instance work in relief organizations. As Robert Jay Litton has pointed out (Lifton, 1979) such practices - emotionally driven by remorse - are experienced as a relief and may even lead to joy in facing present disasters. My own experiences with helpers in the German refugee crisis of 2015 and with NGO people fighting for human rights or against the destruction of the environment confirm this observation. This is of great importance for any psychotherapy dealing with contemporary perpetrators. Therapists may be confronted with symptoms of generalized cultural shame such as looking away, being resigned, feeling helpless in view of the complexity of the problems, and other forms of reaction formation. Thus it seems that the ambiguities of moral standards in modem society can only be resolved by an emotional shift from collective feelings of shame to individual feelings of guilt.
There is no way of protecting oneself from emotions of shame, except by accepting the social role in which being diminished is the normal state of affairs, as in early childhood, in very old age and in severe illness or disability. To the extent that in these roles the person no longer needs to feel ashamed about their lack of self-control, they also forgo the right of self-determination. And since in addition the threshold of shame is deeply internalized, even with adults in such roles and situations, emotions of shame only very gradually become blunted and only become repressed through severe pain and the hardship of physical suffering.
In shame, society asserts itself against the individual; in guilt the individual affirms itself over society. Guilt presupposes a subject capable of action and of taking responsibility for themself. Emphasizing the individual person’s capacity to feel guilt has been one of the great achievements of the emerging bourgeoisie of the Modern Era. In experiencing feelings of shame and embarrassment the individual surrenders claims to individuality in favour of the collective. Shame is always an expression of powerlessness but feelings of guilt assert the individual’s capacity to decide. This can be a lonely stand, however. It must be emphasized that the liberating effect of “doing something about it”, of personally getting involved in compensatory action works only if the individual is embedded in solidarity with groups of activists! The psychoanalyst Peer Hultberg, a specialist in the study of shame, observed that emotions of shame often are warded off with guilt feelings (Hultberg, 1987:94). As a last claim of individuality against the anonymous collective, this makes a great deal of sense when the same society in general honours individuality. Sometimes, this may reach the point where the ashamed person actually sets out to incur guilt. Erik Erikson warns: “The person who is ashamed wants to force the world to look away, not to notice his nakedness. He wants to destroy the eyes of the world” (quoted by Lifton, 1979:464). Of course there is the opposite strategy too, the avoidance of guilt feelings through projecting one’s responsibility onto others. This mostly happens with the small faults and failings of everyday life, when it is more comfortable to admit one’s incompetence with regard to adverse circumstances rather than owning up and declaring oneself guilty of sloppiness and inattention.
Shame and embarrassment are deeply social emotions and they are attached to the group rather than to the individual. We don't feel guilty for others, even if they are close associates. But we feel shame for all those with whom we identify, whether partners, parents or children; one s own gender or one’s own nation; in certain situations, even for complete strangers whom one witnesses. In Modern societies particularly in embarrassing situations, we are able to observe what community means: instantly everybody pulls together trying to block out the embarrassing event (for a more detailed sociological analysis see Dreitzel, 1983). That can be achieved through ignoring or playing down, through quick assistance or by putting the whole thing in perspective through joking. In any case the individual is not, as in guilt, shown up or denounced and publicly exposed; instead, and quite to the contrary, they are hidden, and taken to the most private part of the backstage. Society’s way of dealing with shame is to excuse the actor, to ignore the event. In embarrassing situations everybody contributes to repairing and restoring social normality. Emotions of shame and embarrassment are triggered then by a transient loss of body control or interactive capacity in myself or other people relevant to me in this situation. Shame is the polar opposite to pride; when I feel ashamed, I hide my deficiencies: with pride 1 show my talents. Pride reveals: shame conceals. And just as I am able to feel shame for others, so I can be proud of others if and when I am identified with them.
It must be kept in mind, though, that these phenomenological descriptions do not apply for pre-Modem societies sometimes called “shame societies” still to be found in Japan or China where they survive in rituals of forcing the perpetrator to publicly admit to their shameful behaviour, thereby offering them a chance to excuse and unburden themselves. These rituals, for better or worse, obviously belong to an earlier, the second stage of the civilizing process.
As I already mentioned, emotions of shame and embarrassment can be triggered by permanent impairment and damage to one’s sense of identity, as well as through transient diminution of social competency or bodily control. Though any of these causes can either lead to slight embarrassment or to terrible feelings of shame, the diminishment of one’s social identity tends to weigh most. Referring to these three causes of shame and embarrassment, I would like to distinguish between identity-related shame, social shame and body-related shame.
Identity-related shame refers to what I am or what I am not in the context of my reference groups. In the final analysis the question is always - do 1 or do 1 not belong? In archaic societies exclusion from the tribal community was a punishment always followed by psychic death, often physical death too. In traditional pre-modern societies, social identity is often based on statusspecific concepts of honour; violating those standards was experienced as shaming one’s membership group, which often could only be repaired through the death of the person shamed or shaming. Today however, most clearly-defined membership groups like large families, guilds, monastic communities or the aristocracy as such have been dissolved. For most people these havens of social identity have changed into widely varying individual fates. For some merely managing their life can be a daily challenge generating identity-related shame. People who are chronically ashamed about their own existence are common in the clientele of psychotherapists, although such embarrassment is often kept secret for a long time. They were unwanted children, whose parents resented their appearance in the world, and those who were always rejected, superfluous, considered “no good for anything,” “unworthy to be alive,” and all those who from the beginning received the message that “you are not welcome here.” But in our age of mass mobility and mass migration this message is often applied to whole groups, which then can have murderous consequences.
Social shame on the other hand arises when social competency is lacking or insufficient. Here we are not dealing with belonging to the wrong group so much as not being allowed to exist in the first place, but with the experience that I am not allowed to be as 1 am here and now. Perhaps you are poorer than your fellows or you lack education where money is taken for granted and education a matter of course. Perhaps you don't know how to dress, or what to bring when invited to a party; or you lack good table manners, laugh in the wrong place or go over the top in expressing emotion where cool detachment is the norm. There are endless occasions for social shame and they have increased since we have become so mobile that we constantly encounter strangers from social milieus whose codes of behaviour and communication we are not familiar with. Today’s society is fragmented into a multitude of identity bubbles with subtle in-group standards of communication. behaviours, and tastes. If one crosses such group boundaries one can quickly land in foreign territories where different rules and behavioural customs apply. This road is plastered with embarrassing situations like stumbling stones.
In body-related shame the issue is nakedness. With a plethora of material Hans Peter Duerr13 has shown that all cultures and every standard of civilization is familiar with original genital shame, a shyness about exposing the genitals; or if nakedness is standard, to look at the other’s genitals, especially when in a state of sexual arousal or sexually active. This aspect of body related shame seems to be part of our anthropological endowment and of course a violent infraction of this threshold has devastating psychic consequences, which in people who were sexually abused as children leads to deep identity-related shame. But of course the variability of standards is still very significant, and becomes evident when we look at the varying dress codes in different cultures. Frequently, but not always, women’s breasts are supposed to be covered; in India, for instance, the exposure of shoulders and arms is more offensive than exposing the belly in the West; in fundamentalist Islamic countries women’s hair or even their faces are to be covered.
In our society, genital shame has perhaps not much diminished but thresholds of shame with regard to defecation, chewing noises and cleanliness in general are significantly higher in Christian cultures than they used to be, while nakedness now triggers far less shame than it did in our grandparents’ generation. Norbert Elias argued convincingly that the precondition of this development was and is an internalized restraint of sexual aggression. Yet even with the loosening of standards regarding nudity, what always sets off body-related shame is the temporary loss of standard body control and disarray of one’s clothing: an open zip or an incidental belch are harmless examples here. More serious ones are forced disrobement of the body and especially of the genitals, as in the form of “degradation rituals” which regularly take place in closed or - in sociological parlance - “total institutions” (Goffman, 1961) like the military, hospitals, prisons, boarding schools, and the like. Such shamings can easily become a traumatic experience. Shame related to the body only becomes neurotic when it does not occur as a situational signal for having overstepped assimilated cultural standards; only if it chronically hampers need satisfactions - as for instance in anorexia where inhibitions based on having introjected body images create significant pathology.
We cannot argue with the fact that thresholds of shame and embarrassment have changed in history even if we follow H. P. Duerr’s proposition that public exposure of the genitals has always been offensive in all societies. True, emotions and their sentic forms are the same everywhere. But still they are experienced in very different shades of intensity according to the social settings and cultural contexts in which they appear.
Let us again consider shame that has been caused by shaming. There is no doubt that important factors here are power and rank: in monastic times the King was beyond shaming - his occasional nudity could not disturb his godlike superiority. Even during the 1950s a friend of mine studying at Oxford University and sharing a room with a young English lord told me how astonished he was when, according to agreement, that lord left him alone one evening to offer him privacy for a date with his lover but failed to take his butler along. When my friend complained, the lord answered with surprise "But he is only a butler!” On the other hand, historically masters of all kinds could shame their inferiors by forcing them to undress. And more recently, the taken-for-granted “culture” of sexual assault by film studio bosses and directors in Hollywood and elsewhere is proof that shaming is still a frequent strategy to exert power as “the chance to get one’s way against the will and interest of the subjected person” - as Max Weber famously defined power.
Today the sources of power seem to have changed. It appears that public shaming has returned as a means to exert power. In struggles over the sources of power the balance is shifting from those who through their position in the professional hierarchies have the power to force their subordinates - especially women - into submission to the power of the New Media to publicly disgrace suspected perpetrators, who often not only “lose face” but also their jobs and their reputation. The culprits of this power to blame and shame - whether or not guilty of the (often anonymous) accusations - may be prominent, powerful or influential actors in all public realms: politicians, actors, media moguls, journalists, sport icons, pop stars etc. This development can be interpreted as a progressive step in the direction of a more equal distribution of power: the #MeToo movement is certainly another move in women’s process of emancipation. The problem with this power shift however is that it quite easily sidesteps, negates or surpasses the state’s monopoly of power to investigate and punish transgression. This power is guaranteed and reserved to the judiciary as a third and independent pillar of democratic societies. Even though we are aware of serious flaws in its functioning, in reality we must recognize that the principle of lawful states guaranteeing that nobody will be punished without a fair trial - the core idea behind the age-old habeas corpus - is actually becoming obsolete in view of the smear campaigns facilitated by the New Media.
If the speed with which thresholds of shame and embarrassment are changing today has become a pathogenic factor accelerating psychic disturbance, not only psychotherapists but lawyers too have a new client group in those who feel they have been victimized by sexual harassment and in those who feel they have been victimized by smear campaigns - both will feel deep shame. It is important therefore to remember the development of the civilizing process (in modern Western societies), whose focus is indeed this type of change. In the first chapter of this book 1 described how this process develops in three overlapping phases, cutting across each other. At first we see a multiplication and strengthening of external rules of conduct, followed by internalization of external restraints, so that a strong “Super-Ego” develops. Eventually these external standards of behaviour, guarded by the inhibiting emotions of shame and embarrassment, loosen up through a process of manners becoming more informal. This, though, does not work effectively as far as the expression of emotions is concerned. Instead, this new phase - the informalization of behavioural standards - shows a scissor-like divergence. We see increasingly contradictory processes; more and more informal everyday manners meet with increasingly cooler emotional expressivity in the public sphere, especially in the ever-growing areas where technological processes are involved and questions of security are at stake. At the same time, populist movements as well as separatists fight aggressively against their cultural foes and feel entitled to break the rules of civilized behaviour which they have insufficiently internalized.
In our society all three phases are in operation simultaneously, even while the significance of the first phase is strongly diminished and the significance of the third is only now gradually increasing. The simultaneity of these overlapping phases of the civilizing process also shows in the class-specific differences of behavioural standards.
Regarding the emotions of shame and embarrassment we can say that the first phase is concerned with concepts like “honour” and “insult”, both of which always refer to a collective (tribe, class or family) from which the individual derives their identity, and whose representative they feel themself to be. Violations of expected standards are experienced as “dishonouring” the membership group. This phase survives when immigrant families or tribes are not integrated into the new culture, but also in certain subcultures in our own societies, especially in some violence-prone groups at the extreme right like Neo-Nazis or street gangs.
In the second phase - and against the background of the evolving separation of public and private spheres - there is a gradual differentiation of this experience into emotions of guilt and shame. The individual is now seen as a separate, self-responsible subject capable of differentiating taken-for-granted expectations of control and competency on the one hand and rationally accessing norms of behaviour on the other. With the bourgeoisie emerges the idea of a responsible individual, capable of guilty actions. In order for this idea to work in the social world it needed mechanisms for relieving this burden, social “traffic regulations” consisting of assumed competencies and control expectations. Consequently, when they fail, not punishment but help is the result.
It seems likely that long-term social development processes are accompanied by certain moderating surges which increasingly emphasize individual responsibility and liability. In this process new behavioural standards arise which later become internalized. And the process of such gradual internalization perhaps always develops via rediscovering and emphasizing individual culpability and a renewed emphasis on the ability to experience shame. Hultberg apparently has something like this in mind, when he thinks that our society “seems to develop from a culture of guilt towards being a culture of shame, or perhaps it is on the road to a mixture of the two” (Hultberg, 1987:89). “Protean man” at least (Lifton, 1968), a social character seeming to become more and more widespread in our society, seems to have few guilt feelings and is always tumbling into embarrassing situations. Strong, all-consuming feelings of shame have become rarer outside neurotic constellations, while embarrassing situations lurk everywhere.
Let us resume what has been said so far about shame and embarrassment:
- 1 Phenomenological analysis reveals that expressions like “shame,” “embarrassment” and “confusion” referring to an emotion indicate different degrees of intensity of the same emotion. The degree depends on the extent of identification with what is being exposed or lost, and therefore is experienced as embarrassing. Moreover, this emotion has a succinct expressive Gestalt, blushing, covering, hiding, holding up; and is sensed as hot. burning and altogether unpleasant.
- 2 Shame and embarrassment are social emotions, arising through no fault of one’s own and for which one cannot be held responsible. We can feel shame and embarrassment for anyone with whom we identify. Embarrassing situations, regularly set off collective efforts to restore “normality” in everyone who is part of the situation or the social in-group.
- 3 Particularly in a therapeutic context it makes sense to distinguish between shame related to identity, social shame, and shame related to the body. Shame related to identity is the emotional reaction to not being allowed to be oneself, not feeling at home where in fact one is at home. Its extreme form is existential shame for being alive at all; getting something wrong in one’s relation to others when everybody else naturally seems to know how to get it right. A new mixture of identity shame and body shame can be observed in Western societies in the increasing number of people who do not feel at home with the gender of their body given them by natural birth. This seems to be an extreme expression of the insecurities caused by the high degree of individualization which is commonly and increasingly characteristic for Modern societies. Body-related shame is the sensation of having physically denuded oneself at the wrong time, in the wrong company, and in the wrong place. Genital shame seems to be universally prevalent. But the feeling that one’s own biologically-given body identity is somehow “wrong” is something new in Modern society and is probably related to the vision of surgical solutions for this problem in a highly technological culture.
- 4 The threshold for emotions of shame and embarrassment has been pushed further towards the social environment - at least in our own civilizing process - to the same extent as expectations regarding individual body control, control of affect and interactional competency have increased. In these developments there are disruptions and surges, leading to generational differences regarding internalized shame thresholds. At the same time extremely strong emotions of shame have become pathologized through the individualising process of Modernity. Since social identity today is only marginally constituted by family and status group membership, significant shame related to identity refers to the core of one’s being.
- 5 It must be added that identity differentiation is now sought amongst a multitude of relatively small in-groups or milieus. They are united by specialized work, educated high-brow cultural tastes like scenes for opera fans or art collectors or also low-brow hobbies like collecting militaria or playing collective computer games. There are a plethora of associations for people sharing a passion for sport; or for those interested in pursuing spiritual, religious, ideological or sexual preferences. Hobbies such as gardening, exploring wilderness areas, or hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities, playing with model railways or collecting things bring people together. The problem here is that contact and communication are more and more restricted to isolated circles of insiders, excluding all others with whom one shares the larger communities of habitat, traffic, language, political groupings - all of them displaying a tendency to segregate “them” from “us.” As Georg Simmel noted, feelings of shame tend to lose their restraining power in the context of in-groups and their relationship with out-groups. This may lead to militancy and even violence toward out-groups, particularly in radicalized political and religious environments. Within one’s own group, however, feelings of shame may appear more easily in their function of protecting group cohesion just as the old forms of honour did for tribes and families. 1 don't need to emphasize that this is a dangerous development undermining peaceful communication within the public sphere at large.
It is according to this fivefold description of the emotions of shame and embarrassment that we must understand their role in psychotherapy. This is where they appear more frequently than in everyday life, since here the reaction formations (defence mechanisms) normally used to control and avoid these feelings gradually become more permeable or even disappear. Indeed, if and when such emotions occur it is a sign that the course of therapy is progressing well. Of course, after a while in any therapy, with growing trust in the therapist, these kinds of embarrassing experiences in the life of the client will become topical.
In a process-oriented therapy, though, something else is even more important; that is, when in the therapeutic contacting process itself emotions of shame and feelings of embarrassment arise, attention needs to be paid to the triggers causing them. In the context of Gestalt therapy one can typically observe four such triggers or “reasons”:
- 1 I am ashamed for being embarrassed about something.
- 2 I am ashamed to be a patient.
- 3 I am ashamed that 1 am moved and showing my feelings.
- 4 I am ashamed for being a burden to you.
The first situation has something to do with historically shifting boundaries between public and private spheres; we all remember earlier times when “certain things” were only allowed to be mentioned or talked about in private, if at all. But which themes belong to this sphere today and which don’t differ significantly from generation to generation? Many of today’s older people grew up in an environment where marital problems were largely kept hidden even from close friends, or perhaps only talked about with one’s pastor, whereas younger people incessantly talk about their “relationship issues.” Psychotherapeutic groups contribute to this development; Psychoanalysis has an explicit or implicit rule that the client should talk about everything that goes through their mind or heart. This situation is contained in the intimacy of an individual therapy setting and protected by rules of confidentiality. In group therapy settings, typically for Gestalt approaches what originally mattered was “authenticity,” “opening up” and “following one’s own process.” These values sometimes were pursued under significant group pressure. Without even noticing this, beginners amongst Gestalt therapists sometimes increased this process by pressuring their clients with incessant questions like “How are you feeling right now?” or “What’s happening for you?” Even: “How do you feel being with me?” If patients were able to answer such questions with a clarity helpful to the therapist, they would not need therapy. But the main fact we tend to overlook is that one of the major ways in which interactional competency shows is the inability to say “No” i.e. to reject a demand or proposal of the therapist with a clarity and authenticity helpful to one’s own therapy. To draw a line demarcation line between self and others and to safeguard one’s own space is an essential capacity to be worked towards. There is a certain danger inherent in Gestalt therapy’s emphasis on the contacting process, that we often do not sufficiently recognize: that withdrawal, too, is a core function of the organism/environment field. If this function is interfered with in therapy, rather than being respected, there is a chance that the patient feels embarrassed and will later remember this experience with a (vague) sense of shame. Often the behaviour of the patient will be interpreted by a therapist who is not sufficiently of themself as “resistance”. Not that Gestalt therapists, who will often in their work encounter such behaviour, usually refer in such a situation to “breaking” through the apparent resistance, but - just from my supervision experience - they will often use seduction methods and charming methods instead.
If Peris described the inhibiting emotions as “emotional resistance” he seems to place them somewhere near Freud’s ideas regarding mainly intellectual resistances, whereas actually he strongly emphasizes physiological ones.14 This draws attention to the fact that we need to deal with emotions of shame and embarrassment in the same way we deal with other kinds of “resistance”; they are to be touched, but also need to be respected; they need support in becoming conscious, and this means they need to be experienced and felt psycho-physiologically, but they are not to be conquered and vanquished. They are also strengths and skills.
This process starts right at the beginning of therapy. Even today many people looking for psychotherapy feel embarrassed about being a patient. After two years of therapy, a theologian consistently called it “our conversations”, while I equally consistently chose to speak about “your therapy” or “our therapeutic work”. Without doubt it is important that clients sooner or later learn to identify themselves with their patient status, since otherwise there would be disturbances of the personality function of identification. This does not need to be a condition of therapy: it can be a result of it. In classical psychoanalysis this may be different, since it is dependent on developing and later dissolving a “transference neurosis”.
The structural reason for emotions of shame arising in this context is the experience of an incapacity, a lack of competence in conducting one’s life -the very experience which brought the patient into therapy in the first place. Here the therapist who lacks clarity regarding the social character of shame which involves them, too, can make two kinds of mistake. Some therapists share the patient’s emotions of shame to such an extent, empathize so much with them, that they never broach the issue of the client’s patient status and tend to treat their clients more like friends. Naturally, then distance and authority are lacking. Other therapists don't feel safe until clients have explicitly and whole-heartedly accepted their patient status. Essentially, they need a gesture of submission from the client, since they do not fully trust their own therapeutic authority. In analytic terms one could safely say that shame can very particularly evoke counter-transference processes. But Gestalt therapy aims to help the patient to see clearly how, within limits, their incapacities, limitations and disabilities truly are riches, too. Gestalt therapy is fuelled by the conviction that people only become whole and complete when they can perceive and experience themselves exactly as they are here and now, no more and no less.
Of even greater therapeutic significance is the third trigger for shame and embarrassment in the therapeutic contacting process, and that is when the client is touched, deeply moved, and wanting to express this, yet fearful of losing self-control at the same time. Though this fear is typical for persons with a strong tendency to engage in narcissistic neurotic processes, beyond all pathology we always experience an emotion of embarrassment exactly when a spontaneous emotional expression runs counter to prevailing manners, i.e. where cultural rules of expression inhibit an emotion from fully unfolding. It is this inhibition which is embodied in shame and embarrassment. In the educated middle classes, from which most clients of psychotherapy originate, these barriers can be so strong that outside the therapeutic situation it is rare that such experiences are encountered. In this social milieu people may already feel embarrassed when they breathe heavily or shout loudly or witness such behaviour coincidentally. At the beginning of the third stage of the civilizing process, when in the 1960s the standards of everyday behaviour became more and more informalized, some members of the educated middle class - at least for a while - loosened up and grew more tolerant of emotional expression by participating in newly fashionable cultural inventions like encounter groups, bio-energetic exercises, “dynamic meditation” and a whole range of other self-awareness groups offered by the cultural market - last not least Gestalt therapy group sessions.
None of this applies to the currently downwardly mobile sections of the middle class and - perhaps with the exception of strict religious milieus -never applied to the lower classes where the cultural barriers of shame were never strongly internalized. Working therapeutically with patients of this social background presents therapists with a different challenge: how to sensitize people to the rich potential of their emotions, a treasure which if owned is their true birth-right. The challenge is how to facilitate their discovery of the many varieties of emotional expression.
But even without employing therapeutic techniques aimed at facilitating emotional discharge, therapy always touches repressed emotions and brings the client into situations where the effort of repressing spontaneous emotional expression becomes fore-ground, becomes the painful figure of experience. Most frequently we notice people attempting to stop the flow of tears and stifling the urge to cry, an effort which creates painful burning sensations in the larynx. More subtle but definitely no less important is the slight hardening of the features and a barely noticeable bodily freezing when people make an effort to interrupt the process of their controlled facial expression slowly melting, as they are expressing positive emotions like love, gratitude or pride. Breathing deeply needs to be encouraged.
Dealing with existential shame in therapy is the most difficult task, since this is the worst form of shame directly relating to identity. These patients perennially experience themselves as a bother to other people and therefore their misery also as a burden for the therapist. Close observation reveals what seems to be a rule in body-related shame: where there’s embarrassment, there's also desire! In such cases it pays to help the patient to discover what this might be. It seems that in bodily experienced shame the best way forward is to go with the hidden desire without pushing; carefully and lovingly, with joy in new discovery and excitement. In shame related to identity we find nothing like this - rather the traces of an introjected negation of one’s very existence which may arise from being unwanted from birth. In existential shame the task is to accept and to exude joy in the very existence of one’s incarnation as an embodied person. Here desire does not exist per se: we are dealing with a bare elan vital which has supported this person up to this point in their life. For this reason in therapy with such patients I think that the focus on working with the breath is of central importance, for in breathing and with the pulse beating we are undoubtedly and tangibly alive.
In other forms of identity shame, the task is to uncover wishes for belonging or to be recognized, making people conscious of and working on adequate realistic identifications. The sense of being a burden to others rests on a discrepancy between one’s introjected (negative) self-image and experienced reality. This can be strongly pronounced in people who are in some way or other physically disabled: after all, in relation to the standards promoted by the media, we are all disabled! With this form of shame related to identity, the work of therapy is to focus on insight into one’s own limitations, the frailty and mortality of the body, identifications with one’s own nature instead of societal heteronomy.
Generally speaking, psychotherapy has three tasks in relation to the emotions of shame and embarrassment:
Firstly, we are concerned with restoring sensitivity regarding our own and other people’s shame barriers and thresholds of embarrassment by distinguishing assimilated shame barriers from emotions of shame which are nothing but the introjects to which we, as excessively socialized human beings, are all prey, and which we often sabotage - if mostly subconsciously.
Secondly, therapy should achieve an identification with one’s own limits and handicaps, helping emotions of shame and embarrassment in this sphere to disappear altogether. That may mean using therapy for learning a bit of “stigma management” (Goffman, 1963). And let us not forget we are all handicapped!
Thirdly, we are concerned with establishing that emotions of shame and embarrassment are the obstacle on the road to freely developing our emotional sensitivity - recognizing through this work that some people’s shame barriers are too strongly inhibiting - while others with different social backgrounds lack them, are too unashamed.
Thus, in psychotherapy working with shame always involves a socio-political perspective keeping in mind that the emotion of shame, while it can be extremely suffocating, is also an important protection against relapses into barbarianism.
This last point is true for excitement-raising anxiety also: emotions of anxiety and shame are the keepers of the temple of our desire for emotional expressivity - only those who do not fear them can enter here. As soon as we sense this anxiety consciously, as soon as we stay with the emotion of embarrassment, these emotions wondrously change into what they conceal: arousal and excitement, energy and competence. In existential shame, though, we are concerned with experiencing just being alive. The emotions of anxiety and shame, therefore, are the cardinal point of any therapy. Peris writes:
The awareness of, and the ability to endure, unwanted emotions are the conditio sine qua non for a successful cure; these emotions will be discharged once they have become ego functions. This process and not the process of remembering, forms the via regia to health.
(Peris, 1992:216; my emphasis)
Simply attending to the way excitement anxiety blocks energy is going to restore the blocked flow. And staying with an emotion of embarrassment will liberate the desire already hinted at in the embarrassed smile.
It is important not to imagine that this is a simple process, especially when we think about narcissistic disturbances so much discussed these days. In this situation the therapist may easily repeat what characterized the childhood experience of the patient: to fail in giving them enough space for self-discovery. What Hultberg, alluding to the work of Alice Miller (Miller, 1978), writes about the narcissistically disturbed children of psychologists may also be true for many therapists’ clients:
Without intending to, some psychologists cannot help but communicate to their children the commonly expressed “I know you better than you know yourself’ or, as it is called in the terminology of theories of narcissism and the new explorations of empathy, there is a preponderance of active “intrusive” empathy at the cost of passive, nourishing, receptive forms. Without fail the child experiences this as a forceful intrusion into the Self, and tries to defend himself by barring access to the Self through chronic shame. Through this, he also bars his own access to the Self and this shows in depression which is often defended against by bright or manic adaptation, a disturbance which under the name of “the gifted child” has now gained world-wide renown.
In any case, there is nothing a patient resents more than being shamed by the therapist. If and when a therapist exposes a patient in front of a group, uses labels, performs voyeuristically or gets caught in therapeutic introjects, the therapist becomes a representative of social norms and socialising institutions instead of being an advocate of the patient’s individual creativity, implicitly repeating the parental “Shame on you!” which has already spoilt the life of the child and corrupted their pleasures. Whether it is the ruling norms of the ruling classes or the subcultural norms of a group in the “therapy scene” - what is critical is that this is a renewed attempt at totally socialising the individual. The patient has little chance to resist this therapeutic take-over, since they are just trying to open up, just starting to trust the therapist and engage with a new experience. This therefore may not be discovered until much later and is then experienced in a situation where they cannot defend themself - a humiliation. The pain of such memories is often defended against by idealising the former therapist or through resenting them. Therefore, much time has to be spent in psychotherapy on working through previous therapies.
- 1 For a critical appraisal of the academic part of this literature see Benjamin Seyd, a sociologist of Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, who has specialized in this field (Seyd, 2018). For its popular contribution to this boom the bestselling book by Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence - Why it can matter more than IQ, was one of the first and may still be representative (Goleman, 1995).
- 2 Hunters and hunted, pursuers and pursued seem to constitute a central myth in American culture, in which confrontation with the indigenous peoples lives on in a myriad of ways. Countless books, films and TV shows testify to this fascination, which in specific characters can intensify into an almost archaic passion.
- 3 See chapter “Action Theory” in Clynes (1976), which I do not further consider here.
- 4 For a self-inquiry of subtle tension patterns in connection with emotions and moods, the exercises developed for the Tibetan Kum-Nye relaxation are very helpful since they slow down each movement to such an extent that with practice, it is possible to reach an unusual degree of body awareness (Thartang Tulku,
- 1978). At first glance this book may look like just another collection of relaxation exercises for people stressed by civilization, but it definitely is not!
- 5 Clynes (1976:26pp). A “sentic form” for bliss was demonstrated by Janice Walker, only after Clynes’ book had appeared. Compare “Sentic Newsletter", Vol.2, No. 1. March 1980, 2.
- 6 You cannot take your finger off the sentograph with Clynes’ investigative method, since then it cannot register what happens.
- 7 In photographs showing Western politicians visiting Mao Zedong, one could see a large spittoon next to Mao’s chair. We might think of the civilizing history of spitting: N. Elias analysed the history of spitting in a special chapter of his book (Elias, 1969b).
- 8 Compare Peter Gleichmann (1984).
- 9 Clynes’ view is that laughter has its own "sentic form” and therefore can be expressed in a medium other than our voice box. For these somewhat surprising ideas, which I will not examine further at this stage, compare chapter 16 in his book: A New Form of Laughter: A Prediction of Sentic Theory, undated, pp.207.
- 10 The workshop was conducted by Erving and Miriam Polster.
- 11 The expression “Quisling” for traitor is no longer widely known. Quisling was the name of the leader of Norwegian collaborators during the German occupation in the Second World War.
- 12 According to Agnes Heller, certain tribes in New Guinea have a concept of “skin shame” and "deep shame”. Compare Heller (1980:4). This indicates that what I will call body shame and identity shame are universal forms of the emotions of shame and embarrassment.
- 13 Compare Hans Peter Duerr (2005). This book also contains a fundamental critique of Norbert Elias’ theory of the civilising process which was rejected with rigour and in-depth understanding by Michael Schrdter. Compare Schroeter (1990).
- 14 F. Peris (1992) speaks of “emotional” resistances, which he differentiates from physiological and cognitive ones. The advantage of this differentiation at that time consisted in the fact that it was possible to see that the body and the emotions also were parts of the psychic processes. Nowadays we rarely speak of “resistance” in Gestalt therapy. Compare here Breshgold (1989). To interpret a behaviour as “resistance” is problematical because it implies on the one hand that the therapist knows the client better than they themself, and on the other hand, it implies that this behaviour is an impurity in the client's organism which has to be removed for the client to become "well”. In fact this behaviour used to be a creative solution in a difficult and threatening life situation, usually in childhood, but still binding a great deal of energy which currently the organism urgently needs elsewhere.