When someone asks, “How are you today?”it can be a casual, ritualistic way of informally initiating a conversation. Sometimes, it’s much less, as when we meet an acquaintance on the street and they ask us this question without actually stopping for our answer. But what if the question’s for real—what if it actually matters?
I often encounter this situation at the beginning of a counseling session, where I usually ask my client “How are you doing?” It is not unusual for people to have a lot to say in response. It is somewhat less common, but hardly unusual, for the person I’m with to reply “I don’t know.” Often, that is simply the truth.
This can be a problem, since, as I’ve written before, “people come to therapy because of their feelings. Put simply, they’re having feelings they don’t like, in quantities they can’t handle. They can’t fix the problem, and they’re fed up. So, this is why in the beginning of therapy it can be so useful to enlarge one’s awareness of feelings.” In truth, developing an increased awareness of one’s feelings has a broad range of immediate and potential benefits.
More than this, as UCLA’s Daniel Siegel points out, in the context of child development, and by implication in the context of trauma-focused psychotherapy intended to remediate the developmental damage done by neglectful and/or abusive parenting, “the experience of expressing one’s emotional state and having others perceive and respond to those signals appears to be of vital importance in the development of the brain.”
Affect, feeling, andemotion become useful concepts
In my early journey as a therapist, I came to discover that I was no better informed about the actual nature of “feelings” than the average non-therapist. I wasn’t particularly aware of this until I encountered the work of psychologist Silvan Tomkins, recounted by Donald Nathanson in his 1994 book, Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex and the Birth of Self. This new knowledge changed my sense of human feelings. My ability to read both my own and other people’s feelings radically changed, and much for the better. Richard Kluft, a name surely familiar to any therapist working with dissociative disorders, recently wrote in Shelter from the Storm, of how his own encounter with Nathanson’s account of Tomkins’ affect model “dramatically improved” his effectiveness as a trauma therapist. That was precisely my own experience.
In brief, Nathanson took a rather difficult body of work by Tomkins and repackaged it in accessible and fully coherent form. A fundamental idea crucial to the entire book is the affect-feeling-emotion distinction. Its usefulness is hard to overestimate.
Nathanson describes “affect” as the neural energy that comes out of the middle part of our brain when our perceptions lead to a realization that something important is happening. It need not seem “important” at all. Most often it is actually rather a small thing and we generally don’t even notice.
For example, we may want another sip of our coffee, so we reach for the cup. Prior to that action, we had to perceive the desire for more coffee and then cause our middle brain to produce energy, directed to our lower brain, which actually gets our muscles to move. We do this sort of thing all the time, while giving it little or no notice. It is important to note the initial affect which starts this whole response sequence is an automatic response. It cannot directly be caused or controlled by our will.
To restate, the energy that initially comes out of our middle brain and gets the body to move is called “affect.” Should we become aware of it, we call it “feeling.” But most affects never make it into consciousness. They just do their job and then vanish. Those that do become “feelings,” however, tend to matter. They affect (unintended and unavoidable pun) our consciousness, for one thing. That alone can change what we do next.
It will be valuable to look at the individual feelings a bit more carefully, but before we turn to that, what of emotions? Although commonly used as a synonym for “feelings,” Nathanson suggests that these are actually best thought of as feelings-in-context, and often more than one feeling is involved in an “emotion.” For example, complex things like “exhilaration” can mean very different things to different people. To one person it might be the feelings of interest and enjoyment experienced when they get an “A” on a paper in school, while to another it’s the excitement, plus a little anxiety, experienced when heading out in the early morning on their horse to check the cattle in the north pasture, after a major snow storm. Emotions are strongly embedded in personal history.
Feelings are fundamental, but few in number
There are probably hundreds of words for different sorts of feelings, but don’t be fooled. When Tomkins studied facial expressions in relation to subjective experiences in a wide range of contexts, he saw that there were only nine basic feelings which people experience. All have accompanying facial expressions which give them away. While the jury is still out on whether or not he got this simple list essentially correct, many people think he did. I can say that his analysis has proven profoundly useful to me and my clients over the years. I suspect it will serve you well also, if you’ll learn it.
Tomkins found that we have three types of feelings—two positive feelings, one neutral, and six negative feelings. Here is his list of the nine fundamental feelings his qualitative research delineated, with a brief description of each. Most are described as a continuum, running from low to high levels of the feeling. (I use the terms affect and feeling interchangeably below, although strictly they are not equivalent, as previously explained.)
Interest–excitement: We experience this when our focus on anything becomes more intense. Body movement usually ceases, and our face is usually “blank.”
Enjoyment–joy: Interestingly, we experience this when our brain quiets down, when brain activity reduces. We typically smile.
Surprise–startle: This briefest of the feelings happens when we experience an extremely sudden major increase in stimulation. It can be combined or followed with another feeling, negative or positive in tone, but is itself neither. Its primary effect is to remove from our brain and mind (consciousness) whatever we were feeling before the “surprise” occurred. It thus assists us to achieve a quick change in feelings. Typically, we open our eyes, and often our mouth, wide.
Fear–terror: This is triggered by any incoming information that is overwhelming in nature. Our brain seems to experience this as inherently threatening. Its range is large, from minor anxiety to complete panic.
Distress–anguish: We experience this when we detect that something amiss or missing. It has a large range, from rather minor to completely agonizing. “Grief” is somewhere in the middle.
Anger–rage: This occurs when we experience the highest levels of brain stimulation. A stimulation source, which may initially cause mere distress, if prolonged can ultimately cause anger. Its primary function is to increase both problem awareness and any response it leads to. It appears always to be secondary to the perception of a threat (which will produce fear), and thus is part of our fundamentally important fight or flight response.
Dissmell: This affect (Tomkins created its name) is simply triggered by a bad smell. It warns of noxious substances, and can act to limit hunger. Dissmell and disgust (see below) may or may not operate independently of each other in various situations. (Off all the affects, this one seems to be the most specialized and least useful to know about.)
Disgust: With dissmell, disgust can also act to limit the hunger, but it is much more generalized and significant. Its effect extends from food to anything we perceive as unwanted, undesirable, or toxic, and primarily functions to limit our contact with whatever provokes the affect.
Shame–humiliation: A critically important affect which only works in relation to other feelings, primarily acting at least to partially inhibit positive feeling.
The importance of shame
The last affect described—shame—is critically important in trauma-focused psychotherapy, as Kluft and many others have noted. Shame’s primary function of inhibiting positive responses plays a crucial role in a child’s developing sense of self in relation to environment. It occurs commonly and appropriately when they encounter reality-based limits to their narcissistic fantasies about having what they want, when they want it. It also plays a crucial role in learning the structure of social relations, as they gradually learn that they must make room for others in their life, else they will experience serious limitations to the social rewards available to them.
Shame responses and shame-induction thus become primary means of social control, points out neuropsychologist Louis Cozolino, but when too much shame occurs (either self-generated or induced by others), over-control results. This has been referred to as “toxic shame”—the feeling not that you have done something bad but that you are bad, worthless, shameful, etc. I prefer to define toxic shame simply as any learned shame response which does not serve to promote your well-being as normal, healthy, appropriate shame does. With this fundamental distinction in hand, it becomes obvious that toxic shame is rather common, and that in the population of individuals living with enduring psychological trauma injuries, it is chronic and endemic. It must be given serious attention and corrected, if a healthy sense of self is to develop.
As Cozolino puts it so well: “Children left in a shamed state for long periods of time may develop permanently dysregulated autonomic functioning.” This will predispose them to “developmental psychopathology related to affect regulation and identity.”..
The fundamental functions of feelings
Why do we have affects (and feelings) at all? Tomkins offers a remarkable answer: they have evolved as a solution to the problem of the brain’s needing to limit the stimuli to which it attends, in order to function at all. Our sensory nervous system responds involuntarily to a wide range of stimuli. Most of it has little value. The particular sorts of stimuli we do respond to—with the generation of an affect—is that which actually matters to our survival. The rest we can usually safely ignore. Thus, our affect-production-system is seen to function as a kind of environmental filter, limiting the actual work our brain must do.
Siegel agrees that feelings are a signal of an encounter with something important. They are the beginning of meaning-making in the brain. Much more than that, the regulation of the affect-feeling-emotion dynamic in the brain “. . . creates the experience of the self.” Feelings thus may be seen as the beginning of a complex coordination of brain systems which produce meaning, conscious experience, sense of self, and action. Consciousness of affect, as feelings, has a very particular advantage and function: “it has value for our survival as a social species,” says Siegel, for it gives us “an increase in the flexibility of our response to the environment,” which is most especially important in social contexts.
Understanding now the great importance of feelings, and some of the benefits of improved awareness of feelings, please consider the self assessment (and training) procedure I am about to describe. Its use will dramatically improve your awareness of your own feelings, and increase your ability to read those of other people as well.
Self-assessment of feelings—how to do it carefully and thoughtfully
The procedure I will show you is very simple. For some readers, however, it may appear too objective, too “sciencey.” Others will feel uncomfortable with the slow, thoughtful way it must be used. Do not be side-tracked by such initial impressions. This procedure has done good things for many people I have worked with, and it will almost surely benefit anyone who uses it in good faith.
Here’s what I can all but promise you: If you will just try out what I suggest here, you will discover feelings you have of which you had no awareness whatsoever. This will increase your self-knowledge, and therefore your choice options in your life. That’s not a meager payoff for a few moments of your time. Furthermore, while you can choose to deliberately use this procedure to immediately improve your self-knowledge, you will find that just practicing it a few times over several days will also have distinct benefit enduring benefit, as you become more alert to this important dimension of human experience. Whether or not you continue to use this procedure after that is entirely your choice.
The self-assessment process
In order to get a more accurate awareness of what you are actually feeling in present time, we will use two tactics.
Selective focus: we will consider 7 of Tomkins’ 9 affects one at a time, omitting surprise (too brief to matter) and dissmell (too limited to highly specific situation to matter much of the time).
A self-assessment scaling tool (Wolpe, 1969), known as the Subjective Units of Discomfort (SUD) score, widely used in one of the major models of trauma psychotherapy (EMDR).
The SUD scale score
The SUD (Subjective Units of Distress) is a linear scale ranging from 0 to 10. Each extreme of the scale (0 and 10) is verbally described (anchored) for the individual using the tool. They then locate their discomfort or disturbance level on the scale to establish a disturbance level score.
Adopted by Francine Shapiro as the prime tool for assessing initial disturbance levels and subsequent reduction of these levels in the protocol for EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), the SUD scale score has been found to correlate significantly with autonomic indices of anxiety (i.e., heart rate and hand temperature). Later researchers conﬁrmed the validity of the SUD score in relation to current or state anxiety. Finally, in the only study so far of the use of the SUD score in a psychotherapy context, a group of researchers led by EMDR expert Daeho Kim found that “the initial score of the SUDS at the first session was significantly correlated with the patient’s level of depression, the state anxiety, and distress from the impact of events” as measured by several other standard assessment tools.
Obtaining your feeling level scores using the SUD scale
This scale, which has this structure -
0 —- 1 —- 2 —- 3 —- 4 —- 5 —- 6 —- 7 —- 8 —- 9 —- 10
can be easily and quickly drawn out on a sheet of paper. This simple device will entirely suffice for all uses.
For self-assessment of the 7 feelings most likely to be relevant in present time, take them one at a time. The question to be answered is:
“How much of this feeling do I have at present?”
Using Interest-excitement as an example, tell yourself the following (this is to “anchor” the scale extremes), right before determining your score. This is important, so don’t skip it.
“0 means I’m feeling no Interest-excitement at all”
“10 means as much Interest-excitement as I could possibly feel.”
Then place your finger on the approximate middle of the scale, and begin slowly sliding it back and forth. You are searching for the place on the scale that just FEELS right. Keep scanning back and forth until your finger comes to rest. An approximate score is just fine. Read the resulting score and record it. If the score is much above zero at all—say 2 to 3 or more, see if you can determine what’s on your mind that might be provoking the feeling. Make a note of that, if anything comes to mind, then go on to the next feeling, continuing until all 7 have been assessed.
Making sense of your scores
I have done this process with a large number of people and with myself a number of times. It doesn’t take long, and the results are usually informative and even surprising. To discover feelings for which you had no prior awareness of at all well illustrates that, much of the time, we are having affects which never rise to the level of conscious feelings. In certain situations knowing about this can be of great value.
Pondering what is provoking these feelings can lead to increased awareness of what’s really going on in your life. Contrastingly, you can use this process to probe your affects in relation to some distinct focus—say a potential new job, or a possible new friend or intimacy partner.
Knowing all of your feelings and their levels can give you a much clearer picture of yourself, add much to the meaning of your experience, and help you make better decisions.
What to do next
You can explore this whole topic further by looking at my 2003 article titled, “Feelings: Deepening Self-Awareness in the Early Stages of Psychotherapy.”. You can go into it more deeply in Vernon Kelly’s 2009 article, “A Primer of Affect Psychology.” Finally, you can explore it in considerable depth with Nathanson’s fascinating 1994 book.
To acquire greater facility in simply making use of what you now know about the different human affects, the best thing to do is to simply observe people and practice detecting their affects, from their facial expressions. A shopping mall can be a superb place to do this—or any other place where you can simply sit and watch people. Over the next several weeks and months, do several more self assessments of the 7 feelings, to continue your developing awareness of your own affect processes.
Skill comes from practice, so the more you make these fundamental discriminations, the more easily and quickly you will be able to “read” your own and others’ feelings. Increasing your ability to do this will add much richness to your life and your social interactions.
Want to know more? Check out the following resources:
Healing the Shame That Binds You, John Bradshaw (1988). Deerfield Beach, Fla: Health Communications.
“A validity study of the subjective unit of discomfort (SUD) score,” David M. Kaplan and others (1995) in Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, Volume 27 (Number 4), pp 195 – 199.
“A Primer of Affect Psychology,” Vernon C. Kelly, Jr. (2009).
Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development, Allan N. Schore (1994). L. Erlbaum Associates.
“Autonomic correlates of the subjective anxiety scale,” Thyer, B. A., Papsdorf, J. D., Davis, R., & Vallecorsa, S. (1984). Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, Volume 15 (Number 1), pp 3 – 7.