Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Affect and Emotional Life

“Psychoanalysis is emotional medicine for emotional ills.” (Orange, 1995). “Ideas, insights, interpretations, and other cognitive approaches may support emotional healing, but they do not provide it… only if the analyst can find room in inside herself or himself for THIS patient is there any hope.” (emphasis added).
Accordingly, Orange outlines an intersubjective theory of affect and emotional life. She emphasizes three features of emotional life. First, the complexity of emotional life. “Emotional life, an irreducibly complex process, requires an epistemology that resists the urge to oversimplify. Relational history makes understanding emotional life an intricate task. We continually organize and reorganize [experience] in layers of meaning.

Therefore, “[w]hen we attempt to extract an “affect’ from the continuity and complexity of any emotional life, and use that affect to explain something, we make two mistakes. First, we abstract and extract what is inextricable. Second, we may violate the integrity of the person’s experience. Although some of this violence is unavoidable, patients often point it out to us. When we attempt to help a patient articulate a feeling, we often hear: “But that is not all,” or “It’s more than that,” or “It keeps changing.”

Orange points out that one “effect of the psychoanalytic tendency to speak of single emotions has been the focus on ambivalence and its acceptance as a model of mental health. In this view we are always torn between love and hatred, conceived as two basic and simple affects. We must feel both toward the same person at the same time. On the contrary, I see emotional life as originally complex. It makes more sense to wonder how it disintegrated, how it became oversimplified. How did the responses in a given family bring a child to feel that loving a parent was incompatible with anger, or disappointment, or interest in something else besides the parent? How did the child develop the conviction that feeling itself was dangerous to significant ties?”

In addition to isolating some emotions from the whole of emotional life, another difficulty is that “[m]any emotions, like shame and dread, are themselves internally layered. Shame involves self-hatred in the face of explicit or implicit other’s perceived or expected disapproval. It is complex, often multiply layered, and usually continuous with moments of more intense pain. People often say, “I’m ashamed that I’m ashamed about this.” (I plan to consider of shame as part of the experience of emotional trauma in a subsequent post which I suggest to read in the context of the present one.)

“A second essential feature of emotional life,” Orange continues, “is its relational character. Emotions are responses to relational events or needs, and emotional expression is an attempt to connect, or to regulate connection, with another. The social smile of infants is a social smile. Smiling and crying are methods of “object seeking” (Fairbairn, 1952). Any thoroughly relational theory of human nature or psychoanalysis must treat emotional life in that context. Emotional experience begins, continues, and heals in specific intersubjective contexts. When emotional experience is presented as independent of context – psychiatry speaks of “inappropriate affect,” for example – this may mislead us into thinking of emotion as a mere internal signal. Instead, from the perspective of intersubjective theory, we see the emotional expression of the moment as formed by relational history and as evoked or triggered by the intersubjective fields of the present. Its reference to the future often consists in the expectation that the relational experience of the future will resemble that of the past, but it includes an anxious hope that someone will respond differently.” (emphasis added).

Third, “[n]ot only complex and relational, emotional life is emotional. This apparent tautology is important only because both psychiatric and psychoanalytic languages have attempted to describe and work with emotion as if it were a cognition or an instinctual derivative. In either case it is viewed as residing in the individual. On the contrary, I see emotion as a primarily noncognitive and nonverbal relational response. It can be linked to cognitions and schemata, but it has its own reality.”

Recognizing that intersubjectivity theory had a cognitive cast, Orange (1995) began, and has continued, ((Orange et al (1997), Stolorow et al (2202)), to point out that the principal components of subjectivity, the organizing principles, “often unconscious, are the emotional conclusions [or emotional convictions] a person has drawn from lifelong experience of the emotional environment, especially the complex mutual connections with early caregivers. Until these principles become available for conscious reflection, and until new emotional experience leads a person to envision and expect new forms of emotional connection, these old inferences will thematize the sense of self. This sense of self includes convictions about the relational consequences of possible forms of being. A person may feel, for example, that any form of self articulation or differentiation will invite ridicule or sarcasm.” (emphasis added).

Arising as “emotional inferences a child draws from intersubjective experience in the family of origin… [t]hese principles [or convictions] may concern relatedness, as in “I must adapt to others’ needs (moods, expectations, and so on) if I am to retain significant emotional ties. They may also consist in a fundamental sense of self, still intersubjectively configured: “I will never amount to anything,” I am always a burden,” “I am worthless and god for nothing…” More often, these principles are emotional inferences drawn as the child attempts to organize some sense of self out of chaotic, traumatic, or more subtly confusing early and later relational experience.”

Orange (1995) concludes “[i]f emotional life is truly complex, relational and “emotional,” then certain clinical consequences follow. One is that our patient’s “Yes, but…” may not be defensive but instead may be a plea for a fuller understanding of “complex mental states”(Kohut, 1959). If we believe that emotion really differs from cognition, then we will distinguish emotion and cognition in talking with patients and support a respect for the contribution of each to a whole human life. We will show regard for a “sense of things”- ours or the patient’s – whether or not this sense is verbalizable. In a Winnicottian spirit, we will make more room in many psychoanalytic treatments for art, music, and poetry as a means of creating a shared emotional life. We will also have less need to reduce these “forms of feeling” Hobson, (1985)to any form of cognition or insight.” (emphasis added).
Ernesto Vasquez, April 6, 2010

Orange, D. (1995), Emotional Understanding: Studies in Psychoanalytic Epistemology. New York: Guilford Press.
Orange, D., Atwood, G., & Stolorow, R. (1997), Working Intersubjectively. Contextualism in Psychoanalytic Practice. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.
Stolorow, R., Atwood, G., and Orange, D. (2002), Worlds of Experience. Interweaving philosophical and clinical dimensions in psychoanalysis. New York: Basic Books.

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