World of emotions

Les Todres, Ph.D., C.Psychol
Professor of Qualitative Research & Psychotherapy
Centre for Qualitative Research
Bournemouth University

Professor Todres is a qualified Focusing Trainer
(NY Focusing Institute: and this is the approach taken in the article


The problem of putting emotions in a box

There have been a number of existential-phenomenological theories of emotional experience including that of Heidegger, Sartre and Scheler.

worn white cardboard box isolated on white background..
worn white cardboard box isolated on white background

These approaches have two central concerns in common: 

●  That any understanding of emotional experience needs to reflect the intimate interconnections between emotion, gesture, symbol, expression, situation, social context, bodily sensation, temporality, personal identity, and all of the other terms by which we have packaged and categorised the seamlessness of Being-in-the-world. A phenomenological epistemology would like to remember that there is nothing essentially bounded about the ways we have conventionally labelled and split up experiences (such as a category like ‘emotion’) ; that emotion is never ‘alone’ and that the understanding of emotion cannot be abstracted from its total seamless context.

●  That an understanding of human emotional experience is complex. Both psychological development and cultural modification require models of understanding emotional experience that are multi-layered. Such a notion of multi-layered experience sets up a ‘dynamic’ dimension to human emotionality: how these various levels of experience and action, from primitive ‘impulses’ to wide and subtle feelings, affect and influence one another.

Eugene Gendlin’s levels of emotional complexity

 These two concerns have been taken forward by Eugene Gendlin in interesting and distinctive ways. Here I draw mainly on a book chapter entitled ‘A Phenomenology of Emotions: Anger’ (Gendlin, 1973), which was one of his earliest attempts to articulate his theory of emotions, and have appeared to have stood the test of time throughout his many later publications.

 Gendlin distinguishes between three kinds of emotionally-relevant experiences in human beings: routine emotions, situational emotions and felt meaning. All of these three levels are interactive and functional, but each is wider and more complex than the former.

Before we consider these levels, let us look at how Gendlin sees all emotionally-relevant experiences. The way the body lives as an experiencing organism is crucial in providing a greater ‘set’ of organising principles for the ‘sub-sets’ of particular experiences. He shows, by using many examples, how the lived body is both functional and interactive. So for example, in hunger, there is an implication of food with all its possible interactions (such as digestive readiness, behavioural seeking, and elaborated social routines). The implication of these interactions are also functional in that they are purposive, moving toward the resolution of a ‘wanted’ outcome. In a sense, this interactive functionality of the lived body is future oriented (moving forward in a motivated way) and interactively open (in the world of relations outside itself). Now, as a sub-set of bodily experience, emotionally-relevant experiences are also functional and interactive. Anger as a ‘readiness-to-fight’ or as a readiness to overcome a barrier, is full of intention (functionality) and perception of a fight-needed situation (interaction). Such emotionally-relevant experience cannot be understood without understanding such functionality and interaction. Whether it is logical or not from an external perspective is a separate matter.

 And here we come to three levels of emotionally-relevant experience in humans: routine emotions, situational emotions, and felt meaning.

Level one – Routine emotions

 There is a ‘generalised’ or ‘routinized’ part of anger that, in a sense is ‘wired’ into us or ‘handed down’. In anger, for example, this ‘explosive’ felt quality comes to us in many different situations and is very similar, in essence, between us. So anger, at this level has much ‘sameness’ about it in the way that it implies a narrow set of physical fight-readying chemicals and behaviour.  This level of emotionality is closer to a universally patterned relational structure.

 Level two – Situational emotions

 We have an inner life. To quote Gendlin (1973) : “We can take the situation which rouses our fight-readying home with us, and become fight-ready even when the opponent and context aren’t present.” p.376. We thus ‘carry’ a historical sense of various situations around with us as background contexts to new situations. Also, as our situations differ in different cultures, so do our emotions.  Gendlin refers to an example of the American anthropologist, Geertz, who did not recognise a kind of feeling that Javanese felt in the presence of a spiritual saint (the closest Geertz could come to the word was ‘awe’ and ‘respect’, but this wasn’t quite right either). So, situational emotions can build a lot of complexity and subtlety into them. They imply particular kinds of personal and cultural history and meanings, and are the culmination of a developmental sequence of modifications to both shared and bodily-feeling life. As humans, we have developed many words that refer to a great diversity of subtle emotional qualities beyond the ‘general’ emotions of fear, anger, and sexual and parent-child love. Even coming to so called ‘romantic love’, we have elaborated and experienced many distinctions. So the complexity of situational emotions in human history have ‘emerged’ and we have developed a more complex vocabulary to attempt to do justice to the subtlety of these emergent experiences —  such as a ‘sense of poignancy’, a ‘bitter-sweet feeling’ or ‘an ironic humorous feeling’. Often, we don’t have words for many of these and may say “ I feel as if I were…” Such complexity is multi-layered and may move beyond the so-called clarity of one thing or another, either fear of anger. As poets understand, human existence is full of ‘mixing’, and emotional consciousness is wide enough to allow these emergent, and even novel, emotional qualities to come.

1 2