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What Are Feelings?

How are they related to drives or instincts?

March 2016 Newsletter

We have suggested that in order to understand human beings, we must examine the origins of feelings (affects), language, and cognition. This month, we start our discussion of feelings.

“We have argued… that affective responses [feelings] are the primary motives of human beings… We have further assumed that affects are primarily facial behaviors… When we become aware of these facial responses, we are aware of our affects.” —Silvan S. Tomkins, 1964 (Demos, 1995, p. 217)

Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock
Source: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

What Are Feelings?

As we begin this section, right away, we run into a problem: What are feelings? Feelings, emotions, affects—over the ages, these have had many different meanings to many various philosophers, researchers, and clinicians.

Do they refer to our subjective experience? Or behavioral manifestations? Conscious or unconscious? How are they related to drives or instincts? A vast literature has evolved in this area literally over centuries. As Knapp (1987) noted: “This literature encompasses a wide variety of definitions, approaches, and data… psychology as a whole speaks about emotion in many different tongues” (p. 205-6).


In addition, terms and concepts for feelings change with development: We’ll discuss how humans are born with a relatively small number of primary affects, which then combine with each other and life’s experiences to form our more complex emotional world.

For example, one conceptualization of terms which takes development into account is that provided by the psychoanalyst Michael Basch (1983). He suggested the term "affect" be restricted to the eight or nine autonomically mediated somatic reactions.

Feelings, then, become a possibility approximately between 18-24 months, when capacities for symbolization, self-reflection, and reasoning occur. Emotions are seen as more complex states appearing later, “experienced as a unity in a relationship to the self and its goals” (p. 118).

Another example of exploring the development of feelings is provided by Richard Lane and Gary Schwartz (1987). They described levels of emotional awareness and integrated Piaget’s work on cognitive development with the emotional experience. Their model has five levels of emotion organization and awareness:

1. Sensorimotor reflexive: Emotion is experienced only as bodily sensations, but may be evident to others in the individual’s facial expression.

2. Sensorimotor enactive: Emotion is experienced as both a body sensation and an action tendency.

3. Preoperational: Emotions are experienced psychologically as well as somatically, but they are unidimensional, and verbal descriptions are often stereotyped.

4. Concrete operational: There is an awareness of blends of feelings, and the individual can describe complex and differentiated emotional states that are part of his or her subjective experience.

5. Formal operational: There is an awareness of combinations of blends of feelings, as well as a capacity to make subtle distinctions between nuances of emotion, and an ability to comprehend the multidimensional emotional experience of other people.

Also—consider the various definitions of instincts and drives and their relationships with feelings. Webster’s relevant definition of a drive is an urgent, basic, or instinctual need—a motivating physiological condition of an organism.

And instinct is defined as a largely inheritable and unalterable tendency of an organism to make a complex and specific response to environmental stimuli without involving reason. Instincts and drives have been related to sex, aggression, hunger, and oxygen. Remember Freud’s models of motivation:

“…the brain functions like a steam boiler that is constantly under excess pressure and needs to discharge continuously through thought or action the excess energy produced by the sexual instinct and by the (later postulated) aggressive instinct” (Basch, 1988, p. 13).

But this was only an analogy, without explanatory value:

“Freud knew this: he himself referred to the instinct theory as the ‘mythology’ of psychoanalysis” (Basch, 1988, p. 13).

Jaak Panksepp discusses these issues from a neurobiological perspective, stating: “Traditionally, all motivated behaviors have been divided into appetitive and consummatory components” (1998, p. 146, emphasis in original).

As we will explore in more detail later, Tomkins and his colleagues suggested that there are about 8-9 inherent primary affects, which are reactions to stimuli and become our feelings and develop into our more complex emotional life. He considered these as “amplifiers,” which are the essential motivators of human behavior and influence drives or instincts (Tomkins, 1991; Basch, 1976; Demos, 1995).

The point is that we have learned a tremendous amount about emotional development over the past several years. These advances have occurred from various perspectives—neurobiological, clinical, cognitive, linguistic, and so on. A number of different models, levels of conceptualization, and metaphors have emerged.

These issues have been wonderfully summarized in more detail elsewhere, and many of the so-called classic theories are no longer viable due to the increased developmental and neurophysiologic data (e.g., see Plutchik, 1962; Tomkins, 1991; Demos, 1995; Izard, 1977; Lewis and Rosenblum, 1978; Ekman, 1998; Knapp, 1987; Holinger, 2008; Basch, 1988; Panksepp, 1998).

Some of the subtle differences in terms may emerge as we discuss the history and research of emotional life. But, for our purposes here, I suggest we use these words interchangeably in their everyday meaning.

For example, “affect” is a more technical term than the others. Affect tends to refer to the earliest preverbal manifestations of feelings, which are biological responses to stimuli (such as specific facial expressions seen in the preverbal child). Yet, even the term affect is sometimes also used to refer to aspects of our more complex emotional life, i.e., blends of feelings. Again, for the most part, these terms will be used here interchangeably in their everyday meaning.

Further Questions

So we want to go in a different direction. We want to focus on the origins, our earliest feelings, and innate patterns, and play with the developmental and clinical information in that area.

This topic is loaded with questions.

Can one “see” feelings? As we’ll show, in a sense, one can: The earliest feelings are readily seen in the faces and bodily postures of infants and young children, prior to the cerebral cortex being able to override these expressions.

Can one “hear” feelings? It certainly seems so—consider the cry of distress or the “roar of rage” of an infant or young child.

Can one “feel” feelings? Certainly, in a very visceral way. Think about a major disappointment and the feeling in the pit of the stomach. Or a loss and the feelings of sadness (distress). If one is embarrassed, there is often a feeling of heat in the face, and blushing which leaves the face reddened.

One can also experience feelings through words. Words can lend nuances of feelings to the primary affects as one develops. Various cultures have different vocabularies for feelings. For instance, some cultures may not have a word for depression (Ekman, 1998). However, cross-cultural studies show that feelings are universal—all human beings begin with the same set of feelings. More on this later.

Feelings are also observed, albeit indirectly, through symptoms. Physical symptoms, such as hysterical paralyses (no neurological reason for the paralysis), convey important, conflicted feelings internally. Breathing problems are another common symptom of feelings, such as intense distress or fear.

What Happens Clinically to Real People and Patients

Feelings offer us a wonderful opportunity to help people understand themselves and their lives and where they want to go. When feelings are appreciated and negotiated well, healthy development is enhanced. This is what Donald Winnicott referred to with the term “facilitating environment” (1965).

But what happens when feelings are not understood, or traumas intervene? Development can go off-track, and this can be seen in children as well as adults.

For Example:

This is a story of children who are troubled, angry, overly-aggressive, or mutely inhibited—children whose lives and development are close to being seriously derailed.

  • Alex, 5 years old, rushed into my waiting room, tried to butt his mother with his head, then punched her and tried to bite her. His school behavior was no better, and the school was about to expel him.
  • Sarah, 7 years old, was brought to see me, in part, because she was terrified of thunderstorms, cowering in the bathtub whenever there was thunder or lightning. “I don’t know why I’m here,” she said, almost inaudibly, being nearly immobile, looking down, sad and depressed. Her mother said Sarah frequently went ballistic in the mornings before school, running up and down the street screaming and crying.

This is also a story about people who reach adulthood and do not know who they are or what they want to do.

  • Dan, a 53-year-old corporate accountant, sat in my office. Slowly he put his face in his hands and began sobbing: “I’m embarrassed… I have to confess, I really do not know who I am.”
  • Tom, a 46-year-old unmarried executive, said sadly: “I make enough money, but I feel stuck in my career, and I don’t like what I’m doing… and I feel isolated—I want a relationship, and I cannot seem to have one.”
  • Shirley, a 42-year-old lawyer, said: “Everything in my life just seems to be off-track somehow… my relationship with my husband, my work—neither seems to be me… things are just not right.”

I am a psychiatrist and child/adolescent and adult psychoanalyst. I work with people such as those presented above, primarily using words and play and our relationship to help them understand their inner world, their feelings, their aspirations, and goals. Sometimes we also use medications. The problems presented above so often occur because of a not-so-subtle dismissal of feelings, a lack of understanding feelings.

How does this happen? Why do we seem to have trouble understanding and focusing on feelings rather than behaviors? Feelings can scare us, the rawness and power—hatred, attraction, sadness and grief, love—but we also overlook the information and knowledge about feelings, which do exist, and which can help us immensely.

Turning Things Upside-Down

Focusing on Feelings to Understand Behaviors

Sometimes turning things upside-down and inside-out allows us to see issues differently and make important changes. Such is the case in development. The question at stake involves the importance of learning about the inner world of children and adults.

Our society tends to focus on behaviors. This is an important question:

How can we transform a culture from focusing on behaviors to focusing on the feelings which cause the behaviors?

When dealing with children, one most often hears concerns about behaviors. Is he doing this? Is she not doing that? He’s coming into our bed too much. She is marking on the walls with the crayons. And on and on.

But what leads to behaviors? Where do these behaviors come from? What motivates these behaviors? In children, it is primarily feelings. As development proceeds, behaviors are caused more by a mixture of feelings in collaboration with increased self-awareness and reason.

We are especially interested in the early years, where feelings most directly cause behaviors. As we will discuss, the earliest feelings can be seen as responses to stimuli. What we call feelings are seen in the baby’s facial expressions, bodily movements, and vocalizations.

With age comes psychological and neurobiological development (e.g., see Panksepp, 1998, and others for descriptions of the brain development). With age comes increased self-awareness, self-reflection, and reason. There are many ways to conceptualize this increased awareness of and control over the expression of feelings.

For example, Aristotle had a lovely description:

“…anyone can get angry—that is easy…but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy” (The Nichomachean Ethics).

Freud used the terms "id" and "ego." "Id" was comparable to basic feelings, and "ego" related to reason or cognition. His metaphor was a horse (id) and rider (ego). Abraham Lincoln, when he was angry, was known to write a letter, not send it, put it in a drawer, and a few days later communicate in a much calmer and more reasoned fashion. Thomas Jefferson said: “When angry, count 10 before you speak; if very angry, 100!”

Daniel Goleman has written a fine book dealing with issues of emotion and reason: Emotional Intelligence. This combination of awareness of feelings and reason leads to good interpersonal skills.

This month we have begun our exploration of feelings. Next month we shall ask: Do we overlook the importance of feelings? Are we still blind to feelings?

Recommended Books of the Month

Recommended for Adults:

Psychoanalytic Therapy with Infants and Parents: Practice Theory, and Results
Björn Salomonsson (2014)
New York, New York: Routledge

Björn Salomonsson is a Swedish psychoanalyst well-known for his studies in infant and child development. This book is a fascinating and complicated look at work with infants and parents as one tries to traverse the early years of development successfully.

This book was reviewed in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association (2015), Volume 63: 1269-1276. The review is well worth reading, as it describes various aspects of understanding and navigating the baby’s feelings (affects) and the interactions between infants and parents.

Recommended for Children/Adolescents:

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle (1996)
Age Range: 2-5
Grade Level: Preschool-Kindergarten

Article of the Month:

"Balancing Act With Heidi Stevens"
To stop a child's tantrum, sometimes you just have to go with it
Chicago Tribune, Sunday, February 21, 2016, Section 6, page 3

"Show some empathy for your kids' troubles: Making children feel heard goes a long way."

This is a wonderful essay highlighting the importance of understanding and validating children's (and adult's!) feelings–i.e., empathy. It is the feelings which are important... focus on the feelings—they motivate/cause the behaviors.

First, understand, validate, listen...
Second... later one can work on interpersonal skills, explanations, and so on.

Being empathic with your child will lead your child to be empathic with others.


Aristotle (Sachs J, 2002). Nicomachean Ethics. Newbury, MA: Focus Publishers, R. Pullins.

Basch MF (1976). The concept of affect: A re-examination. Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 24: 759-777

Basch MF (1983). Empathic understanding: A review of the concept and some theoretical implications. Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 31: 101-126.

Basch MF (1983). The perception of reality and the disavowal of meaning. The Annual of Psychoanalysis XI: 125-154.

Basch MF (1988). Understanding Psychotherapy: The Science Behind the Art. New York: Basic Books.

Demos EV (1995). Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Ekman P (ed) (1998). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (C. Darwin, 3rd ed). New York: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1872).

Goleman D (1985). Emotional Intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam Dell Books.

Holinger PC (2008). Further issues in the psychology of affect and motivation: A developmental perspective. Psychoanalytic Psychology 25: 425-442.

Izard CE (1977). Human Emotions. New York: Plenum Press.

Knapp PH (1987). Some contemporary contributions to the study of affect. Journal American Psychoanalytic Association 55: 205-248.

Lane R, Schwartz G (1987). Levels of emotional awareness: A cognitive developmental theory and its application to psychopathology. Amer J Psychiatry 144: 133-143.

Lewis M, Rosenblum LA (eds) (1978). The Development of Affect. New York: Plenum Press.

Panksepp J (1998). Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Piaget J, Inhelder B (1969). The Psychology of the Child. New York: Basic Books (Originally in French, 1966).

Plutchik R (1962). The Emotions: Facts, Theory and a New Model. New York: Random House.

Tomkins SS (1991). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume III): The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear. New York: Springer.

Winnicott DW (1965). The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. New York: International Universities Press.

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