Dealing With Feelings

Minimizing the negative and maximizing the positive.

Posted Mar 21, 2017

 "Minimize affect inhibition... Maximize positive affects… Minimize negative affects.”
                                                                                    — Silvan Tomkins  

Dealing with Feelings

In the past several months, we have been exploring the primary innate feelings with which human beings are born—what they are, how they work, and how they develop into our more complex emotional life.

This month we will discuss how understanding these earliest feelings translates into “dealing with feelings."

We have been making the case that human beings are born with an affective system, a feeling system. In infants, this system involves responses to various internal and external stimuli. It is seen in the babies’ specific facial expressions, vocalizations, and bodily movements. With age, experience, and learning, this process morphs into our more complex emotional life.

The question is: How can we use this information? Can understanding this embryology of feelings help us with infant, child, adolescent, and adult development? Can it aid us in comprehending our internal emotional world? And can it help us with our external emotional world, i.e. our interpersonal relationships and skills?

Affect theory offers three important venues for enhancing development.

I.  Allow Full, Reasonable Expression of All Feelings –   
“Minimize Affect Inhibition”

The technical term for promoting the expression of feelings is “minimize affect inhibition” (Tomkins, 1991).

The goal here is communication—both with the outside world as well as with one’s inside world (self-understanding).

Let’s start with the inside world.
Communication With the Inside World
Encouraging the expression of feelings—“minimize affect inhibition—also involves communication with our internal world, i.e. our understanding of ourselves and how we feel. If parents and caregivers allow the reasonable verbal expression of the child’s feelings, children understand that their feelings are legitimate, acceptable, and of value. If the expression of some feelings, for instance distress and anger, are inhibited or discouraged, children lose touch with their actual feelings and their internal selves. Some feelings may undergo repression and cause various symptoms. And children lose the opportunity to learn how to express their feelings in socially-beneficial ways.
Communication With the Outside World
As Darwin (1872) and Tomkins (1991) and others have suggested, affects provide both communication and motivation. Expressing feelings allows the child to communicate with the outside world—environment, parents, caregivers, and so on. Encouraging the expression of feelings also enables the child to understand better her own internal world. This has huge benefits: This process conveys to the child that it is okay to “feel her own feelings,” whatever they may be.

It refers to the importance of allowing your children to feel and express their feelings. Again, behaviors are caused by feelings. In order to understand your child’s behavior, it is necessary to understand what he or she is feeling.

One of the worst maxims to emerge prior to the 20th century work on infant and child development was “Children are to be seen and not heard.” This is completely contrary to enhancing communication between children and parents and ultimately helping the child to socialize.

Infants and preverbal children will express their feelings through facial expressions, vocalizations, and bodily movements. Sometimes they will gurgle, smile, gleefully squeal, and jump around excitedly—as they express interest and enjoyment. They will also bite, kick, and scream sometimes; these behaviors also reflect feelings—usually distress and anger.

Some of these expressions require help in socialization—in other words, some form of modulation or containment by the parent. “I can see you are excited, but let’s turn down the volume and use inside voice, please.” “I know you are angry, but no biting, please—maybe punch this pillow if you really need to let off some steam.”

One tries to allow the expression of all feelings—whether positive or negative. Furthermore, even with preverbal children, one keeps translating back to feelings and putting the feelings to words for the child—i.e. labeling the feelings. “You felt scared when that dog came running up.” “You are really interested in that mushroom.”

The trick is allowing the expressions, both positive feelings (interest and enjoyment) and negative feelings (distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, dissmell)—and putting all of those into words for the child.

We will discuss language in more detail later, but for now let’s just ask what about the verbal child, the toddler? Same thing, except there are more likely to be words involved. “I really love this sandwich, Mommy!” “I don’t want to wear that shirt, Daddy—I no like you!”

Toddlers will express their feelings in both actions and words. The actions may be similar to those of the preverbal child: screaming excitedly, yelling, biting, and so on. The words may be very primitive: hate, no, stop, and the like.

The task is two-fold. First, allow the expression of whatever the feelings are, helping with modulation and regulation depending on the circumstances. Second, translate the actions and words into the feelings—and the feelings into words.

II. Focus on the Feelings of Interest and Enjoyment—“Maximize Positive Affects”

The technical phrase for this is “maximize positive affects.”

The idea is this: we want to focus on and enhance the child’s feelings of curiosity (interest) and enjoyment.

Let’s start with interest, or curiosity. We so often want to impose our knowledge and rules onto our children—after all, we don’t want them to make the same mistakes we did! But the child’s development is helped even more by our listening to our child—understanding what he or she is interested in. If we can help the child identify and value what intrigues her, then there is a much better chance that she’ll find the profession and spouse and hobbies which are right for her.

Enjoyment is related to interest, so we want the child smiling and laughing and playing. Why? Because not only will she have a sense of what she likes and does not like—very important for the right choices in life—but her internal world will tend more toward optimism and hope than fear and shame and anger.

The feelings of interest and enjoyment—and surprise, if the surprise is not marked by distress—make up what we call play. Play is very important to children, and an attitude of playfulness—of fun and optimism—can do wonders for happiness and success.

III.  Attend to the Negative Feelings—“Minimize Negative Affects”

“Minimize negative affects (causes, not expressions)” is the technical phrase.

There are several negative feelings: distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell. All these negative feelings are SOS signals—it is as if the person is saying, “Help me, please! Something is wrong!” Life will provide plenty of hard knocks—so one is always running into the negative feelings. With a crying infant, one tries to figure out what is wrong and do something about it.

With young children, it makes sense to attend to the causes of these negative feelings and help deal with them. In this way, the child gains the idea that “help is on the way” and she can regulate her tension better. She can gradually internalize this notion that things will get better—this soothing leads to self-soothing. She can also learn what it takes to help herself.

So, whether the child is distressed, or angry (think excessive distress), scared, or humiliated, one tries to understand and attenuate the causes. Again, the goal is not to protect your child from all the frustration and pain—that can’t be done! One does, however, want to protect the child from trauma.

It is especially helpful to try to avoid fear and shame as motivators—in other words, one tries not to scare or shame the child into behavioral compliance. Fear is a toxic feeling and can be traumatic. If the situation is dangerous—the hot stove—one can explain the dangers to the child without terrorizing him. The problem with using shame is that it erodes self-esteem. Using positive feelings—interest and enjoyment through rewards and praise—is much better for the child’s psychological development than using fear and shame.

In adult life, one makes an effort to identify and understand the causes of negative affects. This allows one to make changes.

John Gedo (2005) has nicely described this as one of the major aspects of effective psychotherapy: “help patients to overcome any denial of their vulnerability to stress” (p. 168), identify the issues, and then make the necessary adaptive changes. 

This model, again, involves distress and anger as quantitative issues. That is, distress is excessive stimulation. Various accomplishments—which create positive affects—often require a capacity to tolerate stress and negative affects.
Physical Punishment

Physical punishment of a child stirs up precisely the feelings one does not want. In general, one wants to elicit interest and enjoyment. Physical punishment stirs up distress, anger, fear, and shame. 

Physical punishment is a complicated topic. (Further information can be found in the August, 2015, Newsletter; the Position Statement of the American Psychoanalytic Association; and on paulholinger.com)

We will discuss various aspects of physical punishment (including the research) in a future newsletter, so here we will note it specifically as related to our current discussion on dealing with feelings.

In this month's newsletter we have focused on the universal built-in feelings with which all human beings are born. We described how the work of Darwin, Tomkins, Ekman, and others has shown that human babies are born with various responses to stimuli. These we call feelings: interest, enjoyment, surprise, distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell. 

As we get older, these responses combine with experience to form our more complex emotional life. We discussed what feelings are, how they work, and why they are important—after all, feelings cause behaviors.

APsaA Position Statement on Physical Punishment
Darwin C (1872). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Third Edition, P. Ekman, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Gedo JE (2005). Psychoanalysis as Biological Science: A Comprehensive Theory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Tomkins SS (1991). Affect Imagery Consciousness (Volume III): The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear. New York: Springer.


GOOD NEWS!  Lithuania is the 52nd country to prohibit physical punishment in all settings!


Kids Pick Up on Everything: How Parental Stress Is Toxic to Kids
Author: David Code
SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011
This book uses clear language to discuss processes such as tension-regulation and internalization as occurring between parents and children. The author also emphasizes in non-technical language the importance of working to shift from negative affects (e.g. distress, anger, fear, shame) to positive affects (e.g. interest, enjoyment) – that is, focusing on fun and play. This is similar to Lawrence Cohen’s fine book, Playful Parenting.

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness
Author: Peter Godfrey Smith

New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016
This intriguing book explores evolution from its origins in the sea. It is a nice companion book to Neil Shubin’s wonderful book, Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body.

Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: A Relational/Neurobiological Approach
Author: Patricia A. DeYoung
New York: Routledge, 2015
This is a comprehensive look at various aspects of shame – theoretical, developmental, clinical, and experience-near. The author discusses shame as an affect and also shows how shame is a relational, two-person process—which can then become internalized as part of the self with distressing consequences. As DeYoung puts it: “Shame is an experience of one’s felt sense of self disintegrating in relationship to a dysregulating other” (p. xiii, emphasis in original).

Parenting Through the Storm: Find Help, Hope, and Strength When Your Child Has Psychological Problems
Author: Ann Douglas

New York: The Guilford Press, 2017
This book nicely outlines various issues and strategies to consider when your child has psychological problems and diagnoses.

About Paul C. Holinger, MD, MPH

Dr. Holinger is Faculty, Training/Supervising Analyst (Child/Adolescent and Adult), and former Dean at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. He is also Professor of Psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, and a Founder of the Center for Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy.

His work includes articles and books on psychiatric epidemiology and public health (including suicide, homicide, and population trends over time), and infant and child development (including What Babies Say Before They Can Talk).