Dancing with the Dark Affects

The often repeated phase “how do you feel?” has in many quarters become a cliché used to disparage therapy.  And perhaps this development is somewhat deserved.  Taken at face value, the question does not get to the core of what process asks of us, as feelings do not open us to unconscious dynamics.

One difficulty is recognizing the difference between feelings, emotions and affects.  From a Jungian perspective, these are all distinct yet related experiences.  I like to consider them along a spectrum, with the affects living primarily in the unconscious and feelings existing as a function of the ego.  Emotions tend to straddle both unconsciousness and consciousness.

Separating Feeling from Emotion

With feelings, the ego is processing its relationship to reality.  At a seminar I heard John Beebe (a Jungian analyst who has worked deeply into the subject of typology) explain feelings operating like the fingers of a pianist playing the keys of the emotions.  The key insight being that feelings are a tool of the ego complex used to process information, specifically as it attempts to discern values and relationships.

Emotions will be best understood after clarifying an understanding of the affects, but let’s start by recognizing that the emotions are experiences that the ego can claim for itself, emotional in character, but not present in experience as a means of discerning information. Instead, the emotions tend to take on a less variable quality than feelings.  When we say “I’m sad today,” that emotional character will be an underlay to any of the feelings that come and go throughout the day.  The confusion in all this of course is found in the exchange of language around these experiences.  We will most likely say “I feel sad today” when expressing the emotional quality of our day.   With emotions, the ego can lay claim to the experience as having a quality that is accurately reflects the overall situation.

The Dark Affects

The affects bring us to experiences of a different quality.  Rooted in the unconscious, the affects are archetypal in nature, and tend to seize the ego.  What Jung says regarding unconscious complexes applies as well to the affects:  we do not have affects, the affects have us.  [inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]The affects have an alien quality and to be in their grip is analogous to possession.[/inlinetweet]

Stewart has identified seven primary archetypal affects: Rage, Fear, Grief, Shame, Startle, Interest and Joy.  Chodorow maps the seven found in Stewart’s work as follows:

Joy (Enjoyment-Ecstasy) Relationship to the familiar
Interest (Interest-Excitement) Novelty
Sadness (Distress-Anguish) Loss
Fear (Apprehension-Terror) The Unknown
Anger (Irritation-Rage) Restriction of Autonomy
Contempt/Shame (Dislike-Disgust Rejection
Startle (Surprise-Startle) The Unexpected
(Chodorow, Dance Therapy and Depth Psychology, The Moving Imagination.  p. 77)

Even with the “positive” affects, being seized can be a difficult experience.  Interest, for instance, when experienced as affect equates to a manic episode.  Jung recognized both the difficulty and the value of experiencing the affects.

It is far better to admit the affect and submit to it than to try to escape it…the violence is meant to penetrate to a man’s vitals, and he to succumb to its action.  He must be affected by it, otherwise its full effect will not reach him.  But he should know, or learn to know, what has affected him, for in this way he transforms the blindness of the violence on the one hand and of the affect on the other into knowledge. (Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion, CW 11, Par 562.)

Psychoanalysis contends that it is through an active engagement with unconscious dynamics that growth in the personality takes place.  In her short masterpiece “On the Value and Meaning of Depression,” Esther Harding argues that in depression something is calling the individual through the loss of meaning and despair into the regenerative energies of creativity.   Her insight of the process expresses well the role of the unconscious affects in depression.  In no way is the ego “in control” of the process, yet if one is able to move through the experience and not get stuck in it, the result can be transformative.


Author: Richard Reeve

I'm the Senior Director of Development at Panthera, a global conservation organization committed to stemming the population decline of cats in the wild. I enjoy rural living with my wife Judith and our two children in the Catskill Mountains of New York.