Basic and substitutional feelings

1. Basic feelings

Taken from Dan Casriel
In psychology we find a lot of theories to define and describe feelings. One of them is the theory of the basic feelings of Dan Casriel. He developed it over the years working as a physician and psychotherapist, and his theory is still applied in the field of psychosomatic care and therapy.

According to Casriel there are five basic feelings that are essential for the survival of individuals:

We come to the world with these feelings and express them from the very beginning, while later on we learn to have and perceive more and other feelings such as shame. The basic feelings are very important and psychosomatically anchored because they show us our possibilities and limits. Therefore they have a positive function in our lives.

 The positive function of the pain is to warn and show us that something is wrong and we need to do something about it. It shows us our physical and psychical limits and leads us to protect ourselves. The positive function of our anger is to enable us to say “Stop!” and on the other side to provide us the energy for the willingness and power for making changes. Anger thus is the essential energy for change. The positive function of the fear is to warn and protect us from vital risks. Hannah Arendt, a communist literate that was persecuted by the Nazis once said: Fear is necessary to survive.

Therefore these basic feelings are right and important in our lives, and as babies and children we were allowed to feel and express them. Because of the education and experiences in our families and our own lives most people have learned to avoid or push aside these unpleasant feelings and to replace them by substitutional feelings. When we follow them we lose contact to our basic feelings and their positive functions and energies, and they can’t be helpful any more in conflict solving. Instead the basic feelings will find their own way through and show up in a hidden way (e. g. in form of ulcers, anxiousness or increased irritability).
The expression of intensive feelings may create a strong feeling of insecurity to adult persons. So in order to cope with these feelings we often split them up intellectually into positive (joy, love) und negative (Anger, pain, fear) emotions. The so called negative feelings are also called conflict feelings because they appear mostly in conflicts.
Additionally society allows certain feelings more to men or women. Women e. g. are allowed to be sad and to cry. In case that they are angry and shout they are quickly declared as “hysterical“. A man that cries is considered to be a „wimp“.
When adult people are confronted with strong feelings like crying and shouting they often feel insecure, and this again causes additional anger and fear inside our conflict partner. This emotional entanglement may create emotional chaos and hinder a constructive settlement of the conflict.
Therefore it is elementary to learn to deal with my own emotions and those of my partner.
The first and most important step to take is to perceive these feelings, both my own ones and those of my partner and to accept them as normal human reaction. They are allowed to exist, they are „completely normal“. It is a sign of mental and psychical health to have a good and immediate contact to my own feelings.
The second necessary step is to take these feelings seriously and not denying them.
As different as individuals are so is their expression of feelings. Regardless of individual differences it is important:
·         To give myself the opportunity to express my feelings so they will not “eat me up”. Psychologists call this psycho-hygiene.
·         To give my counterpart the opportunity to express his feelings as well in the same way and

      –     To be able to protect myself.

This means to keep my distance in order not to be dragged into the emotional world of my counterpart or even further to make his feelings my own. When my counterpart cries it is important to show compassion without suffering too much myself, to be able to understand the tears as a sign of sorrow or helplessness instead of feeling „extorted“. When my conflict partner is angry and yells I need the ability to accept his anger as his „right“ without sharing his point of view, apologizing or explaining myself, because this might increase his anger.
In healthcare there is a good picture for this inner attitude: When a patient has a throw-up you would not think of closing his mouth with your hand; instead you would place a bucket in front of him so that he can spit all of his stomach contents in there. He will feel better afterwards, and you (hopefully) kept clean.

2. Substitutional feelings

When we were children we used to live our feelings openly and generally this was accepted. On the other hand we have made the experience that the expression of our feelings was not always considered as adequate and did not lead to the expected effect and results. Therefore we have learned and trained the use of artificial, indirect and sometimes untrue feelings that covered or even hid the underlying basic feelings. When these substitutional feelings take control we might lose contact to our real emotions, the basic feelings. Typical substitutional feelings are e. g.
·         Grudge and defiance instead of pain
·         Exaggerated kindness instead of anger
·         Euphoria instead of fear
·         Sugar sweet love instead of true love
Additionally we have got accustomed to express our feelings in a changed verbal way, e. g. „I am concerned“ instead of „I am afraid“ or „I am upset because you put me under pressure”. These feelings also are called thought feelings because they do not come directly from the center of my heart but have been filtered a couple of times by the brain.
Substitutional feelings are considered helpful and protective in social relations, and they might be helpful sometimes. Nevertheless they tend to leave the counterpart with the – often confusing and irritating – impression that the spoken word does not express what is really meant and is even less authentic. This may cause mixed emotions and strange reactions.

It shows to be helpful in solving a conflict constructively when the persons involved express their basic feelings as authentically as possible. Even if you do not want to show these emotions to everybody in each situation these feelings have a deescalating impact on conflicts while substitutional feelings tend to increase the intensity of conflicts.

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