unconscious emotion

A patient appears highly anxious; she herself acknowledges a little anxiety. We find that she has suffered an encounter which would leave most of us angry; she herself reports no anger when asked. Perhaps a little sadness.

Let's avoid thinking we know what we're saying with 'she is out of touch with her feelings' or 'she is alexithymic' or 'she is not aware of what she feels'. Instead of (allegedly) knowing things let's think about them.

What would be the criterion for unconscious anger? It is all well and good to say 'we posit the unconscious anger as part of an inference to the best explanation for such action and conscious feeling as we do encounter'. That might be just fine. But in order to understand our own explanation to which inferences are made we will have first to understand what it is invoking. So what is (it to feel) an unconscious emotion?

A neuroreductionist answer might be: to be in a certain state of brain activation common to that of conscious anger but which yet obtains regardless of the disposition to avow anger. Hence Panksepp"The core of the RAGE system runs from medial amygdaloid areas downward, largely via the stria terminalis [a bundle of nerve fibers] to the medial hypothalamus, and from there to specific locations within the PAG [periaqueductal gray] of the midbrain." That's fine too, but doesn't help us here: we'd wanted, I imagine,  an answer which explained whatever is going on in psychological terms - i.e. in terms of the emotional content. For someone to be angry is no more for them to be in a certain brain state than for a car to accelerate is for more fuel to enter its carburettor. Such empirical conditions of possibility are not constituting criteria.

The Rat Man kicks a stone out of the road lest it derail his girlfriend's carriage, but then finds himself annoying and returns to replace it. Why did he do this, rather than just leave it there? The psychoanalytic answer: he had unconscious anger at his girlfriend; this caused a wish to harm her; the kicking it out the way was a defence against this wish; the moving it back was an expression of the wish. Ok. But what is it to have this 'unconscious anger'? 

Perhaps: to be unconsciously angry is to behave in aggressive ways, and to show expressive signs of anger, but to be undisposed or unable to verbally avow it. Not a bad suggestion, perhaps, but it doesn't really capture the situation. The unconsciously angry person does not behave in the same way as the consciously angry person minus the avowal. If she did then she would be hard-pressed to deny her anger. 

Her anger is more likely to show itself in 'passive' than overt aggression. She is more likely to be anxious, tetchy, self-thwarting, passive-aggressive, etc. By 'passive-aggressive' acts I mean: antagonistic acts that are marked by not doing something, rather than by doing something actively aggressive. Also she feels a non-specific inner tension.

Does such a 'syndrome' amount to unconscious anger? We can say this if we like. But we may also want to take into account the resolution of the syndrome into anger. What may make us say of this person that they are 'unconsciously angry' is that this state can resolve into 'conscious' - i.e. standard issue - anger. 

Why do these conceptual issues matter? Well, perhaps they don't matter terribly. But, clinically, the value may consist in their helping us to manage the question of helping the patient 'recognise that they are angry'. The patient is not aware of being angry. And we don't do well, either phenomenologically or conceptually, to construe emotions as the objects of feelings - i.e. we don't do well to construe 'he was angry but he wasn't feeling this anger' along the model of 'he was sitting next to his wife but not aware that his wife was next to him'. We do not perceive our emotions; we have them! To help the patient 'recognise' her anger is not so much to help her become aware that a pre-existing emotion obtains, but rather to help her own or acknowledge her anger at someone. And this involves a new relationship of comprehension between the patient and the person she is angry with: it involves her coming into a different kind of relation to him, one that she can express, one in which his wronging of her can be articulated.

The principal boon, though, as it seems to me, is the way it helps the clinician and the patient out of the inauthentic predicament of the patient feeling the therapist is trying to tell her something about herself, or can see or thinks he sees something in her, that she cannot tell herself. That predicament is fraught with intrusion for the patient and smugness for the therapist. Elaborating what yet is but latently and nascently present within oneself - this, here, is what 'acknowledgement' of one's own feelings amounts to. The therapist as non-leading handmaiden to that process: now that's a more comfortable role for both parties.


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