Understanding the realm of emotions is beset by an elemental difficulty: the meaning of words that refer to emotion are so ambiguous that we hardly know what we are talking about. Virginia Woolf stated it succinctly: “The streets of London have their map; but our passions are uncharted” (1922). Compared to maps of the material world, and studies of behavior, thoughts, attitudes, perception, and beliefs, the realm of emotions is still terra incognita. One way of approaching this chaos is to examine one’s own emotions.
I became interested in studying emotion because of a series of unanticipated incidents in my own life. At the time my interests were focused on a more conventional topic in my discipline, the sociology of mental illness. When I was 40, I began exploring a new field because of experiences with my own emotions. I had just gotten divorced, and my ex had taken our children to Hawaii for a year. Missing my children, and not realizing I could have gotten a court order to bring them back, I was miserable.
To my surprise, I couldn’t work. I seemed to have lost interest. I went to my office every workday, but if I didn’t have a class or an appointment, I would put my feet up on the desk and stare at the wall. Something had to be done! I arranged to get time off for a trip to Hawaii in two weeks to see my children. In the meantime, I visited a psychiatrist, then a psychologist. The visits were to no avail. I wouldn’t take drugs, and back then, I didn’t have the patience for talking therapy.
At the time I was chair of my university department, so I had contacts with many people, some of whom I hardly knew. I was puzzled when several people had asked me why I was angry, even though I wasn’t feeling anger. If I was angry, I certainly didn’t realize it. Another experience arose because I was active in the Vietnam War protest. My fellow protesters called me courageous because of the chances I took. But after the fear experiences described below, I realized that I hadn’t been feeling fear, so I had no strong sense of danger. After the intense experiences of resolving fear described below, I realized that my bouts with police weren’t courageous, just reckless.
Still in misery, I joined a self-help group therapy class, Re-evaluation Counseling (RC). The night after the first meeting I was telling my then girl-friend how envious I was when others were crying during the session. After a few minutes, I began to cry. This episode lasted at least fifteen minutes: it became quite intense after a slow start, and was a huge surprise. It was probably the first real cry in more than twenty-five years. The crying part of me had been completely unknown. In fact I couldn’t remember ever a cry like this one, with my whole body, sobbing loudly and rivers of tears. Also peculiar: I had absolutely no idea of what I was crying about. My mind was blank.
A few minutes after the crying stopped, I was catching my breath when a new episode began. I became colossally angry, but without the faintest notion of why, just as I hadn’t known why I was crying. With no volition on my part, I began to growl, writhe and bite at the air. As in crying, my body seemed to take over. The writhing became so pronounced that I fell out of bed.
Finding myself on a shag rug provided an actual target; without hesitation I began to bite the rug. But then a thought: what will Rachel think of me acting in this ridiculous way? Since I couldn’t guess, I stopped and looked up at her, saying: “Are you OK?” She smiled, “Go ahead. Do your thing.” I resumed writhing, growling and biting as if without interruption. The fact that I could stop and start now seems important; how could I possibly have so much control when my body was in the grip of an intense emotion? The idea of a safe zone for resolving emotions will be described below.
The anger stopped after fifteen or twenty minutes. I lay still, wondering what next. It wasn’t long before my body took over again, shaking and sweating. The shaking was quite extreme, and the amount of sweat was surprising, drenching my clothes as if I had gone swimming. In the RC class they had talked about shaking and sweating as the resolution of fear. Otherwise I wouldn’t have known what was happening, since I had no consciousness of fear, or any thoughts, for that matter. Actually, like the other episodes, it was quite pleasurable, like riding a vast rollercoaster. Again, after some 15 minutes, my body grew still.
Very quickly, however, a thought entered my head, unbidden: “I believe Lord, Oh let me believe.” This sentence kept going around as if played by a record. Having this going on in my mind, unbidden though it was, made this episode somewhat different from the other three, but mostly quite similar. Once again my body took over again, this time with laughter. But it was a different kind than I had ever experienced: I wasn’t laughing in the usual way; instead my body was laughing me. It was enormously pleasant, even more so than the other episodes. It felt heavenly, an emotion epiphany or ecstasy. After about the same amount of time, I stopped laughing. Exhausted, I fell immediately asleep.
In the morning, waking was a new experience also, since I felt incredibly refreshed. At breakfast I seemed to taste every molecule of the orange juice, and the pop music playing on the radio was so beautiful that it distracted me.
Several months later, the last event in this series involved an anonymous phone call. With the other campus Vietnam protest leaders, I was planning a large on-campus event for the weekend after I returned from Hawaii. This event was causing friction, because the Chancellor had specifically forbidden it, as well as all other protests on campus. I got several phone calls from colleagues in other departments objecting to the plan. Some of the callers were vehement; one challenged me to a fist fight.
The morning of the protest, I was awakened in my apartment by an unknown phone caller. He said I was the one stirring up the students, and that he planned to kill me and my family. I was upset by the call, particularly the part about my family. Since my children weren’t living with me, I couldn’t think of a way of protecting them. I was so upset that I thought I would be unable to speak as planned at the protest.
The self-help therapy class had taught me to repeat a mantra over and over concerning whatever emotion might be hidden behind upsets. So I begin repeating “I am afraid.” It occurred to me that I hadn’t said or even thought that sentence since my teens. After a sizeable number of repetitions, I begin to shake with such force that I lowered myself to the rug, so as not to fall. I was also sweating to the point that I again soaked my clothes. I had no thoughts.
After after some 15 or 20 minutes, the shaking/sweating fit stopped. I got up off the floor, took a shower, and got dressed in dry clothes. I was just in time to get to the huge protest, where I gave a brief extempore talk that moved the audience. The fear resolution had cleared my head to the point where I knew I would need no preparation.
I had the notion at the time that the emotion episodes just described had changed me utterly, as if I had been reborn. But over time I realized that although I had changed, in many ways I was still the same person. My experiences of at least partially resolving what must have been huge backlogs of fear, anger, grief and shame were a big help, but it wasn’t the end of the line.
However, I did notice some small positive changes also. With regard to anger, for example, my typical reaction was to hide it. Occasionally, however, I would vent, getting loud and unreasonable. After my emotional conversion, the pattern was much the same, but occasionally I managed anger in a new way. Here is an example.
On a short flight from SB I happened to be seated by chance on the plane next to Professor KP, a famous psychologist on my campus and very much my senior. Nevertheless I started to tell him about my recent emotion experiences. He interrupted me after a few sentences, however, coolly analyzing what I had said. I became intensely angry and interrupted him in turn. Without thought, I blurted out: “Professor P, you are trying to reduce my experience to yours, and I won’t have it.” I spoke the words courteously, they were not loud or demeaning.
Three things happened: P began apologizing at great length, I felt calm, and the plane seemed to get hot. I was very surprised at my calmness, since anger usually made me hyper, sometimes for many hours afterwards. Looking at other people on the plane, I realized it wasn’t the plane that was hot, it was me. Could a rise in body temperature instantly metabolize the adrenalin rush that comes with anger?
This idea was new, since RC taught that venting led to the resolution of unresolved anger, “getting it off your chest.” I was skeptical about this idea even at the time, since I suspected that venting didn’t help, and certainly was bad news to whoever you were yelling at. It now seemed to me that the best way to deal with anger would be to explain the reason for it courteously to whoever was responsible for it.
Research on Emotions
My first reaction to my introduction to the emotion world was to become a therapist, so that I could not only help myself, but also others. By chance, because of a new California law about the Marriage and Family Therapy license, my own therapist, a well-known psychiatrist, was able to grandfather me into a MFT license with little effort.
Also by chance, along with two other newly licensed therapists, an experienced social worker, Marilyn Nadler, recruited me to help her with what she called “Intensives,” forty hours of individual and group psychotherapy for a client in a single week. This practice, which went on for almost two years, was enormously successful. Like the other two amateur therapists, I immediately assumed that I had somehow become a skillful therapist.
However, when Marilyn moved out of town, our bubble burst. After utter failure with a client, I realized that our success had been entirely due to Marilyn’s skill: we were useless without her. It was at this point that I decided that if I couldn’t be an emotion therapist, I would become an emotion researcher. Since I believe that emotions are vastly important not only to individuals but also to whole societies, I hope that others will join me in trying to better locate and understand them.
[disinfo ed.’s note: readers interested in the topic should also read Professor Scheff’s post “The World of Hidden Emotions.”]
About the Author: Thomas Scheff is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is past president of the Pacific Sociological Association, and past chair of the Emotions Section of the American Sociological Assoc. Some of his publications are Being Mentally Ill, Microsociology,Bloody Revenge, Emotions, the Social Bond and Human Reality, Goffman Unbound!: A New Paradigm and Easy Rider. His most recent is What’s Love Got to Do with It? The Emotion World of Pop Songs. 2011. Paradigm Publishers.
He is interested in creative teaching and integration of the social, political, behavioral and clinical human arts and sciences, and particularly, the integration of these disciplines into new directions of thought and effort.