Repressed Emotions: What Are They Supposed to Be? Part 1

Introduction and Two Theories of Emotion
You’ll often hear the term ‘repressed emotion’ bandied about in the self-help industrial complex. In this alt-world, if you have a mental or physical illness, you can bet your bottom dollar that it’s caused by a repressed emotion (usually from your childhood).  The concept is often used as the cause and explanation of everything. I’ll argue in Part 1 that the concept of repressed emotions as it’s used in the self-help industrial complex is unintelligible. However, it does have more respectable pedigree in Freudian psychoanalysis. In Part 2, I’ll take a look at the more sophisticated Freudian account.

A Tale of Two Theories of Emotion
Let’s set aside repressed emotions for a moment. Before doing a preliminary evaluation of the concept we’ll need to take a quick look at the two basic theories of what emotions are. 

I’ll begin with what I’ll call the cognitivist account. On this view, an emotion is made up of two elements: it’s a conjunction of (a) a judgment/appraisal and (b) a feeling/sensation. For example, when I experience anger, the emotion is comprised of 

(a) a judgment or evaluation that person x is disrespecting me or treating me unfairly, and
(b) the phenomenological sensation of anger (tension, heat, etc…).

Or, for example, when I experience fear the emotion is comprised of 

(a) the judgment or evaluation that something is dangerous to me/can harm me, and
(b) the phenomenological sensation of fear (racing heat, strange feeling in the stomach, etc…)

In sum, the cognitivist account requires that emotions have cognitive content (i.e., beliefs, concepts, judgments, appraisals) as well as a phenomenological ‘feel’ (i.e., a ‘what-it’s-like-ness’). The ability to distinguish feelings from emotions marks one of the advantages of the cognitivist theory. The difficulty to explain how animals and pre-linguistic children can have emotions counts against this view because it would require ascribing to them sophisticated concepts and beliefs.

The other main theory of emotions argues that emotions are simply a kind of (i.e., a sub-class of) feeling. On this non-cognitivist theory, emotions don’t have cognitive content, they are just specific kinds of ‘feels’. For example, being angry just is feeling a certain way. Being scared just is feeling a certain way. To have an emotion you needn’t have made any appraisal or judgment or have any beliefs about the object/person/situation causing your feeling. It’s all in the feels…

A major advantage of this view is that it’s easier to ascribe emotions to animals and pre-linguistic children. Making judgments and appraisals requires complex concepts, something not easily ascribed to infants and animals. A problem attributed to this view is the inability to distinguish kinds of feelings. For example, the ‘feel’ in your stomach when you are scared and when you are angry might be the same. The feeling theory has to say they are the same emotion. There’s also the problem of ‘an explosion of emotions’. For each slightly different feeling there is a different emotion since what defines an emotion is its feel. Different feel=different emotion.

I won’t get into the debate between the two accounts of emotion. There are ways (i.e., there are volumes of articles) that proponents of each view try to respond to the various challenges and criticisms. I merely want to point to some of the advantages and disadvantages with each and provide a framework in which to give a preliminary assessment of ‘repressed emotions’. If we’re going to say something is a ‘repressed emotion‘ we need some general idea of what an emotion is first…

First Pass: Repressed Emotions Don’t Make No Damn Sense
The Cognitivist View: Let’s suppose for a moment that the cognitivist view of emotions is correct. An emotion is the conjunction of a judgment/appraisal and a feeling. Suppose my local self-help guru tells me I have [insert illness] because of repressed anger (from my childhood–of course). First of all, on this view, part of having an emotion requires that I have made an appraisal or judgment about some situation or person. This implies that I have a belief

Mysteriously, when the guru asks me if there’s anything about my childhood I’m angry about, nothing comes to mind (cuz everyone had perfect childhoods and never got angry about anything).  So, of course he doesn’t name anything specific but encourages me to look deeper because there must be something. Why else would I have [insert illness]? 

Here’s the thing. If I have an occurrent belief that situation x made me angry as a child, it’s not a repressed belief. It’s occurrent. So, that can’t be the anger that’s causing my [insert illness]. The belief has to be buried. It’s a belief I can’t access–yet it’s there! Somehow, I believe something I don’t know I believe! 

At this point, some charity is in order. The mind is not totally transparent, and subconscious and unconscious thought and belief are fairly widely recognized phenomena in psychology. So, let’s grant for a moment that I have some subconscious belief that I was treated unfairly in situation x as a child. We’ll set aside the strangeness of having a belief that you don’t know you have.

At this point in the session, the guru will prod me with more questions, getting me to search my mind for instances where I might have believed myself to have been unfairly treated. As though by magic, I find a memory of an instance of being upset as a child! I judged my treatment as unfair when blah blah blah… 

Here’s a question: Is this a judgment I formed as a child that I’m now recalling, i.e., is it a judgment buried deep in my consciousness until now, or is it a belief that I have formed now, after much suggestion and prodding? (Because “surely there was something in your childhood that upset you, otherwise there’s no other possible way to explain your [insert illness]”). Also, consider how memory works. It’s not like retrieving a file in your hard drive. When you “recall” something you are actually recalling the last instance you thought about it then reinterpreting in light of your life’s current narrative. How likely is it that what you are recalling from so long ago is actually what happened? (Hint: Not likely).

Again, for the sake of argument, I’ll be charitable. Suppose the guru has managed to get me to retrieve (the memory) of this old appraisal about how I was treated. Ok, so far I have one half of what makes an emotion an emotion. I have a judgment/appraisal. 

There’s still a problem. If an emotion is made up of a conjunction of a belief and a feeling, I need to ‘find’ the feeling part. But how can you have a feeling that you don’t feel? How does that make sense?

If my repressed anger is indeed an emotion then by definition it has an affective/phenomenological component. It has a ‘feel’. But if it’s repressed, I don’t feel it…otherwise it wouldn’t be a repressed emotion, it would just be an emotion that I’m experiencing

Simply put, either you feel a repressed emotion or you don’t. If you feel it then it doesn’t make sense to call it repressed because you’re feeling it. If you don’t feel it then how is it an emotion if emotions are constituted in part by a sensation? 

At this point, a proponent of repressed emotions could reply that when I bring the appraisal of my treatment as unjust to my conscious awareness then the feeling will follow. But this reply doesn’t seem to work. It looks like the feeling of anger is being caused by the belief. In other words, I didn’t have a repressed emotion, I had a repressed belief. When I dredged the belief out from my unconscious mind and onto the main stage of the theater of my mind, I reacted to it (in light of my current circumstances and coaching). The feeling and the belief weren’t unified when there were in my subconscious which is what is needed in order for them to count as an emotion (on this view).  

Here, the repressed emotion theorist could give up on justifying the phenomena in terms of the cognitivist view. Maybe emotions just are feelings and I’ve buried my anger somewhere (?) and that’s why I have [insert illness].

Non-Cognitivist View: The argument against repressed emotions under the second theory follows the same logic as above. If emotions just are feelings (and don’t involve any appraisals/beliefs/conceptual content) then you have to explain how it makes sense to have a feeling that you don’t feel. That’s no emotion at all because there’s no feeling and the feeling is what makes the emotion what it isLet me repeat that. If what makes an emotion an emotion is that it is a feeling, then it makes no sense to say you have an unfelt feeling. No feeling=no emotion. 

On the non-cognitivist theory, the notion of repressed emotion makes even less sense. 

It looks like if the notion of repressed emotions is going to be intelligible at all, we’ll need a more sophisticated account. This means leaving the realm of the self-help industrial complex, going back to Freud himself and examining what he said about the concept. 

In Part 2 I’ll look at Freud’s own account of the concept. 

Aside on Philosophy
Often non-philosophers will criticize (and mischaracterize) philosophy as being all about asking people “well, what you mean by x?”. In some contexts, this philosophical practice can be extremely annoying and not always useful. Allegedly, incessantly engaging in this practice is partly how Socrates got himself killed. 

But, as I hope you can see from above, there are cases where asking this sort of question is useful. Someone postulates a theoretical entity (i.e., repressed emotions) and a philosopher will naturally ask, “well, what do you mean by that?” Spending some time getting clear on our concepts helps to avoid postulating unnecessary and incoherent theoretical entities. 

That said, the more sophisticated Freudian account of repressed emotions won’t be so easily dismissed. I don’t know yet where my analysis will take me. Anyhow, there is value in carefully analyzing the contents of a concept and placing it within the context of major theories to see how well it fairs. 

Another thing philosophers make much ado about is whether a concept is “doing any work.” If you can give an account of a phenomena with existing concepts and without appeal to a new concept, there has to be good reason to add the new theoretical entity. In Part 2, I’ll pay more attention to the work Freud intended ‘repressed emotions’ to do in psychology and psychoanalysis. If there’s no other way to capture the phenomena he refers to and do the theoretical work, then it might mean that the theories of emotions themselves have to change to accommodate repressed emotions. 

Until then, keep repressing your emotions.  They can’t hurt you cuz they don’t exist. 

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