Do we feel together or alone?

To what degree are our feelings products of our social environment and interaction and to what degree are they uniquely inner states? 

Sometimes when I am talking with a couple, I ask "How did you feel when that happened?" The person's response is "Disrespected."  Disrespected is the most obvious example to me of words that both describe an emotion but also put it in the context of an interaction, something that happened to me, rather than purely an inner state. Think of frightened, disgusted, enraged, excited. They all have this quality of being both a feeling and a piece of an interaction. 

Sometimes I think that this is a way of avoiding facing the reality of one's own inner experiences as well as the reality of another's behaviour.  Saying "I felt disrespected" assumes another's motivations. It can also be a way of smooshing together a feeling, an interaction and an assertion about a standard of behaviour. We often do this when we have a hard time taking our own feelings seriously. Replace "I felt disrespected" with "I don't like how he treated me." Now the person who doesn't like how she was treated has to take seriously that her bad feeling may have importance not because it was disrespectful but because it felt bad to her. In case you haven't noticed, there is an important gender piece here; women are often the ones who talk to me about feeling disrespected. I suspect that saying disrespected rather than "I don't like it" has to do with women being told that their feelings don't matter. The message seems to be that it is okay to object to being disrespected, but it is not okay to object when you feel bad. I would say that for some people, it is important to relearn the lesson that feelings are important. It is important information that you don't like something regardless of whether it is disrespectful. 

A similar recent phenomenon has been clients telling me they feel 'gaslight-ed'. While actually gaslighting is unusual, a lot of people, women in particular, feel that their partners don't take their experience seriously enough. But it is hard for these people to feel confident in the worth of their own subjective experience. It is not coincidental that gaslighting comes from a movie in which a man makes a woman appear insane; 'crazy' is one label that is often thrown at women who assert the value of their own subjectivity. 

None of this means that our feelings don't have a social dimension to them. There is interesting research that shows that very young children have a drive to seek shared mental states with others. Attachment theory is one well-studied manifestation of the social dimension of human emotions. 

All of this has implications for how couples succeed or fail; should people grow stronger boundaries between themselves, containing emotions, taking responsibility for their own feelings and managing them, or should we seek shared emotional states, emotional and psychological connectedness, interdependence? 


Is disrespected a feeling? 

Is disrespected a feeling?