The Strange World of Emotion

Home List of Articles Glossary Abreaction  A2, A3, A4, A5

Article A1 on Abreaction


The five articles on Abreaction are a continuation of the three articles on Emotion, which can be accessed from the Home page.

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A person's state of emotion is always changing. Whichever emotion is currently present in consciousness, eventually it fades away, only to be immediately replaced by another one. Hence a person experiences an endless flow of emotions.

Since emotions are transient, what is the use of identifying them? Each particular emotion casts its own influence on our responses to daily situations ; if we are unaware of this influence, then we become deluded as to our real motivations and reasons for acting. Therefore this identification is needed if we are to eliminate confusion from our minds. [¹]. Once this identification is accomplished, then we can understand the pivotal role of anxiety within the subconscious mind.

Sub - Headings
Role of Anxiety
Definition of Psycho-Analysis
Subconscious Determinism and Motivation
Philosophical themes
What is Anxiety ?

I have found that some particular emotions flow in certain sequences.
This article is the first of five on the effects of these sequences.

Once I was able to identify my repertoire of regular emotions I discovered that these sequences form laws, so I call them laws of the unconscious mind. They are laws of abreaction and are invariable in their operation. Hence I consider them to be fully scientific. Since they apply to everyone, so they produce common social effects, and thus can be rated as social laws too.

To discover such laws were the elusive dreams of the nineteenth-century Positivists, like Herbert Spencer.

These sequences are one of the major causes of sorrow and distress in a human life. So by identifying our emotions and learning to understand these special sequences we can begin to control our reaction to sorrow.

These sequences are laws because they occur to everyone. They are laws of abreaction. The term ‘abreaction’ was first thought up by ancient Greek dramatists to describe the purging or cathartic effect that the release of emotion gives. It was a major influence on Freud. However, neither the ancient Greeks nor Freud fully understood abreaction. They saw only the initial response and not the consequences. The consequences only became apparent to me once I learned to identify some emotions and thence could observe the way that they formed special sequences.

To understand these laws requires an understanding of the role of anxiety in the mind, mainly because it helps to weaken our image of ourself.

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The Role of Anxiety

When our self-image is weak it is usually associated with memories of ourself that we dislike. If most of our memories remind us of our failures in life, of the mistakes that we made, then our feelings about ourself are likely to be mainly negative ones. So one way to self-improvement is to improve our valuation of our memories. There are two factors that can apply to a memory of an event that has become negatively valued.

a). The memory can be coupled with anxiety.
b). The memory can be inharmonious to the person’s sense of idealism.

Factor (b)
I begin by considering the influence of the person's sense of idealism. There are two components to this influence. They focus on the two major aspects of ourselves, which are the orientation towards being a social person and the orientation towards being an individual. I call these orientations the social identity and the individual identity.

The first component derives from guilt and my social identity, whereas the second component springs from bitterness and my individual identity.

First component. When my mood is based on my sense of being a social person, on my social identity, then the memory of any social activity that was below 100 % perfection is felt to be anathema to me – here it is guilt (mode of self-pity) that is temporarily dominant.

Second component. This is more intense in me. When the memory is of the way that I responded to some social activity by allowing social rules to control my behaviour or inhibit my independence then it is bitterness that becomes uppermost in my mind at that moment. It is my sense of my own individuality, my own individual identity, that is being undermined by that memory.

These valuations of memory are discomforting and lead to the desire to improve my ethical conduct, but they do not produce determinism in the way that anxiety does.

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Factor (a)
In a psycho-analysis, this is nearly always the most prominent factor. So I take a look at anxiety. When anxiety is removed from the memory, that memory ceases to trouble the person, unless factor (b) is also involved. By removing that anxiety the psycho-analysis allows us to revalue our past experience. Past experience is the scaffolding which maintains all our various beliefs. Hence by allowing us to revalue past experience, the psycho-analysis enables us to transform our belief systems.

This effect can be used as the basis of a definition of psycho-analysis :

A psycho-analysis is the method of intentionally removing anxiety from the subconscious mind.

Many people remove anxiety by the occasional flash of intuition, or even by psychic and/or religious experiences. But this result is sporadic and non-intentional.

Beliefs arise from our experience. Past experience is the scaffolding that maintains all our various beliefs. Hence by allowing us to revalue past experience, the psycho-analysis enables us to transform our belief systems. In effect, two things are happening : we are changing our values and changing our beliefs.

The sequence is that first we experience something, then we evaluate it, and then we construct a belief about it or use it to reinforce our existing beliefs. So the belief relates to our values. If we change our values then we can change our beliefs. It is very difficult to change our beliefs if we have not changed our values.

For example, if we are a smoker, and do not know why we first started smoking, it becomes very hard to give up smoking. The subconscious value that says ‘smoking is a good thing’ is still operating and this usually defeats the attempt to stop smoking. Perhaps we may have started smoking in adolescence because it gave us status with our peer group. If we try to stop smoking, the subconscious mind will interpret this as losing status, so it will fight against our conscious efforts. In this case we would need to re-evaluate our ideas of status in order to successfully give up smoking.

In general, we have beliefs that reflect our values, and our values are influenced by the memory of past events.

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Subconscious Determinism and Subconscious Motivation

When anxiety becomes attached to the memory of an event it causes the problem of subconscious determinism. Such determinism is predominantly learned in childhood. When a child has a problem, if it can work through that problem and the anxiety it feels about that problem, then it can assimilate the lesson to be learned and move on to other problems. If it cannot handle that anxiety, then it becomes motivated to avoid and deny that problem ; the memory becomes repressed. Now the problem remains permanently in the subconscious mind, even when the child has grown up. So an unpleasant experience in childhood becomes, in a similar social situation, an unpleasant experience for the adult. Why? Because the adult replays the anxiety that the child generated in that situation. The adult is still utilising avoidance and denial (though he /she no longer knows why, since the memory is repressed).

Subconscious determinism occurs because the motivation is compulsive in anxiety- provoking social situations. And this motivation is itself subconscious. Subconscious motivation is a central problem of human life. A person will behave in inflexible and stereotyped ways, and not understand why he does so.

Many of the major ideas or themes of Western intellectual thought have only been attempts to bypass this problem. [²]

I list a few of the main philosophical themes of modern times :


was led to the concept of duty.


was led to the concept of nihilism.


was led to world-hating asceticism.


was led to the leap of faith.


was led to will and his superman.


was led to the reification of economics.


was led to ideas of destruction and creation.

Max Stirner was a nineteenth-century sceptic who explored narcissism, and is usually packed in with the anarchists and nihilists for want of a better classification. Michael Bakunin was a nineteenth-century anarchist, the major opponent of Karl Marx.

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What is Anxiety ?

Anxiety is the sense of uneasiness that is experienced in the individual’s relationships with other people (and in his /her relationship to their own conscience). In any situation where the person’s vanity is undermined, fear arises. The conjunction of this fear with the vanity creates anxiety.

Anxiety = fear + vanity

Anxiety is a compound emotion and consist of two simpler emotions. I call each of the separate emotions a mode. So anxiety is experienced either as anxiety (in the mode of fear) or as anxiety (in the mode of vanity). Since it has two modes, so it can give rise to two different responses.

When a person is oppressed by their conscience, then the fear mode is accentuated. This leads to the unconscious idea "control yourself /do as you are told". [³]

When the person is in a social situation which makes them uneasy, then the vanity mode becomes restricted and they wilt. The person becomes vulnerable to hostility, rejection or manipulation by others. This leads to the unconscious idea "I am uneasy in the presence of other people".
[ This mode of anxiety produces an affinity with paranoia, whose unconscious idea is "I do not trust other people".]

Anxiety increases the intensity of a person’s reaction to any situation. Take a person as they are, without anxiety. They will have developed patterns of reaction to any situation. Generate anxiety in them and, though their patterns will not be likely to change, the intensity of their reactions will change. For an extrovert, the vanity mode of anxiety is emphasised. Therefore the person over-compensates in order to annul the uneasiness: they magnify their responses, even to the point of seeming to be theatrical. For an introvert, the fear mode of anxiety is emphasised and the person contracts and inhibits their responses, and may even appear to be "wooden" (or emotionally non- responsive).

Anxiety keeps a person de-stabilised. Can there be any meaning and purpose to this ?  Can anxiety ever be useful ; can anxiety ever have a positive value ?

Yes. In my view, the evolution of personal consciousness (that is, personal evolution) is produced primarily through anxiety and secondarily through idealistic aspirations. Anxiety eliminates complacency and facilitates change. Therefore it provides the psychological spur for us to generate our ideals and to achieve something in life. Most ideas of a good life are generated as antidotes to an anxiety-ridden conventional life. [4]

The meaning of anxiety is that it eliminates complacency.

The purpose of anxiety is that it facilitates change.

Incidentally, the idea of personal evolution has no meaning unless the reality of reincarnation is accepted. History shows that society evolves, but science has no concept of the evolution of the individual person. [5]

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Switching between Emotions

Now I consider how some particular emotions switch between themselves. All emotions (except equanimity) form into complementary pairs, or binaries. [6]. The binary nature means that one emotion can easily turn into its opposite. For example, vanity and self-pity form a binary ; if at any moment a person is experiencing vanity he may find that as soon as the vanity fades it is replaced by self-pity. This switch is facilitated if the person is subject to ridicule ; then the good valuation of the unconscious idea that generates vanity changes to the bad valuation.

The most important of the emotions listed in the second article on Emotion : Characteristics of Emotion are the quartet of guilt, pride, narcissism and jealousy, since in normal life they regularly link together. I repeat their factors for convenience. They regularly switch between themselves in certain sequences.

Guilt = self-pity + self-hate.
Pride = vanity + hatred of other people.

Narcissism = love + vanity.
Jealousy = love + self-pity.

Notation :
When one emotion fades away the next one arises. I use the phrase ‘leads to’ to indicate this transition. Therefore the notation ‘narcissism leads to jealousy’ means that when narcissism fades away then jealousy arises.

To illustrate how emotions can switch I give an example :
I may be currently experiencing guilt. 

Guilt = self-pity + self-hate.

This can change to pride or jealousy.

i ). Switching to pride

Suppose that the self-pity mode changes to its binary, which is vanity. Then I experience pride. The sequence is :

(self-pity + self-hate) leads to (vanity + hatred of others).
that is, guilt leads to pride.

The difference between self-hate and hatred of others is only in the direction that hate is pointed, either towards oneself or towards other people.

ii ). Switching to jealousy

Whereas, suppose that the self-hate mode of guilt changes to its binary, which is love. Then I experience jealousy. The sequence is 

(self-pity + self-hate) leads to (self-pity + love).
that is, guilt leads to jealousy.

Some laws of the unconscious mind, and the universality of abreaction, 
are the subject of the next article: Abreaction 2.


The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it.

[¹]. My definitions, descriptions, and analysis of emotions are given in the three articles on Emotion. See Home page. [1]

[²]. Subconscious motivation is mentioned in the article Confusion. [2]

[³]. I introduce the term "unconscious idea" in the first article on Emotion. [3]

[4]. There is more description of anxiety in the second article on Emotion : Characteristics of Emotion, under sub-heading Anxiety. [4]

[5]. There is an article on Personal Evolution on my website A Modern Thinker. See Links page. [5]

[6]. The binary nature of emotions is described in the first article on Emotion. [6]

Home List of  Articles Links Top of Page

The articles in this section are :

Abreaction 1.  Role of anxiety + definition of psycho-analysis

Abreaction 2.  Laws of the unconscious mind

Abreaction 3.  Catharsis and Suggestion

Abreaction 4.  Resentment and Bitterness

Abreaction 5.  Forgiveness and Acceptance

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Copyright © 2002 Ian Heath
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Ian Heath
London, UK

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