The Strange World of Emotion

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The Conversion Experience

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Radical Change of Beliefs

There are two sequences of radical change in beliefs that I call ‘conversion’. These sequences are similar to the two basic sequences of abreaction (those of guilt and pride) and so can be considered to be two more forms of it. This gives a total of four primary sequences of abreaction. [¹]

Abreaction revolves around the relationships between four emotions: guilt, pride, narcissism and jealousy. And each of these emotions gives rise to its own style of abreaction. [²]

There are also two variations that I will explain later.

Sub - Headings
Abreaction of  Guilt
Abreaction of Narcissism
Abreaction of  Pride
Abreaction of  Jealousy
Starting conditions

The two basic sequences of abreaction, those of guilt and of pride, can be everyday occurrences. However, the two sequences of conversion, which are the abreactions of narcissism and of jealousy, are usually infrequent.

Note 1.
For the sake of brevity I write of the abreaction of guilt, pride, narcissism and jealousy whereas in fact it is the anxiety attached to these emotions that is abreacted.

In the sequences the switching of emotions occurs when one emotion is replaced by its binary (or complementary) mate ; in all four sequences the binaries that switch are vanity - self-pity and love - hate. [³]

Conversion is not solely the prerogative of religion. A secular version is just as possible. I have experienced both forms. What happens is that major aspects of the person's system of beliefs undergo radical change ; in one of the sequences the change is rapid, and in the other one it is slow. The conversion experience is not the same as becoming enlightened : conversion is usually an introductory immersion into the spiritual process (or it can be a re-awakening of a spiritual attainment from a previous life on Earth).

The two conversion processes represent the two basic abreactions  taken in the reverse direction, starting from guilt and pride.

First, I give a summary of the abreaction of guilt so that I can compare it to the abreaction of narcissism. Then I give a summary of the abreaction of pride so that I can compare that one to the abreaction of jealousy.

Note 2.
In the flow of emotions during abreaction, when one emotion ceases to be active and so fades away the next emotion is then generated. I label this change by the phrase "leads to", as in "narcissism leads to jealousy".

a). Comparing the abreactions of Guilt and Narcissism

The abreaction of narcissism is similar to the abreaction of guilt. Both of them have their dramatic moment which starts them off.

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Consider the Abreaction of Guilt

This sequence begins with catharsis and ends with resentment.  There are five stages involved in a full sequence, which is :

Narcissism leads to jealousy ; then jealousy leads to guilt ; then guilt leads to resentment. 

Stage 1.
The person has an insight into a difficult psychological  issue and is excited by his/her success. He or she feels really good.  This stage of excitement is called catharsis and represents narcissism in vanity mode. [4]

When the excitement ends, vanity transforms into self-pity, so jealousy is now present.

Narcissism (= love + vanity) leads to jealousy (= love + self-pity)

Stage 2.
The stage of jealousy usually produces sexual desire, because the self-pity mode is dominant and it is following the excitement. In the therapy situation, the client may fall in love with the therapist during this stage, that is, the therapist may become a suitable object for the sexual desire. 

When the sexual desire ends, the love mode of jealousy transforms into self-hate, so guilt now arises. 

Jealousy(= love + self-pity) leads to guilt (= self-hate + self-pity)

Stage 3.
In the stage of guilt the person hates themself for what they felt in the catharsis. The person may feel that the catharsis compromised his/her moral values.

When guilt fades the next product is resentment.

Stage 4.
In this stage the resentment occurs because guilt, with self-hate mode dominant, ‘shrinks’ the ego of the person (what actually shrinks is the aura of the person, and this makes him feel small). The change to resentment increases blood pressure and often creates a headache (on the left-hand side of the brain ; headaches on the right-hand side of the brain are due to fear or anxiety). Sometimes depression follows the resentment, but this effect does not seem to be a regular reaction.

Stage 5.
When the resentment has finally been worked through, the end result is detachment to the problem which originally caused anxiety. This stage is not always achieved ; it depends on how important it is for the person to hang on to their grievance.

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Consider the Abreaction of Narcissism.

This begins with an initial mood of guilt (mode of self-hate) as part of the person’s attitude to a problem. The person has a subconscious sense of inadequacy within their character. (This is similar to the way, in the abreaction of guilt, that the person was dismayed by what happened in the catharsis).

The sequence is:

Guilt leads to jealousy; then jealousy leads to narcissism; then narcissism leads to idealism.

There are four steps involved in this sequence.

Step 1.
Insight into the problem dissolves the hate and transforms it into the love mode of jealousy. (Whereas in the abreaction of guilt, it is the self-pity mode of jealousy that is emphasised).

Guilt (= self-pity + self-hate) leads to jealousy (= self-pity + love).

Step 2.
When the jealousy fades the self-pity mode transforms into vanity, generating narcissism.

Jealousy (= love + self-pity) leads to narcissism (= love + vanity).

Step 3.
Finally some form of noble aspiration, or even idealism, is generated.

Step 4.
A final detachment from idealism may never be achieved. It may continue for all the person’s life, or else the failure to accomplish desired goals may burn out the person through intense bitterness.

The important stage of this abreaction is Step 3. When this abreaction is intense enough to cause conversion, then idealism is always the final product. Vanity modes are the supporting emotions for all ideals, and in this case it is the vanity mode of narcissism that supports the final ideal. [5]

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In my case this sequence generated political idealism.
During my teens I had become right-wing in my politics. When I was 19, I read The End of Empire  by John Strachey. As far as I remember now, it dealt with the economic consequences of substituting jute production for the traditional food crops in eastern India in the 19th century. The consequences were tragic. The ending of local food production caused a famine in the area which resulted in the deaths of a significant number of the local population.

My response to this tragedy was a deep upsurge of compassion. My right-wing sympathies disappeared overnight. I began to change my political beliefs. First of all I switched from being conservative to becoming mildly left-wing, but within three years I had embraced anarchistic ideals. The time process was a long one because I had recently gone to university, and so my political ideals did not surface till I graduated.

There are two forms of conversion.
I call this abreaction  impersonal conversion, because the person embraces an ideal or an abstract conception.

In my view, an historical political example is William Cobbett, the nineteenth- century political propagandist. His idealism was created by reading Adam Smith on economics : Smith enabled him to understand the corrupt financial system of the British government.

In my view, an historical religious example is that of St. Paul. On the road to Damascus he was converted to a spiritual idealism. He transformed the personal image of Jesus into an idealised abstract conception of Christ – this conception reflected his spiritual aspirations.

At lesser intensities of emotional response, when conversion is not experienced, this abreaction produces  the admiration of the heroic, and helps to stimulate romanticism. The person admires heroes who overcame (or succumbed to) the problems that he was facing. He may be overwhelmed by tears of admiration for the glorious hero, tears for the way that the hero has struggled to victory or defeat.

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b). Comparing the abreactions of Pride and Jealousy

The abreaction of jealousy is similar to the abreaction of pride. Both of them begin in a low-key fashion.

Consider the Abreaction of Pride

This sequence begins with sorrow or sadness, and ends in bitterness. There are five stages involved in a full sequence, which is :

Jealousy leads to narcissism ; then narcissism leads to pride ; then pride leads to bitterness.

Stage 1.
This abreaction usually follows the abreaction of guilt. The sorrow arises when I reflect on the problem highlighted by the preceding guilt. The sorrow requires the self-pity mode of jealousy.

When the jealousy ends, the self-pity transforms into vanity, and narcissism is generated.

Jealousy (= love + self-pity) leads to narcissism (= love + vanity).

Stage 2.
In the stage of narcissism the person now feels good after the previous sorrow ; when we have a cry we feel better afterwards . 

When narcissism fades the love mode changes to hate, and pride arises. 

Narcissism (= love + vanity) leads to pride (= hatred of others + vanity).

Stage 3.
After we have a good cry, few people notice the sting that follows the good feelings. In the stage of pride, hostility to others (especially to people in positions of authority over oneself) is dominant ; hostility is felt even towards the therapist.

Stage 4.
Finally, as pride fades, bitterness is felt over the way that the sorrow and self-pity have limited my sense of individuality.

Stage 5.
The end result is detachment. As in the abreaction of guilt, this stage of detachment is not always achieved.

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Consider the Abreaction of Jealousy

This begins with an initial mood of pride (mode of hatred of others). The person may be hating the world, hating society. He has a subconscious sense of degradation, a degradation produced by social factors. The sequence is:

Pride leads to narcissism; then narcissism leads to jealousy; then jealousy leads to blind faith.

There are four steps involved in this sequence.

Step 1.
The particular way that degradation is felt becomes conscious. As the degradation is abreacted the person feels dis-orientated. When pride dissolves it is replaced by the love mode of narcissism. (Whereas, in the abreaction of pride, it is the vanity mode of narcissism that is emphasised).

Pride (= vanity + hate) leads to narcissism (= vanity + love).

Step 2.
Now the person feels a ‘heaviness’ in their belly or lower chest (the solar plexus ‘chakra’ is changing). As narcissism ends, the vanity mode transforms into self-pity, and jealousy arises.

Narcissism (= love + vanity) leads to jealousy (= love + self-pity).

Step 3.
Finally some form of social attachment is stimulated ; the particular form of attachment is usually to a role model or to a teacher or to a group.

Step 4.
As with the other conversion mode, a final detachment from the social attachment may never be achieved. The person may remain dependent on the teacher or the group.

The important stage of this abreaction is Step 3. When this abreaction is intense enough to cause conversion then the final product is  blind faith in a teacher or a group. The bonding is through jealousy. The teacher or the group becomes a source of jealous love. The bonding link is always between the jealousy (love mode) of the teacher and the jealousy (self-pity mode) of the convert. [6]

I call this abreaction personal conversion, because the person bonds to a teacher.

This type of faith is blind to any deficiencies in the teacher or the group, and so it is a limited form of faith. It represents the common way of inducting a person into a religious view of life. The person bonds to another person, and not to any ideal or ideology. [7]

To acquire detachment involves letting the faith mature, so that tolerance to all other faiths becomes the norm. Blind faith is always an immature form of faith.

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In my case this abreaction of jealousy generated blind faith in two English yoga teachers, Jack Bolton and John Moore.
When I was 30, I began to follow these two yoga teachers who themselves were disciples of an Indian teacher, swami Dev Murti. This faith lasted about six years, and then I spent about nine years getting rid of it. I changed my relationship from follower to friend.

I still admired the two teachers, but I had to develop my own individuality. Individuality became an imperative that I had to follow at all costs, and I broke with all forms of tradition that had influenced me one way or another. This break was the necessary starting condition which allowed my psycho-analysis to begin in 1987, unhampered by the restraints of traditional values.

These two forms of conversion experience are binary (or complementary) to each other ; hence faith and idealism are also a binary pair. When these two abreactions are not intense enough to generate conversion, then it is difficult to be aware that one is experiencing them as a process. Usually it is necessary to analyse backwards from the final state, to see if the preceding emotions were in the right order.

A conversion process is always initiated by the person's soul, when the circumstances are suitable. Whether personal or impersonal, the conversion represents a beginning of spirituality, not its end, since it has its limitations. The limitations reflect the psychological limitations of the person. What usually seems to occur is that some factors of one’s character are improved, whilst other factors remain at levels of inadequacy. This view of conversion is easily verified by noting the amount of hatred towards non-believers or rival religions that many fundamentalists exhibit – this can hardly be called a mark of spirituality.

Spirituality is never given to anyone ; the person has to grow into it. The purpose of conversion is to inspire the person to move beyond his current limitations into a wider and nobler practice of life.

I do not equate spirituality with religion. A religious person can also be spiritual, but a spiritual person does not have to be religious.

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Starting Conditions

Personal conversion is more likely to happen if the person has a problem with jealousy, by which I mean that the person, as a child, did not receive sufficient love (that is, jealous love in its aspect of care) from the parents. The authority of the parents was too austere: such parents cannot easily give love to their children. The charismatic teacher (who is usually a man) is often generous with his jealous love and so is seen by the disciple to be the quintessence of perfection, the ideal loving father-figure who can do no wrong. And so the disciple acquires a surrogate love and a surrogate authority – he is the loving channel for the authority of the teacher.

Perhaps the commonest route to personal conversion is the one that uses pride as a means of rebounding from guilt and depression. I developed blind faith in two yoga teachers after I had become dis-illusioned with politics.
Dis-illusionment occurs when guilt (mode of self-hate) acts on vanity.

A friend of mine went through personal conversion after suffering from depression when her mother died. Guilt and depression highlight the absence of love. The person switches to pride (mode of hate) to mask this absence ; this switch makes them susceptible to conversion in suitable circumstances.

The abreaction of narcissism orientates a person towards developing a sense of independent action, whilst the abreaction of jealousy sways him into becoming a follower of an outstanding teacher or leader. Therefore these two abreactions swing the person between self-guidance and dependency. The former generates the allure of freedom, and the latter the safety of dependency. The lures of freedom are the reasons that the person may never give up their idealism. The consolations of support are the reasons that the person may prefer to retain dependency.

The abreactions of guilt and of narcissism require insight into a problem to get them started. Catharsis produces instant excitement, and impersonal conversion occurs through a dramatic switch of consciousness. Hence insight generates high-profile drama.

For comparison, the abreactions of pride and of jealousy do not require insight ; they begin just by reflection on one’s present state or circumstances that are felt to be too restricting, too cramping for one’s needs. The start of the abreactions is low-key. In fact, personal conversion is not necessarily noticed: it may be a gradual switch and only achieve prominence when the disciple recognises his/her bond with the teacher.

Why is there a difference in the switching?
For any kind of experience, the mental switch to a higher understanding is low-key if the person is already sympathetic to the final state. In personal conversion, the spiritual affinity is already there.

If, however, the person is antagonistic or hostile in any way to the final state, then the switch needs to be intense and so is high-key. A lot of psychological resistance has to be overcome. The contents of catharsis are often aspects of consciousness that the person normally dislikes.

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The two common abreactions are those of guilt and pride.

Each of these abreactions has a variation.

These variations do not occur as frequently as the two standard abreactions of guilt and pride. Identifying them is very hard, since they are difficult to separate from the standard abreactions.


The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it.  For the addresses of my websites, see the Links page.

[¹]. My analysis of the process of abreaction is given in the five articles on Abreaction. See home page. [1]

[²]. My definitions, descriptions, and analysis of emotions are given in the three articles on Emotion. See home page. [2]

[³]. The binary nature of emotions, and the way that some emotions switch, is described in the first article on Emotion. [3]

[4]. Catharsis is the subject of the third article on Abreaction : Catharsis and Suggestion. [4]

[5]. The relation between idealism and vanity is that ideals represent the sublimation of vanity modes. See the article Sublimation. [5]

[6]. The bonding links between two people are described in the article Structure of Sexual Response. [6]

[7]. Bonding through faith is described in the article Faith. [7]

In two other articles I consider some forms of religious phenomena that induce a ‘conversion’ experience.

I look at the techniques of religious preachers such as John Wesley, and at rituals centred on non-stop dancing, as practised, for example, by American Indians and Moslem Sufis.
In addition, I note the effects of the mammoth acid-rock music festivals of the hippie period in the 1960s and 1970s: for example, the 1969 Woodstock festival.

See the articles Drugs and Dancing and Conversion, and Romanticism and Evangelism and Abreaction. These are on my website Patterns of Confusion.


Strachey, John. The End of Empire.

Home List of  Articles Links Top of Page

The articles in this section are :

Dialectics and Human Evolution - the way of spiritual teachers.

Orientations - the three goals of the spiritual life ; the soul.

Conflict within Idealism 1 - overview of three levels of confusion in the spiritual life.

Conflict within Idealism 2 - the three stages in detail.

Conflict within Idealism 3 - three forms of ethics and three ideals.

Utopian Idealism - spirituality as personal choice.

The Conversion Experience - abreactions of jealousy and narcissism.

The copyright is mine, and the articles are free to use. They can be reproduced anywhere, so long as the source is acknowledged.

Copyright © 2002 Ian Heath
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Ian Heath
London, UK

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