In our American culture many of us have a tough time expressing the full range of emotions in a healthy way. This is due in great part to our western heritage, some of which is rooted in Greek Stoicism and Christian dualism which skewed our view of the physical. Later certain strains of Protestant Calvinism and Catholic Jansenism denounced the “pleasures of the flesh” and the expression of strong emotion. Victorian England exported the “stiff upper lip” and was readily adopted by many, especially men, throughout the world.
The expression of strong emotion is only a part of the issue. When an emotion becomes an undercurrent in one’s life, a mood that dominates, it is called an “affect.” There are a number of understandings of the word “affect” in modern psychology; I’m focusing on the one that keys into this overriding mood experience.
We witness all sorts of affect among people every day. Some show as happy, chipper or optimistic. Others are lugubrious, depressed or pessimistic. There are men and women who always seems angry, fearful, indifferent or totally detached. All of these are various kinds of affect.
I’ve battled with my own affect for decades. I can easily fall into a mood of depression or hopelessness triggered by the most minor of incidences. This is due to my being highly sensitive and to my life experience. When I am aware that I am consumed by a dominant affect, it is important that I seek ways to counteract it. I use a lot of cognitive therapy techniques.
While I’m not suggesting that we need to spill our emotional guts whenever the opportunity arises, I do think it’s important that we distinguish between a strong feeling that seems overwhelming and an affect with which we may live for days without relief. Living in a negative or self-destructive affect can be just as damaging as living without boundaries in the expression of emotion. Learning to express emotion safely is part of the solution. The other part is to know when and how an affect takes hold and grips our hearts.
Affects can come in a lot of forms. Some professions require a strong emotional affect of their members: medical, safety, military professionals come to mind. In my ministry I met a lot of men who, because of the training and the kind of work they performed, had a difficult time getting out from under the overall affect they had to embrace to do the job.
Another form of affect can inflict people who have experienced abuse or other serious dysfunction in their families of origin. As children they may have survived by embracing an affect that helped them cope with the chaos: sadness, guilt, rebellion, peace-making, etc. are examples of what I mean for our discussion here. These affects serve to protect the child, like an emotional cocoon. When the child becomes an adult the affect may morph into a different form, and afflicts the adult for the rest of their lives, leading to clinical emotional illness.
Are you aware of an affect that seems to rule your life at times? What have you found to be helpful in dealing with it? What are the origins of the affect that plagues you the most? Can you share your experience here for others to benefit?
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