Note: This article was originally published in the January 2008 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.
Primacy of the Affect System: A Support for The Meadows' Model
by John Bradshaw, MA
Almost a half century ago, research psychologist Sylvan Tompkins (referred to by some as 'the American Einstein') wrote:
"I see affect or feeling as the primary innate biological motivating mechanism, more urgent than drive, deprivation and pleasure and more urgent than physical pain. Without its amplification, nothing else matters, and with its amplification anything can matter."
This statement summarizes Tompkins' long-term research, verified by cross-cultural studies with five literate and two pre-literate cultures (Eckman, 1971). Tompkins isolated nine innate affects and showed that they compose "the affect system," which operates like other human systems (endocrine, nervous, immune, etc). Tompkins supplanted Freud's libidinal energy theory with the energy of affect as the primary motivator of human behavior.
During the 1990s, often called "the decade of the brain," neuroscientists such as Joseph LeDoux, Allan N. Schore, Antonio Damasio, and Daniel Siegel offered extensive clinical evidence supporting and expanding Tompkins works.
Following are a few significant ideas from these researchers, each clearly identifying affect regulation as the critical factor in the organization of a functional human. I believe that the work by Tompkins and many contemporary neuroscientists supports, validates, and offers new depth to the "feeling work" being done at The Meadows.
Joseph LeDoux is the Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science in the Center for Neuroscience at New York University. He has presented strong clinical evidence that there is no single part of the brain that houses a separate limbic, or emotional, brain. He has shown how emotion is involved in most aspects of human behavior, and he has done pioneering work on the Amygdala, a primitive part of the brain that operates much like home alarm systems. Our right-brain Amygdala records traumatic events. Whenever a situation bears a resemblance to a past traumatic event, the alarm goes off. Amygdale reactivity can bypass and greatly distort rational thinking, but it has survival value and is a right-brain form of intelligence. Tompkins concluded that affect is the right brain's form of cognition, an intuitive intelligence.
LeDoux supports this position: "Subjective emotional states, like all other consciousness, are best viewed as the end result of information processing occurring unconsciously. The activity goes on in the right brain, which is intuitive, nonverbal, and non-logically analytic." It is, however, deeply intelligent. Parts of the emotional system are involved in cognition and choice. Feelings involve "conscious content," says LeDoux.
Antonio Damasio, in his book Descartes’ Error, presents a severe blow to the ratio-logical bias that has dominated Western philosophy for several hundred years, from René Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" to Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind. Many of us grew up under the umbrella of Descartes' rationalism, hearing our parents say things like "Don't be so emotional" and "Emotions are weak." Our parents also stuffed their own feelings, both conscious and unconscious. This set us up to "carry their feelings," as Pia Mellody has pointed out. The shaming of our feelings caused us to numb our feelings and set up codependency, which is the core of addictiveness.
Damasio presented the case of Mr. X, who has suffered damage to a part of his brain that has cut off his ability to experience feelings. Mr. X can think logically and abstractly, but he cannot make simple decisions, such as where to eat. Damasio shows that, without feelings, we are unable to make real decisions. It is no wonder that the severely co-dependent make such bad decisions.
In my forthcoming book Bradshaw On: Calling Forth the Better Angles of Your Nature (due in September 2008), I offer plentiful evidence that moral and spiritual choices depend on emotional literacy. Since the time of Aristotle, we've known that the last act of any moral or spiritual judgment is dependent on affective (feeling) inclination governed by good will (right appetite). It is no wonder that co-dependents and addicts are morally and spiritually bankrupt.
In his book The Developing Mind, Daniel Siegel shows us the social nature of the brain, i.e., how relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. For Siegel, the interpersonal bridge of the secure attachment bond is critical to a healthy emotional life and healthy sense of shame. Healthy shame is the affect that most determines and guards our sense of self, honor and dignity. The breaking of the interpersonal bridge is the root of toxic shame and the first step in forming a shame-based self.
Siegel asks, "Why does a child require emotional communication, attunement and alignment of emotional states in order to develop a solid sense of self?"
Emotion is how the mind establishes meaning and places value on an experience. Both meaning and value are integrally linked to social interactions. Following his colleague Allan N. Schore at UCLA, Siegel posits that self-regulation with reality is fundamentally rooted in the education of the emotions, or emotional literacy.
Schore, in his three poignant books Affect Regulation and the Organization of the Self, Affect Dysregulation and the Disorders of the Self, and Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self, stresses the importance of affect regulation, especially the relationship between infant attachment, affect regulation, and the organization of a healthy functional self. Following the pioneering work of John Bowlby and his student Mary Ainsworth, Schore uses the growing body of evidence showing that the neural circuitry of the stress system is locked in the early development of the right brain. The right brain is dominant in the control of vital functions that manage stress, regulate emotion, and preserve a consistent sense of self.
Schore quotes copious studies that cite trauma as having significant negative impact on early bonding and maturation of the right brain during its most crucial period of growth. The most serious damage of early relational trauma is a lack of the capacity for emotional regulation. This adverse experience results in an increased sensitivity to later stresses. The Meadows' Senior Fellow Bessel van der Kolk reiterated this conclusion in 1996 (see Proceedings of the National Academy of the U.S. of America, 1996).
Schore suggests that these neuroscientific findings call for a greater affective bond with our clients, who must disclose personal issues around shame. Schore makes it clear, as did Tompkins, that we can't take our shame-based clients further than we are willing to go. As the great psychotherapist Milton Erickson modeled, we must meet our clients at their map of the world. By mirroring and utilizing another's meaning systems, we can lead him to a larger view of the world. This requires that we have done our own feeling work.
During the eight years of my PBS show and workshops, an estimated 300,000 people did the "Inner Child" and "Healing Shame" workshops. Among the thousands of volunteer therapists at these events, many had difficulty handling the deep feeling work. It was common to find professionals reticent to work with participants who went into an age regression. The work can be frightening, as I am sure many of us experienced in our early professional careers. But it is paramount that, as professionals, we not hide behind talk therapy or prescription giving, when what would most help the client is feeling work.
New insights in neuroscience point to "affect" as the primary motivating energy of life. Affect work has been a missing piece in many therapeutic models, and I am sure this will change in the coming years.
About the Author
John Bradshaw, Fellow of The Meadows, has combined his exceptional skills as counselor, author, theologian and public speaker for the past four decades to become a world-renowned figure in the fields of addictions, recovery, family systems and the concept of toxic shame. John has written three New York Times best-selling books: Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child, Creating Love, and Healing the Shame That Binds You.