Relative Mind - Relative Matter
Sections  1 , 2 , 3 , . Glossary

Notes on Emotion and Abreaction

The notes on this page are taken from my articles on Emotion  and on Abreaction  that are on all my psychology websites.

The links in the table on the left take you to sub-headings on this page.



The analysis of emotions has been ineffectual up till now since they are very difficult to identify, except for a few such as fear and anger. Many years ago I began an intense psycho-analysis (which I did on my own). It took me five years of constant awareness to finally identify the range of emotions that I usually experience.

The peculiarity of any particular emotion is that, whilst it is just an emotion, it is nevertheless intimately associated with specific mental attitudes and ideas that have become characteristic of that emotion.

In general, I found that each emotion acts as a nucleus for pre-set ideas about the world. This fact gives rise to a notable phenomenon. As one emotion fades away and the next one is generated, so the ideas in a person’s mind automatically change : the fresh emotion brings with it its associated ideas.

A person is always experiencing some emotion at any time, since when the present emotion fades away so another emotion will take its place and be felt by him /her. No single emotional response can be permanent. When any emotion, such as anger, is experienced the person can stay angry only for some time ; eventually the anger will fade away and a fresh emotion will arise.

Sub - Headings
Model of  Emotion
Unconscious Ideas
Compound Emotions
Value of these Ideas
Abreaction of  Guilt
Abreaction of  Pride
End Stages
Effects of Abreaction

Many people orientate on feeling responses to the world: an abundance of good feelings, and emotional satisfaction, become the criteria for a successful life. However, emotions present problems for the ego (which is just the personality). When emotions become intense they neutralise intellectual concerns. In fact, common negatively-valued emotions such as self-pity, fear, anxiety, as well as moods like depression, actually tend to inhibit rationality – in particular, intense anxiety seems to produce a mental fog in one’s mind, making it impossible to study.

Understanding the nature of emotions has profound implications for philosophy. In particular,  the development of self-awareness that this study produces can remove a lot of confusion from such philosophical ideas as the nature of reality, language, morality, free will, and the pursuit of truth.

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Feelings are not the same as emotions. This fact is not clearly recognised, especially as definitions of them tend to be ambiguous and vague. Confusion often abounds in ideas and articles about them.

One area of confusion is that feelings are often loosely equated with emotions. This is all right for colloquial use. I can ask a friend how he is feeling today ; it would be awkward to ask him how emotional he is being today. Some people might take offence if they were thought to be emotional, whereas it is acceptable for them to show feelings. However, there are fundamental differences between feelings and emotions. 

There are a multitude of emotions, but only three feelings.

There are just three feelings : the pleasant one, the unpleasant one, and the neutral one. This is the Buddhist understanding and I verified this fact directly during the time when I used to practise meditation. In the past, some moral theorists believed that the neutral feeling is only an equal mixture of both pleasant and unpleasant feelings, so that the net effect is zero. But meditational awareness disproves this assumption.

The importance of feelings is that they help give rise to emotions, that is, the bases of all emotions are the three feelings.

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Model of Emotions

Emotions are partly derived from feelings. To explain how this derivation occurs I use a model of consciousness that is a traditional one:

consciousness has three modes ; those are  will (or will power), mind, and feeling. 

Past variations on this model substituted action for will, and emotion or sensibility for feelings. 

In this model, I distinguish between consciousness and mind. Consciousness is the totality of the person, whilst mind is only one feature of it. However, my model has an innovative feature: the three modes are separate, but they interlock by the production of desires and emotions.

In this model, mind has two aspects: intelligence and intellect.  Intelligence links to will and to feeling, and intellect is the source of abstraction. 

Mind is the key to consciousness. Mind, in fact, is the ‘cement’ that keeps all aspects of consciousness together. [¹]

Now the mind, in its aspect of intelligence, helps to produce desires and emotions. In this aspect of mind we use ideas or concepts.

I give definitions of desire and emotion that brings out their reliance on concepts.

Will  is a pure striving, an undirected effort. When will is united with mind, it generates desire.

For example, will plus the concept ‘social status’ gives rise to the desire to achieve social status. Will plus the concept ‘fame’ gives rise to the desire for fame. Without the presence of desire it is very difficult to sustain the use of will ; if a person tries to renounce desire then he /she is quite likely to become lethargic.

Feeling  unites with mind to generate emotion.

Feelings are primarily either pleasant or unpleasant ; rarely are they neutral. Hence there are two possible conceptual responses to any stimulus, which in turn leads to two possible emotional responses.

For example, feeling plus the concept ‘domination’ gives rise to the emotions of  anger and fear : anger arises because the pleasant feeling makes domination of others acceptable to me, whereas the unpleasant feeling makes fear arise when I become subject to domination by others.

For another example: feeling plus the concept ‘identity’ gives rise to the emotions of  love and hate. Here the pleasant feeling makes a social identity acceptable to me, since I am the same as everyone else: identity produces love. The unpleasant feeling makes me reject a social identity – I prefer to be different and have an individual identity: difference produces hate.

Will and feelings act on mind.
Will is used to maintain states of mind, whilst feeling is the agency that changes states of mind.

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Unconscious Ideas

The mental concept that is associated with an emotion actually creates the boundaries of that emotion. If the mental concept changes, the emotion does not change ; instead, it fades away and a different emotion arises, one that fits the current mental concept. The mental concepts of emotions are not normally a part of our awareness. Emotions are not unique to any particular individual, so the mental concepts that underlie them come from the unconscious mind. Since the mental concepts are unconscious they are extremely difficult to identify. The mental concept is normally unconscious, so I call it an unconscious concept or  an unconscious idea.  [ I first came across the term "unconscious idea" from my study of Freud's writings].

At this point I need to clarify my usage of two important terms.

I use the term ‘subconscious mind ’ for what is personal to the individual,
and the term ‘unconscious mind ’ for what is general to humanity. [²]

Now an unconscious idea has two values : it is good or it is bad. The good value generates the pleasant feeling, the bad value the unpleasant feeling. This division leads to two choices. One choice gives rise to one emotion, the other choice to its complement.

In general, the definition of an emotion is that it is an unconscious idea powered by either a pleasant or an unpleasant feeling.

The unconscious idea enables all emotions to be arranged in pairs of complementary opposites. 

The one exception is that the neutral feeling is unique, it is not part of a binary. It is the basis of  equanimity, the ability to be unaffected by any kind of stress. Equanimity should not be confused with indifference or even peace ; indifference is a protective mechanism of withdrawal from responsibility and is underpinned by fear, whilst peace is achieved by repressing internal conflict (that is, conflict that is within the mind of a person).

In psychological language, equanimity is the state of mind which denotes the absence of projection and introjection. When a person uses the mechanisms of projection and introjection, they are making value judgements about the characteristics of other people that they admire or dislike. When they cease making such value judgements, they thereby cease to desire anything of a personal nature. 

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I list some emotions which are binary to each other :

fear - anger
love - hate
jealousy - narcissism
pride - guilt
vanity - self-pity
resentment - bitterness

Some emotions have an additional complexity : they are compound and consist of two simpler emotions (these two emotions are factors of the compound emotion). The factors do not exert their influence simultaneously ; only one is dominant at any particular time. I use the term ‘mode’ to indicate which factor is being dominant at that time, that is, to indicate the manner in which the compound emotion is being experienced.

For example, guilt comprises the two simpler emotions of self-pity and self-hate. So when the self-pity factor is being dominant, I describe this as experiencing guilt (in the mode of self-pity). Similarly, when the self-hate factor is being dominant, this is guilt (in the mode of self-hate).

I list some compound emotions.

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Table 1. Compound Emotions

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

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

Resentment = guilt + idealism.
Bitterness = pride + idealism

Repentance = regret + guilt (mode of self-pity).
Sadness = regret + jealousy (mode of self-pity).

Paranoia = fear + pride (mode of vanity).
Anxiety = fear + vanity.

In the compound emotions of guilt, pride, narcissism, and jealousy, only one mode is felt at any one time – they are never experienced simultaneously. For example, guilt is felt as either self-pity or as self-hate.

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The Value of these Ideas

What is the use in identifying emotions ?  By being able to identify our emotions we can begin to acquire first-hand knowledge of the mind’s influence on the ego.

What is the value of identifying emotions ?  This knowledge is essential if we want to understand the meaning of sorrow and mental pain. So this knowledge lays the groundwork for clearing confusion and self-deception from consciousness.

Once we can identify our range of emotions we can begin to investigate, directly through our experience (that is, by empiricism), questions concerning truth and falsehood, and questions concerning ethics. We will then find that our empirical experience will challenge all traditional attitudes to these questions. G.E. Moore summarised a certain perspective in philosophy derived from Immanuel Kant (Moore, 1903) :

"... just as, by reflection on our perceptual and sensory experience, we become aware of the distinction between truth and falsehood,

so it is by reflection on our experience of feeling and willing that we become aware of ethical distinctions."

By considering what perception and sensation mean "we may discover what properties the world must have, if it is to be true". So, too, by considering what feeling and willing mean "we may discover what properties the world must have, if it is to be good or beautiful".

The way that I interpret this quotation is that the first kind of reflection develops self-consciousness, whereas the second kind of reflection develops a moral consciousness. 

More importantly for the therapeutic point of view, the identification of emotions enabled me to establish that the unconscious mind works in deterministic ways. Some emotions flow in invariable sequences – these sequences underlie the major problems that present themselves to consciousness during a psycho-analysis and during everyday life. In a long psycho-analysis, these sequences will bring into awareness intense states of resentment, bitterness and anger.

The emotional sequences form part of the traditional concept of abreaction, which had not been clearly delineated till my investigations. 

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I have found that some particular emotions flow in certain 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.

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. There are four main kinds of sequences, and so they form four kinds of abreaction. Hence there are four main laws of the unconscious mind.

Abreaction is the purging (cathartic) effect that the release of emotion gives. And the emotion that is released is  anxiety. The four laws eliminate the anxiety that is attached to four other emotions, these being guilt, pride, narcissism, and jealousy. The four kinds of abreaction become the abreaction of guilt, the abreaction of pride, the abreaction of narcissism, and the abreaction of jealousy. Anxiety is released in stages, and up till now only a couple of of stages have been identified: these stages are those of excitement (in one law) and of tearful weeping (in another law).

I need to introduce a change in traditional terminology.
Up till now the terms  "catharsis" and "abreaction"  have been more or less synonymous. Since I need a new word to label the sequences, I have separated these two terms. I name the invariable sequences "abreaction", and restrict the term "catharsis" to the stage of excitement that begins just one particular sequence. Catharsis is now simply the first stage in the abreaction of guilt.

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

I work out in detail only the first two abreactional sequences (those which I label guilt and pride), since they are the most common of the four, and the easiest to recognise. [³]

In the sequences, the switching of emotions occurs when one emotion is replaced by its binary mate ; in both sequences the binaries that switch are "vanity - self-pity" and "love - hate ".

I repeat the factors of guilt, pride, narcissism and jealousy for convenience. 

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

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

Note 2:
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.

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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.

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 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 previous abreaction of guilt, this stage of detachment is not always achieved.

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End Stages

Abreaction can be hell to experience. The hell resides in the end stages of resentment and bitterness, which are the responses to the release of  "pressure" within the subconscious mind.

The first few stages of an abreaction may last from an hour to a day, to a week, to a month, depending on how important and intense the problem is. But the end stages may last many months.

The intensity of these stages is proportional to the "pressure" within the subconscious mind, that is, to the extent to which social, sexual and political mores have been internalised involuntarily. When a person voluntarily internalises customs and conventions, this is social learning and it does not form anxiety. But when the internalisation is involuntary, then this is social conditioning : it creates anxiety and distorts beliefs in natural goodness as we learn to distrust people. This anxiety eventually becomes buried in the subconscious mind as the person grows used to the conditioning. The more intense the conditioning is, the greater is the intensity of anxiety that is buried. This intensity creates the "pressure" that wants to be released.

The subconscious mind will always attempt to reject any form of involuntary conditioning, so the stronger that the conditioning is, the greater is the effort to reject it. Abreaction gives the subconscious mind the opportunity to release the buried anxiety. The length of time that resentment and bitterness are experienced depends on the length of time that is needed to assimilate the problems that caused the abreactions. The person has to re-structure their beliefs in order to accommodate to the elimination of anxiety from their subconscious mind. Changing one’s fixed beliefs, especially bigoted and repugnant ones, is never a pleasant experience.

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Effects of Abreaction

I give examples of different creative attitudes of mind and the ways that the effects of abreaction have been portrayed.

The mystic is subject to the ebb and flow of emotion : sometimes he /she seems to be walking in sunlight and at other times he /she sinks into darkness. Sometimes he /she is elated, sometimes he /she is in despair. This alternation of mood has been called the hill and valley experience that the mystic has to endure. So mystics, who usually have no desire to understand themselves, still experience intense periods of abreaction. The "dark night of the soul" in mysticism is just a prolonged spell of abreactive resentment or bitterness. The dark night usually follows a period of exceptionally-good sentiments (the catharsis), and so is exceptionally bad. 

Philosophers experience abreaction. In "Ecco Homo", Friedrich Nietzsche described his feelings of joy when he was writing " Thus Spoke Zarathustra". When the writing was finished he felt "distress without equal". So he wrote " Thus Spoke Zarathustra" during a period of intense catharsis, and was afterwards engulfed in bitterness. In his book "On the Genealogy of Morals" he provides many examples of bitterness in his aphorisms (an example, picked at random, is essay 3, aphorism 14).

Writers experience abreaction. Hermann Hesse spent some time in 1916-1917 going through a Jungian analysis. His sense of spiritual liberation led eventually to 1919 being his happiest and most productive year. The next year "was the most unproductive and despondent year of his life" (Hesse, 1985. Introduction). So 1919 was a long period of catharsis, and 1920 a long period of abreactive resentment and bitterness which stopped his creativity.

Even in psychological therapy that is not psycho-dynamic, such as forms of behaviour therapy, abreaction still occurs. The therapist may sometimes find that the client falls in love with him/her. This emotional attachment to the therapist signifies that the client is experiencing the abreaction of guilt.

By reading biographies that feature the subjective states of mind of people we realise that abreaction is not limited to psycho-analysis. It is not limited to people who are aware of abreaction. Ignorance of dynamic psychology is no defence against abreaction. Each person engaged in the process of character development has to eliminate undesirable or immature emotional responses. This requires the elimination of anxiety. So each person following his or her own idea of evolution or fulfillment will, voluntarily or involuntarily, experience the trauma of abreaction. It cannot be bypassed.

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

[¹]. A comparison of the differences between intelligence and intellect is outlined in an article Reverie and Dreams on my website  The Subconscious Mind. [1]

[²]. The use of these terms is illustrated in the article Characteristics of a Psycho-analysis, section Levels of the Mind, on my website  The Subconscious Mind. [2]

[³]. The abreactional sequences of narcissism and jealousy are difficult to pinpoint ; they are described in the article  The Conversion Experience on my websites  The Strange World of Emotion and Patterns of Spirituality. [3]


Moore, G.E.   Principia Ethica.  Cambridge 1903. (sections 78-79).

Hesse, Hermann. Autobiographical Writings. Triad/Panther Books, London 1985.

Rogers, Carl. Client Centered Therapy. Constable 1984.

Nietzsche, Friedrich.
---- On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Translated by W. Kaufmann. Vintage Books USA 1969.
---- Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by R.J. Hollingdale. Penguin 1988.

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