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September 2019


The Relational Dimension of Emotional Experience




When we inquire deeply about our emotional reactions, we discover that very often what we react to emotionally is what other people have said or done (or not said/ not done) and the meanings that we have assigned to those things.   With this in mind, deep inquiry investigates emotional reactions through the lens of our relationships with others.  Not only do we gain a window of view into how relational events orchestrate our emotional lives, we begin to see that our minds are organized subjectively around our connections with others.
One important thing we can notice in the interplay between Self and Other is the repeated pattern of rupture — ideally followed by repair– between ourselves and others.  We are constantly reactive to how well our interpersonal needs are met by others,  and we are likely to experience emotional turbulence when they are not. 
Understanding the dynamics between self and other is the primary domain of psychoanalysis.  We all have psychological ‘complexes’ (or ‘psychic knots’ as I personally prefer to call them).   In Jungian terms, this is the shadow.  The shadow aspect of our personalities can be vividly observed in ‘enactments’ with others: painful moments with romantic partners, family members, and friends which re-create in living color the psychological themes and patterns of early emotional life.   We may get upset emotionally, and/or we may get stuck in repetitive, painful ‘knots’ of entangled emotion and behavior (often in the form of fights) which are determined by the emotional baggage of both parties.   
When difficult feelings or emotions are occurring, various psychological defenses may be engaged in order to avoid experiencing, admitting to, or dealing with unwanted feelings.  One ubiquitous defense is that of projection, involving the attribution of one’s own feelings to someone else.  The unconscious aspect of personality is often revealed through this psychodynamic mechanism.  It is not easy to know who is doing what to whom.
This becomes especially problematic when both people in a relationship have similar issues or knots.  In a common enactment which occurs in couples,  for example, both people feel wounded and angry at the same time and each perceives the other to have started it and to be at fault.  The only way out of this cul de sac of mutual projection is for both people to be willing to step back and gain perspective on the fact that each person’s patterns of attachment are challenged by the partner’s.   By gaining some perspective on the reactive pattern that is reciprocally triggered in one another, it becomes possible to come to an empathic understanding that is inclusive of the pain of both and free of blame.
This situation illustrates several primary dimensions of relationship boundaries.  Interpersonal boundaries are usually defined as limits we set in regard to what is acceptable behavior on the part of ourselves or others.  Many emotional upsets occur when one person fails to respect the boundaries set by the other, or when two people have a different idea about what appropriate boundaries should be. Intersubjective boundaries can be defined as invisible and fluctuating demarcations between where I leave off and you begin. The essence of both kinds of boundaries may be readily grasped by simile:  what we see as happening on the ‘self’ side of the street vs. what we see as the ‘other’ side.  Where self boundaries are poorly defined, we are liable to becoming entangled (enmeshed) with or defensively removed from others.  

Bringing meditative awareness to our emotional upsets allows us to begin to penetrate the shadow with light by bringing attention to the unquestioned veracity of our perceptions.  We need to understand that there is a quintessential ambiguity inherent in delineating who is doing what to whom.  An important first step is acknowledging that interpersonal reality is always co-created.  We are complicit in the construction of our subjective reality, and there is power in recognizing that there is also an underlying question: “whose unconscious is it, anyway?” *

Meditative inquiry about emotional reactivity provides a direct path to recognizing and understanding what is unhealed in our psyches. The very act of inquiring into what is happening entails a powerful and generative shift in awareness which allows us to begin to get unstuck from emotional reactivity. Contemplative rather than analytic in focus, the process of inquiry is one of posing questions and then feeling our way towards answers. Sitting with, being with, and repeatedly inquiring about who is doing what to whom is a means of inviting a profound shift in one’s experience of the world. Deep inquiry enables us to discover how we are complicit in constructing our subjective world.

*Bass, A. (2001) It Takes One to Know One; or, Whose Unconscious Is It Anyway?, Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 11(5)

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