Feelings about Feelings

As an “INFP”, I’ve always been fascinated by the varied styles of affective communication that existed in my family….

While flipping through some old journals for another blog post idea, I came across the commentary above on attitudes towards emotions.  Understanding attitudinal differences towards feeling is critical in our attempts at communication of empathy.  Professionally, as a student therapist, my motives for understanding this issue should be obvious.  Personally, understanding attitudinal differences towards emotion has been critical in the healing of my relationship with my mother.

I will begin this post, by including relevant excerpts from a paper I wrote some time ago titled “Culturally Inclusive Empathy.”  

Against this backdrop of understanding, I hope to process some insights I’ve been mulling over after along week as wife, mother, blogger, student therapist, and caretaker…

#1. PAPER EXCERPTS: Culturally Inclusive Empathy….

Empathy is derived from the German word “Einfuhlung” which directly translated means “one feeling”, (Pedersen, et al, 2008, p42). From this perspective, empathy can be thought of as an ability to understand another’s experiences as if they are your own.   Best understood as an ability to relate to others due to shared experiences, the western Euro-American definitions predominating mental health are clearly problematic (Pedersen, et al, 2008). With traditional conceptions of empathy tending to reflect this cultural viewpoint, a more culturally inclusive perspective is vital. (Chung, 2002; Pedersen, et al, 2008).  What follows is a definition of this concept from literature:

“Inclusive Cultural Empathy describes a dynamic perspective that balances both similarities and differences at the same time integrating skills developed to nurture a deep comprehensive understanding of the counseling relationship in its cultural context.” (Pedersen, et al, 2008, p.41)

Understanding Emotion.

Emotion Defined

“Emotions can be defined as psychological states that comprise thoughts and feelings, physiological changes, expressive behaviors, and inclinations to act.” (Vohs, et al, 2007, p285). Overall, two divergent perspectives exist regarding research that focuses on the nature of emotion.  Appraisal theories are based on the premise that emotions result from the way we appraise and interpret our environment…Categorical theories tend to view emotions as universal, innate and discrete.

Categorial Theories of Emotion.

file000556357776Some research exists which focuses on a limited number of universal emotions, described as “basic” in nature. and byproducts of neural programming hardwired into the species overall.   Research reflecting this perspective utilizes a “Universality Thesis of Emotions.” (Effenbein & Ambady, 2002). While still asserting some degree of cultural variation, this perspective stresses the universality to facial expressions across culture. (Ellsworth, 1994; Ekman & Friesen, 1971). The Universality Thesis of Emotion proposes that facial expressions and attribution of emotion can be observed as universal across cultures,(Russell, 1994).

Emotion: A Cultural Perspective.

Appraisal theories of emotions interpret emotions as byproducts of the way people interpret and understand their environment, (Ellsworth, 1994). Research utilizing this theoretical perspective has traditionally focused on a few key dimensions such as:  (1) individualism/collectivism, (2) certainty/uncertainty (3) Attention to Novelty (4) Valence/Degree of Perceived Pleasantness, (Ellsworth, 1994). Differences in emotional expression are largely attributed to emotional regulation, stating that culture defines the beliefs about appropriateness of emotional expression. Accounting for differences in understanding of emotional expression, the assertion is made that culture “provides a framework for understanding culturally general emotional phenomena,” (Ellsworth, 1994)

For example emotions can be observed as a component of social interaction.   From this perspective they aren’t internal affective states influenced by cognition but a form of interaction. (Frijda & Mesquita, 1994). We “transmit important messages about ourselves in relation to our surroundings” (Leu, 2001), and behavior from within the framework of culturally meaning systems.  Emotion in this respect contains five characteristics reflective of culture including: “1. quality, 2. intensity, 3. behavioural expression, 4. the manner in which they are managed and 5. Organization.” (Leu, 2001).

“A cultural framework includes a group’s sense of and attitudes toward emotions, that is what emotions are or feelings are, why they are experiencing, and what their significance is in social life, as well as the implicit answers to questions like when does one feel, where does one feel, and how does one feel.” (Frijda & Mesquita, 1994, p.99)

When viewed within the context of a perceptual process, culture’s influence over emotions can also be observed. For example, individuals experience emotions in response to events they encounter that are deemed significant.  Our appraisal of situations reflect culturally relevant systems of meaning.

Inclusive Cultural Empathy.

empathyDefined as an ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, empathy is a culturally relevant concept. Traditional perspectives of empathy are self-limiting, based on a perspective that is empirical and individualistic in orientation. In contrast, culturally inclusive empathy is a useful dynamic perspective that requires two seemingly divergent viewpoints. Essentially, this concept requires a counselor to  hold onto their own cultural perspective while appreciating their client’s as well. can best be understood as a dynamic process that exists as an exchange between client and counselor, (Pedersen, et al, 2008). It comprises three key skills: Affective Acceptance, Intellectual Understanding, & Appropriate Interaction (Pedersen, et al, 2008). With intellectual understanding best understood as a knowledge of similarities and differences, it is an essential to note this is not enough in and of itself. Affective acceptance requires that a counselor acknowledge culturally learned assumptions underlying divergent forms of affective communication (Pedersen, et al, 2008).  Finally, effectively communicating this means developing key interactive skills and abilities through ongoing direct contact within the community (Pedersen, et al, 2008)

“Counselors will not be effective working with clients from different cultural backgrounds if they cannot communicate cultural empathy in a way that demonstrates that they understand and appreciate the cultural differences and their impact on the therapeutic process.   Ridley (1995) identified the following seven guidelines….(a) describe in words to the client his/her understanding of the client’s self-experience; (b) communicate an interest in learning more…; (c) express lack of awareness…; (d) affirm the client’s cultural experience; (e) clarify…communication; (f) communicate a desire to help the client work through personal struggles; and, (g)… help the client learn more about himself or herself …” (Chung & Bemak, 2002, p157)

#2. OBSERVATIONS: (Journal Excerpts & personal observations).


The above paper is a “cliff notes” version of research I’ve done on the subject of emotions.   Fueled by a desire for personal understanding and professional growth, this endeavor has been more than simply an attempt to complete assignments.  What follows are insights from direct observations with clients…..

Primary & Secondary Emotions

imageA fellow intern I work with is conducting an anger management class.  Since this facility is currently “reworking their curriculum”, we’re scrambling week-by-week to design it ourselves.  As we worked to determine the subject for this weeks classes, I noticed she began printing off material on primary vs. secondary emotions.  Hearing these terms brought back memories of a DBT skills group I had participated in “many years ago”.  According to Marsha Linehan, while primary emotions comprise our immediate reactions to an event, our secondary emotions our own interpretations of these emotional states. In other words, secondary emotions are “feelings about our feelings”.

For example, my mother has always reacted to the open expression of emotion with a perplexing discomfort that had always bothered me.  I desired support and understanding and instead I received stoicism.  While she hadn’t intended to, as a child I perceived this as rejection….

Today with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight I have an appreciation for our differences.  My mother was raised in a collectivist society in which daily life centered around the extended family. Identity, for my mother has always included an appreciation of her family role.  For example, to this day everyone calls here “Nene”, which in Tagalog means baby.  Additionally, I’ve come to understand her love as not a matter of words but a quiet and unspoken fulfillment of her “duty” as my mother.  This concept of “duty” is strange and unfamiliar as an American.  Individualism and pride are consistent with our way of doing things.

imageDue to these differences, my mother reacts to the open expression of emotion negatively, I become annoyed by this response, and an endless cycle of misunderstanding develops.   From my mom’s perspective if emotions cause disharmony and impede the fulfillment of her duties as a mother, it is selfish and unnecessary to do so.  Understanding this has been helpful in rebuilding our relationship.

Born in 1938 in the Philippines, I’m sure there is a history of familial trauma that plays a part as well.  The point, however, is her intention was not to make me feel “rejected”.  Instead, I see her own unique emotional resilience as a quiet offering of strength and support.

Ideal & Actual Affect

imageIn the paper I quoted above, I reference a research article titled “Cultural Variation in Affect Valuation”, (Tsai & Fung, 2006).   This article describes two interesting concepts pertaining to the issue of “feelings about feelings”.  Whereas our ideal affect reflects what we want to feel, our actual affect reflects our current emotional state.(Tsai & Fung, 2006).  For example, research has shown that individualistic cultural orientations are more strongly correlated with values such as elation and excitement (Tsai & Fung, 2006). In contrast, collectivist cultures tend to value a more calm, peaceful and relaxed state (Tsai & Fung, 2006).   When I read the first time, I immediately thought of my own mother and our relationship problems.  As fundamentally eye-opening as insight was, I ended up journaling on it later. Somehow, we never saw eye-to-eye on matters growing up. In retrospect, I am now able to understand my mother’s strange and perplexing discomfort with frank emotional expression.

Understanding a Cultural Syndrome….

file000831022860Being the nerd-girl I am, after reading this insight from a paper, I decided to do some personal research of my own.  I found an article that discussed cultural syndromes as shared sets of beliefs, attitudes, and norms that influence one’s behavior (Eid, Deiner, 2001).  It’s worth noting that my entire internship experience has required a trip to a foreign land where unusual cultural syndromes dominate all behavioral tendencies.   I come from an upper-middle educated background, my parents are happily married since ’68, and are both physicians.  I know little of addiction, or the experiences of my clients at the homeless shelter I intern at.   It is definitely a learning experience…..

…At any rate, expounding upon the insights of Frijda & Mesquita, B. (1994), the authors of this article on cultural syndrome describe three key differences between collectivist and individualist cultures…..

“Frijda and Mesquita distinguished among three aspects of emotion that are culturally influenced. First, they considered social consequences of emotions that regulate the expression and suppression of emotions. Second, they stressed the importance of norms for experiencing different emotions. Third, they discussed social-cohesive functions of emotions.”(Eid & Diener, 2001, p. 869).

Display Rules of Emotion…

Expounding upon the insights above, Eid & Diener, (2001) state that cultures have varied unspoken rules of emotional display.  Failing to understand these “unspoken rules” can often result in the violation of a social norm and some level of social rejection.   In my home, an unspoken rule of emotional display existed that involved a preference for restraint and stoicism.  As doctors, my parents led with their intellect.  It has always been a defense mechanism.  They are uncomfortable with honest expressions of emotion.

Feeling Rules “Should-Be’s”…

Eid & Diener, (2001), also mention Feeling Rules: “social norms that prescribe how people should feel in specific situations (e.g., on a wedding day, at a funeral)” (p. 869).  These sorts of cultural norms, greatly influence the appropriateness and desirability of certain emotions.  For example, in the research paper I excerpted from, I recall one  resource mentioning culturally relevant differences in response to the emotion of pride.  While I’m unable to recall the resource at the present, results indicated Collectivist Asian societies reacted more negatively to this emotion. In contrast, Americans were comfortable, openly expressing feelings of pride…

Final Thoughts… (I promise).

file000166887896In this old journal of mine is information I found from somewhere on “Emotional Coaching”.  It describes how to teach children to handle their feelings effectively.   My parent’s own style tended to flounder between dismissive and disapproving.  I spent my 20’s learning to overcome a lasting sense of shame, and inability to trust my feelings.  As a parent myself, I’ve promised to provide my kids the sort of emotional coaching I yearned for as a highly sensitive child.

This resource begins by describing three common emotional coaching styles:

THE DISMISSING STYLE:  parents ignore bad emotions and have a “get over it” attitude.   The child feels they are being ignored and have difficulty trusting their own feelings.
THE DISAPPROVING STYLE:  Here parents don’t just ignore bad emotions, they punish children for having negative feelings.   This “don’t feel that way” attitude, leaves children feeling a sense of shame: that they are somehow wrong and flawed.  
LAIESS-FAIRE STYLE:  Parents with an “anything goes” attitude provide no guidance whatsoever.  While there is plenty of acceptance, there isn’t enough nurturing guidance children need to manage emotions more effectively….  

In conclusion, with this typology in mind, what follows are steps on how to provide emotional coaching to your child…

STEP ONE: Be aware of your child’s emotions.  Parents who are emotionally aware are able to raise children who are also emotionally aware.  Acknowledge your child’s feelings, listen, & see things from their perspective.

STEP TWO: Using shared emotions as an opportunity to connect with your child.  Experience is the best educator I believe.  When emotions arise & become overwhelming, this is an ideal time to help them develop skills to manage them effectively.  Don’t avoid or dismiss them, instead listen and offer guidance.

STEP THREE:  Listening Empathetically.  listening involves supporting the child’s lived experience as if it were true in accordance with their level of understanding.  Reflecting the child’s feelings back to them, lets them know you are understanding.

STEP FOUR:  Help your child name the emotions.  Helping a child identify their feelings and allowing them to discuss why the feel that way is critical.  This allows the child to develop emotional intelligence and adaptive coping skills.

STEP FIVE:  Finding good solutions.  First, when disciplining a child for bad behavior, it is important to understand the problem is the behavior and not the feeling.  With firm limits in place, ask your child what they want to happen to feel better and then options are available to solve things.


Chung, R. C., & Bernak, F. (2002). The relationship of culture and empathy in cross-cultural counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD, 80(2), 154-159.
Eid, M., & Diener, E. (2001). Norms for experiencing emotions in different cultures: inter-and intranational differences. Journal of personality and social psychology, 81(5), 869.
Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal    of Personality and Social Psychology, 17(2), 124-129. Retrieved from:          doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0030377
Elfenbein, H.A., & Ambady, N. (2002) On the Universality and Cultural Specificity of Emotion Recognition: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin. 128(2). 203-235.
Ellsworth, P. C. (1994). Sense, culture, and sensibility. In S. Kitayama, & H. R. Markus (Eds.),   Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. (pp. 23-50) American         Psychological Association. Retrieved from: doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/10152-001
Frijda, N. H., & Mesquita, B. (1994). The social roles and functions of emotions. In S. Kitayama,  & H. R. Markus (Eds.), Emotion and culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence. (pp.    51-87) American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/10152-002
Harmon-Jones, E., Harmon-Jones, C., Amodio, D. M., & Gable, P. A. (2011). Attitudes toward emotions. Journal of personality and social psychology,101(6), 1332.
Leu, C.M. (2001). Emotions as Dynamic Cultural Phenomena. The Journal of Linguistic and       Intercultural Education, 4. 62-75.
McKay, M.; Wood, J.C.; & Brantley, J. (20107).  The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. Oakland, CA : New Harbinger Publications.
Pedersen, P. B., Crethar, H. C., & Carlson, J. (2008). Inclusive cultural empathy: Making relationships central in counseling and psychotherapy (1st ed.). American Psychological          Association. Retrieved from: doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/11707-003
Russell, A.J. (1994). Is There Universal Recognition of Emotion from Facial Expression? A          Review of the Cross Cultural Studies. Psychologial Bulletin 115(1). 101-141.
Tsai, J.L, Knutson, B., Fung, H.H., (2006). Cultural Variation in Affect Valuation. Journal of      Personality and Social Psychology. 90(2). 288-307. Retrieved from:           http://ezproxy.bellevue.edu:80/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/131977868  0?accountid=28125
Vohs, K.D., Baumeister, R.F., & Sage Productions,  (2007). Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Productions.

Share This: