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The Unspoken Emotions: Exploring the Cultural Ideals of Feeling

In the realm of emotions, our inner landscapes are often uncharted territories. Most research delves into the tangible realm of actual affect, the emotions we truly experience. However, Jeannie Tsai (2006) beckons us to explore a different facet - the ideal affect. These are the emotions we aspire to feel, the ones we consider ideal. This concept opens up a fascinating perspective on the cultural norms that shape our desires.

Tsai's work sheds light on how culture weaves the threads of emotional ideals. It's culture that tells us which emotions are virtuous and which are undesirable. As we engage with various aspects of our culture - practices, institutions, interactions - we subconsciously internalise these ideals. The process transforms cultural ideas into embodied reality, subtly guiding our behaviour even when we're unaware.

Tsai's research primarily focuses on how individuals wish to feel and the cultural influences on their emotional ideals. It explores the internalisation of these ideals and their impact on behaviour. Yet it leaves a critical question: how do therapists want to feel , or rather, how do they believe they "should feel" and what emotions do they consider desirable in the eyes of others?

Beyond the individual realm, there exists pervasive societal constructs that dictate which ways of thinking or expressing emotions are deemed legitimate, and which are scorned as nonsense or folly. Our values and knowledge are intricately woven into these constructs, manifesting in our beliefs and how we conduct ourselves as therapists.

Consider the social symbols and codes that define what is allowed or forbidden, right or wrong, good or bad, in the realm of emotions. Reflect on the broader emotional cultures that underlie the practise of self-injury - a practice often alluding to the dismissal and downplaying of negative emotions in social life.

In the context of therapy, these cultural ideas and unspoken emotional rules can manifest themselves in profound ways. How do they shape our interactions with clients, and how do they influence our therapeutic approaches? These questions beckoned us to dive deep deeper into the emotional undercurrents of our work.

John Jervis (1998) poignantly remarks “The curse of the modern self is that it cannot, must not forget itself. It the self is condemned to reflexivity”. This reflection calls for a deeper exploration of our own emotional landscapes as therapists, and how they intersect with the cultural ideals we've internalised.

As we navigate the intricate dance of emotions in therapy, let us not forget to turn the mirror inward. By understanding our own emotional ideals and cultural influences, we can better navigate the unspoken emotions that often lie beneath the surface of therapeutic interactions.

In the quest to help others navigate the emotional landscapes, we must first embark on our own journey of self-discovery, shedding light on the subtle yet powerful forces that shape our emotional selves.


Jervis, J., (1998). Exploring the Modern Patterns of Western Culture and Civilisation

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