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Unveiling the emotion paradox: Authentic self-hood and the unspoken dialogue.

While emotions are an undeniable part of our existence, open discussions about specific or general emotions are surprisingly rare. The cultural landscape seems marked by an inability to articulate emotional states, leading to what could be called “emotional inarticulacy” (Chandler, 2016; Brownlie, 2014).

The emotional register, a Western culture consumed by the veneration of the human psyche. Where emotions are elevated to a quasi-religious status. This culture extolls the belief that emotions need to be unearthed from within us and that they stand at the core of our mental well-being (Steggals, 2015). It portrays feelings as entities that must be liberated from the depths of our inner selves, emphasising their significance.

Late modern culture has developed a near 'fetishistic' relationship with emotions. This is a consequence of regarding emotions as extensions of our ‘true’ and ‘inner selves’. In this view, emotions are seen as something inherently personal and profound, held within the depths of the individual. (Like marbles in a jar)

With my research, I wish to open new avenues of consideration, especially for therapists working with clients who self-injure. I prompt therapists to ponder on the origin of emotions, do they originate from a concealed and enigmatic inner self - do we first experience emotions internally, sharing them only selectively with others? How closely connected or detached are therapists from their clients during therapy sessions?

Within the available literature on the subject, there appears to be a strong emphasis on the internal and individual aspects of emotion. It perpetuates the notion that emotions are primordial and dominant elements of our existence. It is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it births and nurtures the concept of a 'talking cure' (as first introduced and set out by Freud) where the act of talking (in therapy or otherwise) about our feelings is believed to be curative (Steggals, 2015). Everywhere we turn, there is an injunction to share and communicate our emotions rather than bottling them up. As therapists, we make a living from this very stance!

This phenomenon can be termed the 'expressive imperative' and a normative prescription, rooted in the specific model of subjectivity. It suggests expressing emotions is not merely an option, but a bio-psychological necessity for maintaining mental stability and well-being.

Foucault notes this imperative to confess and express lies with ideals of salvation, liberation, and mental health (Foucault, In Schneck, 1987). Indeed, everywhere we turn we are met with the injunction to talk and to share our feelings rather than ‘bottle it up’. As therapists, teachers, coaches and supervisors, we urge clients, colleagues, friends, family and children to 'get it all out' or 'a problem shared is a problem halved’...

Our emotional vocabulary plays a pivotal role in how we perceive and discuss self-injury. Terms like 'overwhelming' and 'intolerable' are used to code problematic emotions - indeed, perhaps the most common reason given by people who self-injure is that doing so releases tension and calms them down (Fickle, 2007). The 'expressive imperative' warns us of the potential build-up and dysregulation of emotions and the ensuing risk to our mental equilibrium and our clients.

At the heart of this discourse lies the dichotomy between the expression and repression of emotion. Repression is a process that attempts to bury thoughts and feelings, preventing their transformation into thoughts and words. This repression is believed to result in unprocessed or partially processed feelings building pressure within the individual - a pressure that self-harm seeks to release.

The ideal of psychological self-expression has been romanticised as the best way to communicate and avoid mental health problems. This concept permeates media, articles and general conversations around mental health exasperating ways to 'talk therapy'. The role of interpersonal social context in shaping emotions and feelings is critical to understanding self-injury and working with those who self-injure. Interestingly, my recent research suggests that therapists' use of metaphor mirrors the analogies often used by fellow therapists, lay persons and those who self-injure themselves to describe the functions of self-injury, for example like releasing ‘a pressure valve’ or a ‘clock ticking’ (Spandler, 1996) -"Feelings can threaten to boil alive from the inside out" (Inkle, 2010).

I would like to challenge the notion that feelings are stored up inside us like marbles in a jar, in need of supervision and regulation. In managing feelings, we play a role in creating a build-up that necessitates a further iterative process of management and control. The actual meaning of emotions are lost then because they are framed through the objectivist paradigm as fluid energies or substances within a system, much like blood flows through the arteries, so do emotions? A life principally described as an issue of systematic management and psychic regulation. Clinical research has little guilt with the unproblematic separation of emotions from the body, and indeed feeling from social context. Both lay and professional discourse about self-injury is infused with neurobiological language and biochemical terminology (Davies, 2021) and is unhelpful.

It is therefore important to examine how therapists navigate / talk about their own emotions and subscribe to notions of individualism, mind/body separation, inner/outer emotional states, and emotional withholding or expression during client interactions.

In this labyrinthine exploration of emotions, we’re compelled to question the boundaries between our inner and outer worlds, emotions and expression and the cultural constructs that shape our understanding of selfhood and authenticity. As therapists, this self-examination becomes a vital tool in navigating the complex terrain of emotions and mental well-being for ourselves and our clients!


Brownlie, J. (2014) Ordinary Relationships. A Sociological Study of Emotions, Reflexivity and Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan).

Chandler, A. (2016). Self-Injury, Medicine and Society. Palgrave Macmillan

Davies, J. (2021). Sedated: How Modern Capitalism Created Our Mental Health Crisis. Atlantic Books Ltd.

Fickle, T (2007). Whose Fear is it anyway? Working with young people who dissociate. In H. Schneck, S.F. (1987). Michel Foucault on power/discourse, theory and practice. Hum Stud10, 15–33. & S. Warner (2007) Beyond Fear and Control: PCCS BOOKs Ltd.Steggles, P. (2015). Making sense of self-harm: The cultural Meaning and Social Context of Nonsuicidal Self-Injury. Palgrave Macmillan

Spandler, H. (1996). Who’s Hurting Who? Young people, Self-Harm and Suicide, Manchester 42nd Street

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