Affect in the Management of Vulnerability

Dorothea Leicher



There is no learning without vulnerability. Our affects, which developed out of instincts, amplify it. The article explores affect as body/mind bridge, foundation of consciousness, and part of language development (the common denominator being gesture, which expresses affect but is also an early stage of language.). Modern Psychoanalytic interventions (verbal gestures) are illustrated in context. The modulation of affect to a manageable process through interpersonal and intrapersonal attachment processes will also be explored, partly through the author’s experiences and analyses of some myths.


Vulnerability means the ability to anticipate being hurt.  It is one of the defining characteristics of life, down to single-cell organisms, who will try to get away from certain stimuli. Vulnerability is an achievement compared to inanimate matter which just gets impacted on by its environment.

Arguably, as humans we have reached the ultimate of vulnerability: partly because we are actually born in a more vulnerable state than comparative species, partly because our elaborate cognition allows us to anticipate danger and pain to a high degree.

I will use Sylvan Tompkins’ concept of affects to discuss vulnerability and its management, because I think it drives pain and comfort.. His concept of affect fits very well with relatively recent neurological information which has given us a lot of information about the role of movement-processing brain centers both for language and emotion. In the process I also hope to illustrate the importance of art.

During my professional life, language development has undergone a great elaboration and differentiation, similar to Freud’s elaboration of the developmental stages of sexuality, which in the beginning bear little resemblance to the fully developed skill. We know that language as well as affect originate in gesture, a symbolic movement, and that language centers are close to fine motor coordination centers. Managing movement is a central life task, and we have developed mechanisms to do it for our own activities but also monitor the action around us. Konrad Lorenz (1952) describes the path from instincts, inborn motor sequences, to affects, which express

partially charged instinctual impulses. Affect gets expressed in body posture and vocalization (“Stimmfuehlungslaut”) which with us become elaborated in dance and music. Language encompasses a wide range of symbolized movement, from the emotional engagement of myths and poetry to the emotionally attenuated declarative language we are used to in science. We can see the difference of perspective in two illustrations in the appendix, Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” and Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” We are more likely to associate the static image to “man “ although the “moving image” is more accurate. My thesis is, that because we find comfort in stability, permanence is overemphasized in our declarative language (attachment to ideas), whereas the assessment of movement and change is relegated to the subconscious. By studying the subconscious, psychoanalysis captures much of procedural knowledge. This is reflected in the developmental fluidity of concepts, which has gotten it in conflict with some forms of science, but biologists have a similarly “fluid” perspective since they are talking about history (evolution).

The perception of movement creates the impression of life, as I noticed with a sculpture in the Neue Pinakothek in Munich, where some shapeless blobs of fur on a tree-trunk could be motorized and made to “breathe”. I think that the experience of being part of a group depends on the experience of synchrony (therapeutic applications will be discussed later).

Tomkins has the idea that specific affects are triggered by patterns/changes in the stimulation we perceive: a gradual decrease in stimulation is experienced as joy, a sudden steep increase as startle/fear, a less steep increase arouses interest, chronic overstimulation as distress or in even

higher doses as anger. Since we developed surrounded by a great array of biological systems who can impinge on us, an acute sense of how they move has obvious advantages.

Both for our own individual mastery but also our being parts of groups, the ability to develop complex models of movement, and heuristics for them, is important (harmony= calm, dissonance = excitement). Art is the equivalent of formal logic for procedural knowledge and we find that people go through great length to practice it. Structurally, affect has a lot of similarity to music with communicative functions both to ourselves as well as the group around us. Music also teaches us to move from one affect to another, an important tool to manage distressing situations (as Churchill famously put it “if you’re going through hell, keep going”).

Functionally, affects direct our attention to salient (survival) features in our environment and selectively highlight them. Cytowitz’s (1998) idea that consciousness is a “flavorless” emotion, is an elaboration of that theme.  Affects enhance vulnerability: of the basic affects only joy and startle/interest are experientially positive/neutral, whereas distress, fear, anger, disgust, dissmell(contempt) and shame/guilt are aversive, AND we calm down from “positive” affects faster than from aversive ones. For our survival it is much more important to keep us out of harm’s way than to lure us to opportunities, but this also sets us up for the repetition compulsion. Happiness may be a side product of having averted some danger: Tomkins’ joy is related to a gradual decrease in stimulation (things falling into place).

By the same token, this provides support for the psychoanalytic idea that we heal by liberating people from a restricted affective repertoire: we will not create incessant bliss, but by being able to

have an unbiased “mix” we will cultivate emotionally significant lives. Affects shape our interpretation of events as well as our likely behavior.

If we have more aversive than attractive affects, how do we keep from becoming depressed and giving up? One interesting result of affect research has been that social interaction promotes positive affect. This is not accidental: If we look at the “cognitive elite” species (ravens, parrots, elephants, dolphins, primates) they all are very social. Wilson (2012) analyzes the development and advantages of social cooperation. Affective displays predominantly relate to our own group: if we compare intra- and inter-species aggression we can see that intra- group aggression elicits more intense anger, which deals with perceived unfairness, whereas predatory aggression to an out-group is a much less emotional event (except for the victim). Intra-group conflict fostered symbolization to avoid physical fights for status (many fights are settled by affective displays) . Being part of one’s social group is a need that trumps the need for food and rest short of complete exhaustion. Modern psychoanalysis explains mental illness as a conflict between anger and the need to stay within the social group/maintain relationships. In Antisocial Personality Disorders we see affective blunting, since they don’t have a psychological community, but also the vulnerability to addiction (which is part of the diagnosis). Flores (2004) describes addictions as attachment disorders.  The depth of our social need is demonstrated by the fact that solitary confinement is the ultimate punishment, and “existential despair” is the consequence of the highly individualistic existential philosophy. Affects take on communicative functions in groups, providing feedback on

the status of their members from moment to moment and organizing group behavior in an ongoing balancing act. Being a sustained part of a group gives us a sense of security, a psychological approximation of being in the womb, although we have to sacrifice the gratification of some impulses. It is interesting to note in this context that higher social status seems to be associated with decreased sensitivity to affect/emotions and also decreased affective display.

Dealing with our sustained sense of vulnerability and discomfort is a difficult balancing act and therefore has left traces in our myths and religions.

Various myths describe failed attempts at invulnerability: Achilles and Siegfried who are nearly invulnerable get killed from seemingly minor vulnerabilities, as does Baldur, who also represents a nearly perfect being . Persephone’s myth has a similar theme, although in her case her death becomes intermittent, because of her mother’s attachment. The themes of attachment and fertility are interwoven which expresses a biological truth. I believe that even the Christian story of suffering and resurrection is related to the fertility paradigm (hence Easter is celebrated in spring). Let me discuss the experience that shaped that idea, because it can illustrate “affective reasoning”. It started when I noticed that I was irritated by parts of Grunewald’s Resurrection, (see appendix) especially the “brightness” of Christ’s figure. It just seemed “wrong”. When I started to wonder what would be “right” I came up with the image which I tried to capture unsuccessfully in my illustration (see appendix ) I saw a simple scene just at the very break of dawn, with the sky mostly dark except a faint glimmering of light at the horizon. The earth was flat and muddy, with just the faintest suggestion of greenery being ready to sprout (as a match to the suggestion of dawn). Jesus’

figure stood upright, dark and slim, with his injuries from the flagellation and crucification visible, although as a recent past. I realized then that what had bothered me about Grunewald’s picture was that it was too ‘triumphant” and seemed a denial of the previous torture, rather than its integration and transcendence (a different “movement”) . I further realized the synchrony between the beginning day, beginning spring and beginning (after) life, which made them parts of a whole. I cannot claim “objective truth” but the multiple synchronies made it an experience of truth (if it moves the same it must be the same).

Back to myths and religion: Buddha also starts out seemingly invulnerable, and is thrown into turmoil by the unexpected experience of suffering and death, but manages to metabolize the experience into enlightenment and compassion.

The stories of “Arabian Nights” develop a similar theme: a powerful king is traumatized by the discovery of the unfaithfulness of his wife, and in a true trauma response, he repeats the situation by re-marrying only to kill his wife at the end of the night, so she won’t have a chance to betray him. Scheherazade, manages to break the cycle with masterful stories that keep him engaged. If we look at the stories, most of them are fairly fatalistic. Over and over the heroes deal with and sometimes transcend disappointments. One way to look at the overall cycle is to consider it a story of therapy, with the distinction that in this case the therapist did the talking. Scheherazade also stands out as a paragon of courage in submitting to vulnerability her very life is at stake and depends on her trust in keeping the king’s latent humanity engaged to want to hear the end of the

story – which has some resemblance to analytic treatment: we trust in the patient’s desire to tell their story and come out of trauma.

Affective resonance in a dyad or group may have a particular relation to joy which is associated with a gradual decrease in stimulation. If we engage with a responsive other or a group in a particular affective state, they are likely to resonate with us, but with reduced intensity, subtly down-regulating our stimulation, which should trigger joy. Solomon and Tatkin (2011) postulate that affective resonance is the cornerstone of satisfaction in a relationship. Modern Psychoanalysis independently developed along similar lines: Spotnitz was interested in engaging people with early relationship trauma (originally schizophrenics) who were too guarded and pre-verbal to engage in object-transference relationships, and was able to develop techniques which did not focus on the cognitive content of what a patient said, but imitated formal features of the patient’s communication (e.g. if the patient asked a question, the analyst asked a question back, often with totally unrelated content) From an affective point of view, the patient’s verbalization was taken as gesture and responded with a reciprocal gesture. It was found that these interventions (mirroring, joining, reflecting) when used repeatedly, did facilitate engagement and attachment even from severely withdrawn people.

Empathic resonance and compassion have healing potential, as the climax of the Parcifal myth shows: the hero is given two opportunities to heal Amfortas, the king of the Grail by asking what ails him and blows the first one by emotional inexperience. He has to make up by a long journey of suffering and is able to redeem himself and Amfortas the second time. When we work with

depressives and antisocial personality disorders we have particular struggles to get to the point where we can ask and get the healing answer: Both disorders are characterized by difficulties with vulnerability. In depressives we typically find an anxious reaction to situations that would engender hope in others – depressives not only expect disappointment, but also the absence of comfort, which makes the phobic about it, and they often also show a fear of dependency for similar reasons. People raised to become antisocial have been ridiculed for being vulnerable and internalized that disdainful attitude towards themselves. I believe their repeated victimization of others is a defense against experiencing their vulnerability (just like a maniac is afraid of depression).. I have a client who experienced an extensive series of traumata and has overcome them by helping others, not from a “superior” position but by re-experiencing their and her own affects in a attenuated form, and taking meaning in her suffering from her ability to empathize with others.

So far we have talked mostly about basic affects, and I have mentioned the similarity of their structure with music. This becomes especially evident when we look at sequences of affects that follow each other. Tomkins develops “script theory”, the entrainment of repetitive affective sequences shaped by our environment. I do believe that this is a refinement of repetition compulsion: Just as children are born equally sensitive to any sound of any language, but become sensitized to their native language over the first two years, I believe families have affective profiles and repetitions that the children get entrained into and then repeat because they become a representative of the home group.


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Dorothea Leicher may be contacted at:

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