How do you feel? Why emotions matter in psychiatry

R. Rosfort1, G. Stanghellini2,3

1 Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre, University of Copenhagen, Denmark; 2 University “G. d’Annunzio”, Chieti, Italy; 3 “Diego Portales” University, Santiago, Chile


This article argues for the importance of investigating emotions in psychiatry. In a time dominated by striding naturalistic explanations of mental illness, phenomenological psychopathology provides a crucial investigation into the subjective aspect of the disordered mind. Emotional phenomena are Janus-faced in the sense that they bring out the complex interplay of impersonal, biological and personal features of mental illness. We propose a framework for understanding emotional experience that is grounded in four key points: a general concept of “affectivity”, the definition of “emotion” as felt motivation to move, the distinction between “affect” and “mood” according to their intentional structure and the dialectics between affects and moods. The reason why emotions matter in psychiatry is that mental suffering brings out an emotional fragility that we argue is constitutive of personal identity. Emotional experience reveals an intimate alienation at the heart of our mental life. What we feel is our own experience, but in this experience we may feel that we are not ourselves. To be a person is to live with this affective experience of selfhood and otherness. Emotions disclose an inescapable fragility at the heart of our identity that plays a significant role in our vulnerability to mental illness. We propose a model constructed upon the theoretical assumption that the fragility characterising human personhood stems from the dialectics of selfhood and otherness at the core of being a person. These dialectics become particularly evident in the way our moods challenge our sense of personal identity by complicating our relation to norms and values. In fact, we argue that moods are the most conspicuous epiphany of otherness in human life, in that they, more than other experiences, complicate our sense of being who we are. By way of conclusion, we illustrate our model with a phenomenological and hermeneutical analysis of the experience and meaning of shame.

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