In the following interview Susan Leigh Deppe, M.D., a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Vermont, College of Medicine, and member of the Board of Directors and Faculty of the Tomkins Institute in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, talks about the importance of affect and script theory for enriching restorative practices and the fun that will be had during the professional development event she'll be offering at the IIRP Main Campus on September 17 & 18, 2015.
Tell me about the 2-day professional development event you are offering, “Affect, Empathy and Connection: Creating Change with Restorative Practices.”
This event looks at relationships in terms of affect, the biological basis of feelings and emotion; why people do what they do; and how they change. We’re wired to want more affect that feels good, less that feels bad, and to express affects and get them out on the table. This is how we connect, and this is a big part of what restorative practices encourage. If we can help everyone — parents, teachers, religious leaders, business people, those in criminal justice — understand emotion and its management, we can do even more to help people make changes.
During the event, we’ll identify the affects and understand how they motivate people. Affects can be experienced and expressed at different levels of intensity. Affects are contagious, so our culture, parents and life experience influence how we modulate and display them. Affective resonance and accurate empathy [the ability to identify emotions accurately and respond accordingly] help us to feel understood and loved. When someone shows that he or she really understands how I am feeling, it feels good. In our professional development event, people will have a chance to examine their own affects and some of the scripts in their own lives and families. We’ll gain a much deeper understanding of common scripts used to manage affects, and I think they’ll be interesting.
What do you mean by scripts?
As we go through life, innate affects get triggered and linked with events and experiences, creating scripts (emotional rules), usually out of awareness. Some scripts are helpful; others are counterproductive.
A newborn baby, for example, needs to eat, and feels a gnawing hunger many times per day, triggering distress and crying. The parent picks her up, comforts her, and takes care of the problem. The positive affects of enjoyment or interest now replace the negative affect of distress. Now imagine the baby is two or three months old. She is in distress, and a parent shows up. The child may stop crying and smile upon seeing or hearing the parent, before she is fed! This is a script. She has learned to expect that she will feel better, but she cannot articulate it. She just knows. She now sees her parents as comforting and good.
A baby raised by abusive parents may be slapped, yelled at or ignored when she cries. Even if someone feeds and cleans her often enough for survival, her emotional experience is that the world is an unsafe, uncaring place. These things come into play even when we’re older. Adults are often unaware of their scripts and the experiences behind them. We may not understand why we bristle and want to shout at the boss every time he gives us instructions or appropriate feedback. It may be that the situation reminds us of something that felt similar in the past, such as an emotionally abusive parent. Our overreaction might be an example of a script that is counterproductive, rather than helpful.
Why is shame such an important affect?
Shame is particularly important in all relationships and in restorative practices. Many people are familiar with Dr. Donald Nathanson’s Compass of Shame from other IIRP trainings. When people experience the pain of shame, they tend to react automatically in one of four groups of ways: lashing out at others; attacking themselves; avoiding the feeling through machismo, thrill-seeking, or drugs; or withdrawing. We’ll expand our understanding of those scripts and their importance in society. We’ll also think in detail about what a healthy response to shame looks like and how we might promote it.
Shame, like all of the affects, is heavily scripted in our lives. The innate trigger is incomplete reduction of our experience of the positive affects (interest or enjoyment). Something partially “taps the brake” on our good feeling or “rains on our parade.” Whenever someone does something wrong or that others experience as hurtful, shame will be involved. Shame occurs in any relationship when we feel someone is not resonating with our affect (being empathic or understanding). Shame is a key part of the experience of failure, feeling “bad,” wrong, rejected, hurt, not heard, exposed or embarrassed. Plus, shame is the affect most closely linked to self-esteem.
Understanding how shame works can help us be empathic when it happens in us, our loved ones and those we work with. We’ll be able to stay calmer and see the pain hidden underneath shame behavior.
Restorative practices can help people rescript their responses to shame. At a really basic level they can begin to learn the healthy management of shame and other affects.
How did you first get involved in the psychology of affect?
I’m a psychiatrist, a physician who works with mental health. In my training there was no adequate comprehensive way to understand feelings and emotion. Different people knew and taught different parts from a theoretical perspective — cognitive science, neuroscience, pharmacology, the unconscious, dynamic psychotherapy — but no one drew it all together. Many of the theories lumped many negative emotions together as “anxiety.”
Shortly after I started my practice, I took a course with Dr. Nathanson at the American Psychiatric Association Annual Meeting. Nathanson extended the pioneering work of Dr. Silvan Tomkins on affect and script and brought it to many people. Tomkins clearly identified the different affects and their role in motivation. This hit the mark. My immediate reaction was, “I need this and my patients need this!” It has been life-changing in my practice and every other part of my life.
Can you explain a bit more how affect theory relates to restorative practices?
Tomkins and Nathanson pointed out that we’re wired to want to share and increase positive affects; to share and reduce or work through negative affects; and we do best when we minimize things that shut down affect expression, like extreme shaming, or abuse. Restorative practices provide an environment that facilitates these three things.
This can be dramatic in a restorative conference, where you have a very intense emotional experience, but people are treated with respect and support. They’re held accountable but not torn to shreds. Positive and negative affects may be intense, but when all feel heard and understood and take responsibility for their part, there is often a resolution. Afterwards people may be almost giddy with relief. You see it when they’re all standing around talking and eating with each other after the conference.
Even better than the one-time conference is to provide a constant restorative milieu beginning as early in life as possible. This happens in healthy families, restorative schools and faith communities and other places. People learn to soothe themselves, modulate affect, tolerate shame and other affects, expect and practice respect for all and script healthy behavior.
What else should people know about the 2-day event?
There will be a lot of interaction in this course — presentations, reflection, stories, video and group exercises. With two full days we get a chance to really understand and play with the ideas, and everyone gets a chance to participate a lot if they wish. There will be opportunities for personal reflection, though no one will be asked to share if they don’t want to. We may write, draw, talk, dance, or make notes for later. People can go home after the first day, sleep on the material overnight and then come back and explore it some more. I think it’s going to be really fun!
Learn more about Affect, Empathy and Connection: Creating Change with Restorative Practices, a 2-day event.