The Feeling Function as Foundation of the Healthy Person

Somewhere in one’s person, relatively distinct from the ego and supraordinate to it, is a self that knows what is good for itself.

Fundamentally the organism that each of us is – the totality of what we call psyche and body – knows what is good for itself. We can see this most vividly in infants who have not yet been significantly conditioned by their environment. They suckle, they sleep, they cry, they smile, not on any imposed schedule, but, as we might say, “naturally,” in response to something innate. In Jungian terms, this “innate something” that regulates the organism – the physiological processes as well as the stages of physical, emotional, and psychological growth and development – functions as an “authority” with an agenda and a goal. This is part of what we mean by the term Self: an inner authority “distinct from the ego and supraordinate to it.” The inner authority with its agenda and its goal “knows what is good for itself,” which means that the Self in you and the Self in me knows what is good for you or for me as whole persons. This “knowing” is evidence of the feeling function in operation, independently of the conscious personality.

“Feeling” is a messy word in English: we use the same word to refer to several different experiences. “I feel hungry.” “I feel happy.” “I feel we should do xyz.” “What do you feel like doing?” Here we have four different usages of the same word: a physical condition (hungry), an emotional state (happy), a thought or belief (we should do xyz), and a desire or preference (feel like doing). 

The first two usages – feel hungry, feel happy – express a perception of something going on in oneself. We could more accurately say “happiness is happening” and “my consciousness perceives happiness,” or “hunger is happening” and my consciousness perceives it. The third usage – “What do you feel like doing?” – may really be asking: “What does the Self in you want you to do?” “What does that part of you, not your conditioned ego, want you to do that is good for itself [and therefore good for you, too]?” The fourth possibility – feel we should do – expresses some sense of duty or obligation and the possibility of choice. That may be the Self nudging consciousness, but it could just as well be a “learned should,” an artifact of something taken in from our environment that may have very little to do with the Self, with our innate capacity that “knows what is good for itself.” 

Our conditioned conscious personalities – your ego – and my conditioned conscious personality – my ego – may have other ideas of what’s good for you or for me. That’s where our conditioned consciousness and the essence that we call Self come into conflict. The conflict between the innate feeling function (one of the voices of the Self) and what our environment tells us is right and good for us collide shortly after birth. This conflict arises because we have to adapt to the environment in order to survive. In fact, we have to adapt to our environment throughout life, but we also have to find a way to live as much of our innate uniqueness as possible (i.e., the potential contained in the Self). Typically in the first half of life – up until 35 or 40 – establishing ourselves in the world takes most of our energy and attention. But after the decade of our 40s it becomes progressively more important and even urgent to develop a better balance between adaptation to the world and adaptation to what in us “wants” us to pay attention to it. 

Adaptation to our environment necessitates compromises, but they become problematic when the compromises block expression of our innate potential, i.e., the actualization of the Self. Blocked potentials don’t disappear; they remain as unlived life, showing up in daydreams, night dreams, fantasies and fascinations, or emotional and/or physical symptoms, and various forms of “acting out.” As we get older, the more the Self does not inform our waking life, the more our level of vitality suffers. We can recognize one aspect of our compromises in the sense – sometimes vague, sometimes clear and distinct – that what we are doing doesn’t suit us, “goes against the grain,” takes our energy but doesn’t give us anything in return. One of the major tasks in therapy with people after age 40 consists in developing a conscious relationship to the feeling function so that they can chose to evaluate everything in terms of suitable or unsuitable. “Am I operating out of habit, because it ‘feels’ comfortable?” “Is an activated complex driving me?” “Have I been infected by an emotion that could carry me off somewhere that really isn’t good for me?” “Am I crossing a developmental threshold, hence the ‘feeling’ of unfamiliarity?” “Is the Self is moving me on in life?”  

Developing a conscious relationship to the feeling function (one of the voices of the Self) means we have to scrutinize everything that moves us, pulls or pushes us toward one choice or another. We have to ask whether conditioning taught us to prefer something, or whether what we sense as a preference is the Self nudging us to actualize more of our innate potential. In principle, this is simple. In practice this demands careful reflection on what we value and why we value it. 

As I was writing this piece a former client in her mid-fifties whom I hadn’t seen for several months scheduled a “tune up” session. She had had “Great Success,” she said. “I have managed to disappoint several people.” She went on to relate several instances when she, an independent contractor, had gotten several job offers, all of which she had turned down. This had not been easy. Typically in the past she would have devised some compromise work-around to accommodate the other person. “I can make it work for a few months,” she rationalized as she thought about how to accept the offer. “Then I heard myself.” She had begun to be able to notice and honor the voice of the Self.

Somewhere in one’s person, relatively distinct from the ego and supraordinate to it, is a self that knows what is good for itself.

  1. Willeford, Wm. (1987). Feeling, Imagination, and the Self. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, p. 150.

July 2019 Boris Matthews, PhD, LCSW practices Analytical Psychology (a.k.a. Jungian Analysis) at the Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine in Pewaukee, WI. He is a teaching and supervising faculty member of the C. G. Jung Institute of Chicago, IL, and Director of the Analyst Training Program. He has been in practice since the mid-1980s.  To schedule an appointment, call the Ommani Center, 262-695-5311. Learn more at www.ommanicenter.com