What Are Feelings For?

9 Months To Birth Your Play

9 Months To Birth Your Play is a new series designed for artists to explore well-being-centred approaches to their practice whilst gaining a more rigorous understanding of the psychology of drama. 8 Well-being Workshops by neuro-psychodynamic coaching psychologist Anna Webster run alongside Writing Workshops from 9 exemplary artists working in the wonderful world of new writing today.

The next workshop to be published will be Imagining Theatrical Worlds by Ava Wong Davies on Friday 7th June. 

Well-being Workshop 2: What Are Feelings For?


As we explored in Workshop 1, the more we practice mindfulness, the more we can notice and understand our internal landscape of feelings, sensations, thoughts, and fantasies as well as those of others.

Something it’s particularly important to become more aware of is feelings and emotions, both your own and those of others. This awareness has the potential to improve both your wellbeing and your playwrighting process. Feelings are central to the human experience and play a much greater role in our lives than is generally understood or acknowledged. They are also very important in the playwrighting process in ways that we will discover. So why do we have feelings? What is their function?

Please pause for a moment to think of an answer to this question and write it down:

What are feelings for?

The founder of Emotion Neuroscience, the late Jaak Panksepp said; “We have feelings because they tell us what supports our survival and what detracts from our survival.”

We are self-organizing system with one fundamental task. To keep existing. It is ‘good’ to survive and ‘bad’ not to survive. At the most basic level, whether we feel pleasure or unpleasure tells us how we are doing in relation to our survival and thrival needs. Feeling good indicates that we are heading towards meeting our survival and thrival needs and feeling bad indicates that we are heading away from meeting our survival and thrival needs.

Feelings also compel us to do something. They are like a compass, guiding our predictions, decisions, behaviour in order to meet our survival and thrival needs. This happens at a bodily and emotional level. For example, at a bodily level, thirst feels bad and the action of quenching it by drinking feels good. This is because it is necessary to maintain your hydration with the range that supports survival and thrival. At an emotional level, being separated from a caregiver can feel bad and the action of reunion can feel good. This is because it is necessary to maintain emotional bonds that support survival and thrival.

Depending on how our brains work, it is usually relatively easy and instinctual to meet our bodily needs. If we are thirsty we feel and detect this need in our bodies, we need a drink and we have one. If we need a wee, we feel and detect this need in our bodies and we go to the toilet. But we have to work harder to meet our emotional needs. This is often because meeting them also involves other sentient beings who have needs and feelings of their own. It is also because the feelings associated with our emotional needs may be more difficult to detect and feel in our bodies.

So how do we feel our bodily and emotional feelings? We feel them through our senses and sensations. And one of the most important ways in which we feel sensations is through a sense called interoception.

Interoception can be defined as the awareness of the inside of your body, including heart rate and breathing. It is also the sensations related to emotional feelings; the butterflies in the stomach, the fizzing surging in the legs, the empty feeling in the chest.

Mindfulness of Feelings Activity

Stop for a minute, close your eyes, take a deep breath and try to notice any internal sensations you have currently. What’s the feeling in your stomach, is there tightness in your shoulders, can you feel parts of your body or do they feel numb? What emotional feelings or lack of feelings do you think might be linked to these sensations? Try to name and label the feelings. Putting words to feelings helps you to feel and regulate them. Is that jumping feeling in your stomach anxiety or the anticipation of seeking? Is that tightness at the back of your neck anger? ‘name it to tame it’.

Building awareness of and attunement to your internal feelings and emotions could be beneficial for your wellbeing and in your process of playwrighting. What do you think some of these benefits could be? Take 5 minutes to think about this and note them down.

If you are aware and attuned to your feelings you may be:

  • Able to write with more emotional truth and honesty about people, experiences and emotions that you have a true feeling for.
  • Driven by a sense of empathy and compassion for your story and characters.
  • Less defensive and more curious, open and responsive.
  • Able to access the emotional vulnerability that can be needed to write from the heart and inhabit a state of flow.
  • Empowered to process, regulate and express your emotional experiences and feelings.
  • Able to create plays that allow audiences to experience the validation, containment, processing and expression of feelings through vicariously identifying with, relating to and feeling the character’s emotions.
  • Able to create plays that make audiences feel a sense of empathy and belonging through sharing in common emotional experiences and feelings.

It is also important to be aware that sensory and emotion processing can be affected by neurodiversity and/or trauma which can mean that sensory information is processed and regulated differently. Some people can be under or over responsive to sensory information. This can also then affect the processing and regulation of feelings and emotions – meaning that they under or over respond emotionally.


So, now let’s look at how feelings can be defined. According to Jaak Panksepp, the founder of emotion neuroscience, our emotional feelings can be categorised into 7 primary systems:


Now let’s watch the first part of a Ted Talk on this. Please stop the talk at 9 minutes 13 seconds in:

The science of emotions: Jaak Panksepp at TEDxRainier (youtube.com)

Panksepp finds that of these 7 feelings systems, the seeking system is the most important – because of this importance, we are going to focus on the seeking system for the rest of this workshop.

For survival, we are wired to seek what we need. The seeking system is our driver, our guide and our default emotion. According to Mark Solms, the founder of Neuropsychoanalysis, through foraging we learn what things in the world satisfy our needs:

“Seeking generates exploratory ‘foraging’ behaviour, accompanied by a conscious feeling state that may be characterised as expectancy, interest curiosity, enthusiasm or optimism.” – Mark Solms

SEEKING is unusual among the basic feelings systems in that it proactively engages with uncertainty and this is the origin of novelty seeking and risk taking behaviours.

But the engagement with uncertainty serves the fundamental function of the seeking system which is actually to gain certainty over survival of the self. Through foraging, we take the risks of exploring interesting and uncertain things so that we know what to expect in the future. We engage with uncertainty in order to be able to predict how to meet our needs in the world with more certainty.

Seeking & Theatre

When we are writing drama, the seeking system is often at the heart of the story. The journey of exploration and engaging with uncertainty is what our characters undertake, and this journey creates engagement and curiosity in the audience.

The dramatic stories you write need to serve a survival function for your audiences. Uncertainty is threatening to our survival and to meet our survival needs we seek to minimise uncertainty so that we will know what to expect in the future. Through dramatic story we can experience the feelings of excitement and anticipation of uncertainty through the experiences of the characters without it being a real threat to our survival and thrival. At the same time, we can experience the satisfaction of characters meeting their need for certainty when risks, however small, are resolved.

Think about a play you have worked on and take 10 minutes to consider the following questions and jot down your answers:

  • How do your characters engage with foraging behaviour, exploring interesting and uncertain things?
  • How might this engagement with uncertainty make your audience feel?
  • What are the predictions and decisions that they make live in the moment that are an attempt to seek certainty? How do your characters experience the satisfaction of risks being resolved?

Although we have this fundamental need to seek certainty for survival and thrival, the reality is that life is defined by continual change, uncertainty and loss as well as gain. We also live in a marketized culture where we are constantly surrounded by uncertainty, unpredictability and messages that we need more.

Tara Brach talks about this continuous change and uncertainty: “Existence is inherently dissatisfying. We are uncomfortable because everything in our life keeps changing – our inner moods, our bodies, our work, the people we love, the world we live in. We can’t hold onto anything – a beautiful sunset, a sweet taste, an intimate moment with a lover, our very existence as the body/mind we call self – because all things come and go. Lacking any permanent satisfaction, we continuously need another injection of fuel, stimulation, reassurance from loved ones, medicine, exercise, and meditation. We are continually driven to become something more, to experience something else.”

We are driven by the feeling that something is missing or wrong. Perpetually leaning into the next moment, hoping it will offer the satisfaction, comfort, security and certainty that the present moment does not.

In playwriting, we can have a tendency for this forward momentum and trying to meet the survival need for certainty by rushing to the end. This can be particularly the case when starting a play.

Pause to think about the ways in which you might do this.

Perhaps what you thought about included overwhelming yourself by thinking I’ve got to write 90 pages or I’ve got to write a Bruntwood Prize-winning play. You might set yourself restrictions about only having x number of characters because you’re already thinking about what it’s going to be like in a rehearsal room.

Mindfulness and Seeking

In our last workshop we looked at how mindfulness can help with awareness of our current experience, and this can also apply to how much we are leaning into the future to seek certainty more than engagement with open curiosity in the present moment.

We are now going to do a guided reflection exercise on the seeking system.

Guided Reflection:

Sit in a comfortable position, in a way that allows you to be present and at ease. Drop your shoulders and take a deep breath in and out. Close your eyes and when you feel settled, ask yourself the following question:

In this present moment, what are you seeking? What does your heart most long for?

Your initial answer could be that you want some chocolate, to feel less stressed about making it as a writer, or maybe you’re wishing you could get to the end of this session so you can watch more of that Netflix series. Ask again and listen deeply, accepting whatever spontaneously arises. Continue in this way for several minutes, asking yourself the question, pausing and paying attention in an accepting and non-reactive way to any thoughts, sensations and feelings. Be patient and relaxed – with time, as you listen to your heart, your deeper longings might emerge. Experience what you are seeking with an open and embodied presence. This could help you to tap into the needs that lie beneath your feelings. This could also help you to understand the needs and seeking feelings of your characters and audiences.

Home Practice

Before the next session, try noticing your internal sensations and how they relate to how you are feeling. Try naming these feelings and notice when they are in the seeking system. Also, notice when your characters are in the seeking system in your own writing and other plays.

In our next session we’ll be looking at the three psychological needs that underly the seeking system.

About Anna Webster…

Anna is a Coaching Psychologist, Wellbeing Coach and Psychotherapist in Training. She specialises in coaching psychology workshops and 1:1 programmes informed by emotion neuroscience, neuropsychoanalysis, and dialectical behaviour therapy.

Anna works for The University of Salford on SPECIFiC; a 7-session therapeutic psychoeducation coaching programme on the neurodevelopmental condition FASD, the first of its kind in the UK. She co-wrote the manual, co-delivers the programme and leads on Public Involvement. She was a member of the Steering Group on the UK’s first FASD prevalence study and was consulted as an expert by experience for the NICE Guidelines on FASD. She is also a Health and Wellbeing Coach for the NHS.

Published on:
24 May 2024


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