In the Zone

This section will expand upon the way the zone (midpoint between avoidance and flashback) might allow for enough safety to experience any backlog of emotion, no matter how seemingly overwhelming. How can one feel safety, and indeed, even pleasure, when experiencing intense emotions that are ordinarily felt as unbearable or overwhelming?

The idea of the zone, of being both in emotions and out of them, is hinted by what Levine (2010) calls “pendulation,” swinging like a pendulum back and forth between what he refers to as expansion and contraction of one’s emotions. The idea of the back and forth motion seems to lie at the very center of being in the zone, but it may be explained in a different way than is suggested by Levine.

Linguists and other scholars have long proposed that the self is made up of a back and forth motion. They begin by pointing to the learning of language: what seems to make all of the various human languages possible, as opposed to the instinctive vocabularies of other mammals, is the ability to see a conversation not only from own point of view, but also to imagine the point of view of the other speaker. This process of moving back and forth between one’s own and the point of view imagined for the other is called “taking the role of the other,” or, for short, “role-taking.” Human language, since in actual usage it is almost always highly fragmented and incomplete, and since most commonly used words have more than one meaning, would be impossible to understand without role-taking on both sides.

In modern societies, particularly, with their focus on individualism, there are incentives for forgetting that one is role-taking. Each of us learns to think of ourselves as a stand-alone individual, completely independent of what others think. C. H. Cooley, an early U.S. sociologist, said it most succinctly: “We live in the minds of others without knowing it.”

Safety Through Role-taking

An example that illustrates a moment of confidence in the face of strong emotions comes from my own life. It occurred long ago, the night after my first group therapy session. As I was telling my then-girlfriend how envious I was when others were crying during the session, I began to cry myself. This episode lasted some fifteen minutes, and was a huge surprise to me. I was 40 at the time: it was probably my first real cry in 30 or so years. The crying part of my then-self was completely unknown to me.

A few minutes after I had stopped crying, an episode of anger began. Unlike the crying, this episode happened to include an explicit sign suggesting that I was in the zone, as indicated below. I began to feel colossally angry, but without the faintest notion of what I was angry about (just as I hadn’t known what I was crying about). Without any volition on my part, I began to growl, writhe and bite the air. As in the crying, my body seemed to take over. The writhing became so pronounced that I fell out of bed.

Finding myself on a shag rug provided a target for my anger; without hesitation I began to bite the rug. But then a thought: what will Rachel think of me acting in this ridiculous way (an example of an attempt at role-taking). Since I couldn’t guess, I stopped what I was doing and looked up at her, saying: “Are you OK?” She smiled, “Go ahead. Do your thing.” I resumed writhing, growling and biting as if without interruption. It would seem that in the zone, one not only has the sense of control, but in fact, one does have control. As in theatre, if it gets too heavy, you can always get up and walk out.

Since there were no more interruptions that night, I won’t describe my further experiences of fear and shame. However, all four episodes suggest another aspect of the zone: experiences with normally fierce emotions can be pleasurable rather than painful. My encounters with grief, anger, fear and shame each seemed a bit like a diversion, a ride on an elegant rollercoaster. Needless to say, I felt utterly reborn the next day.


This essay has suggested a way of treating depression in terms of unresolved emotions. To the extent that this suggestion proves to be useful, modern societies may have to change their attitudes and behaviors toward emotions. At present our models tell us either to disparage emotions or act them out. “Action” films, for example, provide models of acting out anger and vengeance as the manly thing to do, rather than negotiations that would minimize violence. The Top 40, the most popular of the pop songs, reiterate the message that being unable to bear the loss of one’s lover shows the depth of love, rather than the inability to enter the mourning zone (Scheff 2011). Changing these patterns will take considerable time and stamina, so we had better get started.


Danylchuk, Lynette. 2011. A blog on the online forum Psychology Central.

Freud, Sigmund. 1966. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. New York: Norton (1922).

Gilligan, James. Violence – reflections on a national epidemic. New York: Vintage Books (1997)

Levine, Peter. 2010. In an Unspoken Voice. Berkeley: North Atlantic.

Scheff, Thomas. 1979. Catharsis in Healing. Ritual and Drama. University of California Press (Reissued by iUniverse 2001).

_____________2007. Catharsis and Other Heresies. Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology, 1 (3), 98-113.

Siegel, D. J. 1999. The Developing Mind. New York: Guilford.

Websdale, Neil. 2010. Familicidal Hearts: The Emotional Style of 211 Killers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.