‘Banned Emotions: How Metaphors Can Shape What People Feel’: Book Review

Sierra Moreno reviews Laura Otis’ Banned Emotions: How Metaphors Can Shape What People Feel (Oxford University Press: 2019).

To feel an emotion is to experience a movement. When something affects us emotionally, we might describe it as moving, and when encountering a person in distress, we may feel moved to help. The word “emotion” itself is derived from the Latin emouvere, “to move out,” an origin highlighting emotion’s status not so much as a collection of fixed categories (happy, sad, fearful, angry, and so on) but rather as a continuous act of translation between the inner and the outer, a solidification of wordless internal topographies into communicable things. When one expresses an emotion, it moves out of the private self and into the social world of language—and this movement works both ways, the boundary between the personal and the social being an altogether permeable one. The way that we feel internally may influence the language we use to give shape to our emotions, but how we hear emotions described by others also, in turn, has an effect on the way that we assess our inner states. In short, language—and metaphor in particular—has the power to shape what and how we feel.

It is with this idea of emotion as a movement or exchange, an act of translation between the internal and the external, that neuroscientist and literary scholar Laura Otis is primarily concerned in her most recent book, Banned Emotions, a study of the relationship between metaphor and emotion which is far-reaching in its scope and compelling in the questions it raises, touching upon an eclectic array of texts ranging from classics like Dante’s Inferno to Daniel Goleman’s popular 1995 self-help book Emotional Intelligence, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to the 2011 comedy film Bridesmaids. In Banned Emotions, Otis weaves together current scientific theories of emotion and literary criticism into a thoroughly interdisciplinary project which, at its heart, is an argument for the importance of considering literature in any study of emotional life. Literary descriptions of complex emotional experiences can, as Otis mentions, prompt a reader to simulate those same experiences within themselves, to “recall and recombine their own past sensory experiences so that they can feel what the characters are feeling” (Otis 2019: 3). In this way, a skillfully-crafted depiction of character interiority can train a reader in what psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett has called “emotional granularity” (Feldman Barrett 2006: 25), meaning the level of specificity with which a person can identify and describe in words their emotional state. Fictional descriptions of a character’s emotional experience can serve as a model upon which to map one’s own emotions, teasing out new threads of complexity which may not have been readily apparent to the person feeling it before finding it clearly delineated on the page. A novel description of an emotion can, in this sense, bring it out of the realm of the just-barely sensed and into reality for the reader, giving their feeling a clear shape in language.

Otis begins her argument with a thorough discussion of how descriptions of emotional life have the capacity to highlight new, previously hidden aspects of our emotions, reframing the way that we think of them for better or worse. This view of emotion is derived from the theory of conceptual metaphor first laid out by cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their 1980 book, Metaphors We Live By. In it they contend that metaphors are not just the rhetorical flourishes one sees adorning poetic language, but also—and more importantly—essential cognitive tools necessary for humans to conceptualize abstract ideas like emotions by comparing them to palpable things. Otis recounts how, in a later study, Lakoff collaborated with linguist Zoltán Kövecses to argue, in Otis’s words, that “many emotional expressions emerge from a central, conceptual metaphor” (Otis 2019: 22): that of the human body as a container for the emotions. For example, many of our metaphors for anger involve conceptualizing it as a substance (often a hot liquid) escaping from the body to harm others. However, in the case of emotions identified by Otis as “banned”—self-pity, resentment, grudge-bearing, and spite—this is not the case.

As Otis astutely points out, each is a quieter offshoot of anger, very often (though not always) arising in people who cannot afford the luxury of expressing their rage in more open terms. To use her phrasing, each is a form of “anger flattened by fear” (Otis 2019: 2), turned subterranean by the admonishments of a dominant culture which routinely discourages people with less power from giving voice to their discontentment within a system that does not benefit them. Such banned emotions are depicted not in terms of a scathing-hot substance being released from the body, but rather as something toxic trapped within. A person who vocalizes their anger reaches their boiling point; a person who keeps it quiet simmers.

Chapters 1 through 3 of Banned Emotions focus primarily on conceptual metaphors such as these, analyzing the ways in which such casually thrown-out commonplaces as “move on” frame life as a journey of forward motion through which a person moves smoothly enough until encountering an emotional obstacle halting their progress. Otis cites an early example of this in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which features a literal emotional mire called the “Slough of Despond” in which unwary travelers are wont to “wallow” (Otis 2019: 28). Banned emotions, she argues, often follow this formula, with those who feel them becoming associated with the ill-health that goes along with a lack of movement and the filth that follows an act of wallowing. Such correlations can saddle these emotions with enough of a stigma that those experiencing them might (and often do) deny feeling them at all.

An 1894 illustration of the Slough of Despond by William Strang

In Chapters 4 and 5, Otis shifts her focus to an array of fictional texts published between 1864 and 2005, analyzing the specific metaphors their authors employ when representing their characters’ emotional suffering. While these chapters can be justified as providing examples of the sort of descriptions capable of instructing readers in the practice of Feldman Barrett’s “emotional granularity,” if I were to give one critique of Banned Emotions, it would be that this section takes up perhaps more space than necessary in such a slim volume. While Otis provides some compelling close-readings (I particularly enjoyed her discussion of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground in Chapter 5), it is at times unclear how her insights tie in with her overarching argument—namely, that clothing banned emotions in shameful metaphors discourages people who have legitimate cause for grievance from voicing their feelings of unhappiness.

In Chapter 6, however, Otis moves on to relate a fascinating history of metaphors used to represent the emotions of scorned women from Virgil’s Aeneid to Siri Hustvedt’s 2011 novel The Summer Without Men, relating her analyses of such literary depictions to the psychological theory of attachment. Attachment, as she points out, is yet another conceptual metaphor, framing human relationships in such a way as to highlight some aspects while hiding others. The term attachment, she writes “suggests gluing one solid object to another—creating an appendage that the first object did not always have and in the future may not need…‘Attachment’ and ‘detachment’ carry mechanical connotations” (Otis 2019: 113-114). Otis offers up the alternative metaphors of “Interweaving, imbricating, blending, growing together, [and] genetically combining” (Otis 2019: 114) as potentially more representative metaphors for relationships; each emphasizes the organicism of human bonds and the consequent difficulty of teasing apart the emotional tissue grown between two people “after years of interdependence” (Otis 2019: 114). The metaphor of attachment is a pervasive one, and when used to describe the emotional experience of such jilted women as those discussed by Otis in her final chapter, tends to cast their struggle in a somewhat unforgiving light.

Banned Emotions makes a compelling argument for the careful consideration of the metaphors we choose when discussing the emotions of people in distress. As Otis makes clear in the book’s conclusion, regulating banned emotions such as self-pity, resentment, grudge-bearing, and spite is more often than not a good thing, but the most effective way of regulating one’s emotions is not to deny feeling them out of shame but, instead, to be allowed to express them in a nonjudgmental environment. The outward expression of emotions is what allows them to “move out” of the self—which, as the origin of the word suggests, is just what they’re meant to do. Overall, the book a hopeful and empathetic read, filled with histories of emotion metaphors that will fascinate any lover of the English language. I would highly recommend it to scientists, historians of emotion, literary scholars, and anybody looking to cultivate more compassion and open communication surrounding emotional experience in their lives.


Feldman Barrett, Lisa. 2006. Solving the Emotion Paradox: Categorization and the Experience of Emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(1): 20-46.

Sierra Moreno is a recent graduate of the University of Glasgow’s MLitt program in English Literature. She currently lives in Oregon, where she tutors English and works as a contract writer and editor.

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