Emotions: What to do with them?!
As a beginner Psychology student, I assumed that emotions being a key element of human experience most of the undergraduate degree subjects would attempt the understanding of emotions and their use in therapy. After all, the definition of the word “emotion” is “strong feeling”, “state of consciousness", and its origin is in the latin “emovere”= to MOVE. That is what they do. Emotions move us, they stir us. Therefore of course they would receive a special attention from psychological therapies. Wouldn’t they?
Deceivingly, in my training and in my clinical experience as a Psychologist and Systemic Psychotherapist, emotions have hardly reached the attention they deserve. Quite the opposite. In my years of practice I have come to realise that often psychotherapy does not know what to do with strong emotional responses.
In the best scenario, emotions can be“contained” but do they really have the space they deserve? Emotions and feelings show up in therapeutic sessions all the time: sorrow, pain but also anger, excitement. If I look back now I see that for years probably my instinctive reaction with strong emotions in the room was to try to save my clients from them, make them feel like they will be alright and that I almost had to protect them from such overwhelming states. I felt like I had to fix them.
But was this right? Not really. Emotions are not only (luckily so!) unavoidable in therapy but they are also the master key to access change. If we want change in emotional responses, we have to work with emotions directly.
This is what become more and more clear tome when I started reading about Emotionally Focused Therapy and the books of Sue Johnson a few years ago. But it is when I attended her 4 days externship in New York City that I felt the change was really starting to happen for me as a therapist. I realised I was surrounded by colleagues that like me used to be afraid of emotions coming out in sessions, especially in couple and family therapy where emotions take place in front of us, between people. I finally started to really see that we need to embrace emotions as they come, not contain or fix them, but to stay with them and even try to intensify them as their power is necessary for change to happen.
Only if we expose emotions to people and to their relationship they will be able to address the core of their difficulties. After all, the primary role of the therapist is to help the client regulate their emotions, the mother does with the baby, as explained by John Bowlby in Attachment Theory.
This attitude of being afraid of emotions is significantly embedded in the culture in which we live in. Working and living in Great Britain I realise every day how we constantly receive many implicit messages suggesting we should not reveal how we feel and show our emotions, but rather conceal or at best “dominate” them.The first reaction of almost every client the first times they cry in a session is to feel shame or embarrassment, they apologise. Accessing and acknowledging anger is also one of the hardest things for many people in therapy. Emotions tend to be buried. They are not welcome and seen as a nuisance.
As a consequence , what does often happen to our emotions? They are suppressed. And the result is not good. For example, anxiety is often a consequence of the (failed) attempt to suppress fear. We deny we are in fear because fear is negative. Unfortunately emotions that are removed find their way back and sometimes in remarkably violent shape such as panic attacks. People are taught that they need to be in control of their emotions but control often leads to denial and to a complete disconnection between us and our states so that we have no idea what is going on with ourselves anymore.
It goes without saying that we cannot just always be hijacked by our states and feelings . It is not advisable nor functional expressing our anger or sorrow in every context. There are times when it is not fruitful for your boss or your colleagues to know how much they get on your nerves. Emotions and thoughts need to work together as a team.But we need to find a space for our emotions and learn to let them go, to let them out so that we can look at them , give them a name and integrate them in our experience.
One of the most crucial tasks that a parent must accomplish with their baby/child is to help her naming and identifying their emotions because it is only when we give a name to things that we can cope with them. The unknown is confusing and frightening, giving a name to how we feel is often enough to feel better. In successful and satisfying relationships, partners can recognise each other’s emotions , empathise with each other so that the bond feels safe and can face the challenges of life. But how can we be truly empathic with our partner without accepting our own emotions?
Emotions are functional to our survival, they direct our behaviour. They let us know “what is going on”. We have no choice but get to know them.