Emotions have a central role in therapy because often what we say and do is a result of what we feel. Emotions are not just psychological experiences, they are a reminder of what is important to us. Emotions are ‘the evidence of our resonance with the world, with others and with the principles we live by’ (Van Deurzen & Adams, 2016 p.93). It is not always easy to know what we feel and yet we always feel something. Emotions are always present, whether we acknowledge them or not.
Emotions are not negative or positive. What is often subject to a moral judgement is the behaviour resulting from the emotions. (A classic example of this, is anger, which is a very normal feeling to experience. The problem with anger is not the feeling, but the behaviour we have as a consequence. The behaviour is the result of how we manage the feeling. See my article on anger management: http://www.matteofrancescon.com/blog/exploring-anger-in-psychotherapy). Labelling emotions as positive or negative it’s not necessarily helpful and it only increases self-critique.
Emotions give us important information about our position in the world. They help us to make sense of our direction and ultimately to give meaning to our existence. For example I access my emotional world to understand if I’m happy and satisfied with my career or my relationships.
An important characteristic of our emotions is that we never have only one emotion about a person or an event. We always experience a mixture of feelings; they can often be contrasting and in opposition to one another. This can be very confusing for some of us. For example I can feel fearful and hopeful; I can feel angry and caring; I can feel sad and melancholic. It’s hard, but it’s important to hold these contrasts and to reflect on the dilemmas.
When people are unable to do so, they might reduce to a more simplified emotional vocabulary and just express one feeling. For example it’s culturally more acceptable for men to express anger, so a man might tend to ignore that he might also feel sad. In contrast to this, other people might feel overwhelmed by emotions and experience them as too much to handle, so they might want to numb themselves using substances.
2) We want to think about our emotional regulation. This means to find a happy balance between over-sensitive (overwhelmed by feelings) and desensitized (numb/detached).
Van Deurzen, E. & Adams, M. (2016). Skills in Existential Counselling and Psychotherapy, 2nd Ed. London: Sage.
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