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Why We Have Emotions (And Why We Should Not Fight Them)

Emotions are necessary for survival. But they can also spin out of control.

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An emotionally corrective experience changes more than how emotions are dealt with (for example, whether they’re suppressed or reframed): it changes how emotional stimuli are perceived. More-secure lovers not only cope more effectively with hurt and anxiety, but perceive cues as less hurtful, in their relationship and in the world. Jim Coan, who uses fMRI scans to study the impact of attachment in the brain, has shown that holding the hand of a loved and dependable partner is a safety cue that changes how the brain perceives and encodes threats, like the threat of electric shock, even lessening the amount of pain such a shock induces.

A corrective emotional experience has been formulated as resulting from new insights, but cognitive insight is only one part of change. Novelist Arnold Bennett’s comment is pertinent here: “There can be no knowledge without emotion. We may be aware of a truth, yet until we have felt its force, it is not ours.” Pivotal, small changes in a living system, such as a person or a relationship, can engender radical qualitative shifts, as when ice suddenly hits 32 degrees Fahrenheit and becomes water. A significant shift in a leading or organizing element in a system—and primary emotion is such an element—can reorganize the whole system relatively abruptly.

We’re in the midst of a revolution in our relationship to emotion. The idea that emotion isn’t the poor cousin to reason but a “higher order of intelligence” has been around for decades, but now the evidence for this assertion is clear. As a result of this change of perspective and the new understanding of the nature of emotion, therapists can more deliberately use these powerful, bone-deep responses to transform their clients’ lives and relationships. It’s time to see emotion for what it is: not a nebulous force to be minimized and mistrusted, but the therapist’s greatest ally in the creation of lasting change.

Susan Johnson, Ed.D., professor of clinical psychology, is one of the developers of Emotionally Focused Therapy, one of the most empirically validated approaches to couples work. She’s the director of the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute and the International Center for Excellence in EFT. Her latest book is Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.  Contact: Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at, or at Log in and you’ll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine.

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