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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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What do therapists need to know to harness the power of emotion in therapy sessions? I remember when I was an idealistic young therapist starting to work with couples and suddenly coming face-to-face with such tsunami-like emotion that, to be able to stay with and focus on the wave, I needed to see the order, the patterned structure of this experience. As I came to understand emotion better, I gained understanding about the way in which key emotions were constructed and processed. I became less intimidated and learned to embrace and ride the wave, using its force to create change. By learning about emotion, I was able to help clients order these experiences and use them positively in their lives.

I could do all of this because I’d been given a great map: I had Attachment Theory—a systematic framework for personality and relationship development—as a guide. This theory of self in relation to others places emotion and its regulation front and center. John Bowlby, its father, saw emotion as the great communicator. It gives us a “felt sense” of our own physiology—our “gut wisdom.” It connects us with our preferences and longings. It links us to others with lightning speed. For Bowlby, the dance of connection and disconnection with loved ones plays a pivotal role in defining who we are; emotion is the music that organizes this dance and gives it rhythm and shape.

In the case of Mike and Emma, I feel more grounded and calm when I can track exactly how Mike regulates his emotions: he dismisses and denies them. This affects how he frames his signals to his partner—a process that elicits particular negative emotional responses from her. These responses then confirm his need to “hold on tight” and deny his emotions. Emotions aren’t just inner sensations and impulses; they’re social scripts. Self and system are molded in an ongoing feedback loop, which neither Mike nor his partner are aware of. The attachment framework sets out the deep logic of seemingly unpredictable emotions and tells me how and why Mike and Emma deal with them the way they do. There are only so many ways to deal with emotional starvation and the universal experiences of rejection and abandonment. When I know the territory, I feel confident enough to explore the terrain.

What Is Emotion, Anyway?

Science suggests that emotion is anything but primitive and unpredictable. It’s a complex, exquisitely efficient information-processing system, designed to organize behavior rapidly in the interests of survival. It’s an internal signaling system, telling us about what matters in the flood of stimuli that bombard us and tuning us in to our own inner needs. Research with brain-damaged subjects shows that without emotion to guide us, we can’t make even the most elementary of decisions; we’re bereft of preferences and have nothing to move us toward one option rather than another.

Emotional signals, especially nonverbal, such as facial expression and tone of voice, communicate our intentions to others. Our brain takes just 100 milliseconds to detect and process the smallest change in a human face and just 300 milliseconds to mirror this change in our own body, so we literally “feel” another’s emotion. The fact that we can rapidly read intentions and coordinate actions has offered our species a huge evolutionary advantage. The ability to read six basic emotional expressions and assign the same meaning to these expressions is universal.

There’s a consensus among experts that these basic emotions are anger, sadness, joy, surprise, shame, and fear. In anger, for example, the stare becomes fixed, eyes widen, and the brows contract; the lips compress and the body tenses. The impulse is to mobilize and move toward the object of the emotional response, so as to take control or eliminate the obstacle. When a client sits in front of me and tells me she has no idea how she feels, it helps me immeasurably to know that, in all probability, she’s feeling her own version of one of these six core emotions.

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