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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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Not only do we have different levels of emotion, we have reflexive emotions—emotions about our emotions. Clients often have deep anxiety about the catastrophe that awaits if they stay with their primary softer emotions, like sadness or fear. The general list of negative expectations can be framed as responses to the open-ended sentence, “If I become open and vulnerable, I’ll find that I’m. . . .” The answers—which can be summarized as the 4 D’s—are: defective, disintegrating, drowning, or dismissed. This list seems to cut across gender, class, and culture.

Clients express these fears as follows: “If I feel my softer, deeper emotions, this means that I’m weak or inadequate; others will see me this way and reject me”; “If I feel this, I’ll become more and more distressed; I’ll lose myself”; “If I feel this, the emotion will never go away—it’ll go on forever, and I’ll drown in it”; “If I feel this, no one will respond or be there to save me.”

I used to see clients’ expression of this kind of pain as a metaphor, but it’s more than this. Emotions “are of the flesh, and they sear the flesh,” said Frijda. Until recently, the parallels between emotional pain, such as rejection, and physical pain, like burning your arm, were thought to be purely because of shared psychological distress. Now it’s clear that there’s a neural overlap in the way we process and experience social and physical pain. Tylenol can reduce hurt feelings, and social support can lessen physical pain. As predicted by Attachment Theory, emotional isolation and the helplessness associated with it seem to be key features of this emotional pain. Our need for connection with others has shaped our neural makeup and the structure of our emotional life.

Once we can name implicit core emotions, track them through our clients’ nonverbal communication, and thus create an integrated emotional experience by identifying all the elements and placing them in an attachment context, it isn’t difficult to work with clients who are usually inexpressive or unaware of their feelings. When clients can touch their core emotions, implicit cognitions about the self, others, and the nature of life emerge and become available for review. For example, withdrawn partners often share deeply held negative beliefs about the inadequacy of the self. So we can understand the nature of emotion, its key elements, its different levels, and how it connects to action, cognition, and interaction, but sometimes being around strong emotions feels just plain dangerous.

When Does Emotion Go Wrong?

When we can access, regulate, and integrate our emotions, they provide an essential guide to living. But emotions, like everything, can go wrong. They’re like “best guesses” as to what we should do in a situation, not “surefire winning solutions,” says Stanford psychologist James Gross, who’s done extensive research on emotional regulation. Demystifying the problems that occur with emotion can again increase confidence that emotion shouldn’t be feared by clients or therapists.

For better and for worse, strong emotion tends to restrict our range of attention. A negative emotion, like fear, can elicit irrational beliefs. It can flood us so that we can’t think straight or only think in constricted, black-and-white terms. One metaphor that’s now taking hold among my neuroscience colleagues is that the brain is a ruthless capitalist, which budgets its resources. Being afraid and trying to calm yourself is expensive in terms of resources like blood and glucose; areas specializing in cognitive tasks, like the prefrontal cortex, get starved.

In simple terms, therapists and clients describe problems in terms of too much emotion, too little emotion, or conflicting emotions. Emotions can be overwhelming and create feelings of disorganization or chaos. Some clients can connect with different elements of their emotional experience, but can’t order them into an integrated coherent whole; they use words like  fragmented and confused to describe their inner life. Traumatized clients speak of being hijacked by all-encompassing emotional experiences in traumatic flashbacks. Other clients report feeling flat or cut off from any clear sense of their experience; their inability to formulate or name emotions leaves them aimless, without a compass to steer toward what they want or need. Many clients express conflicting emotions. In couples therapy, they speak of longing to be close and fearing to be close. In individual therapy, they may deny the fear laid out in a previous session, shame at vulnerability now blocking the recognition of this emotion. Specific strategies for regulating emotion can be problematic as well, especially if they become habitual and applied across new contexts. Therapists working with trauma survivors need to validate that, at certain times, it’s functional and necessary to compartmentalize or even dismiss emotion. Alan, an Iraq War veteran, tells me, for example, “When you’re landing a helicopter under fire, you just focus on the IAI [Immediate Action Item], coping. Get the chopper down. Never mind your fear. Just step past it and focus on the task.” This saves Alan’s life on deployment. But if suppressing emotion becomes a general strategy, it turns into a trap. Numbing is the most significant predictor of negative outcome in the treatment of PTSD. It also sends Alan’s marriage into a spiral of distress that further isolates and overwhelms him.

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