Why We Have Emotions (And Why We Should Not Fight Them)
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A clear model of emotional health helps therapists find their way when these emotional processing problems occur. As a Rogerian and an attachment-oriented therapist, I have five goals for my clients. I want to help them: tune in to their deeper emotions and listen to them; order their emotional experience and make it into a coherent whole; keep their emotional balance so they can trust their experience and follow their inner sense of what they need; send clear, congruent emotional signals to others about these needs; and reciprocally respond to the needs of others. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield speaks to these goals in his book The Wise Heart,where he suggests, “We can let ourselves be carried by the river of feeling—because we know how to swim.”
We all encounter negative experiences and emotions; that’s simply how life is. But humans have an invaluable survival adaptation: when we’re emotionally stressed and our prefrontal cortex is “faint” from hunger, we share burdens and turn to others for emotional and cognitive sustenance. When we can learn—often with the help of another who’s a “safe haven” for us and can offer an extra prefrontal cortex—that negative emotions are workable, that we can understand them and find meaningful ways to cope with and embrace them, they lose much of their toxicity. They can become, in fact, a source of aliveness.
Countless studies on infant and adult attachment suggest that our close encounters with loved ones are where most of us attain and learn to hold on to our emotional balance. This echoes ancient Buddhist wisdom encouraging practitioners to meditate on the faces of loved ones or on the experience of being held as a way of finding their balance in an emotional storm. Secure connection with an attachment figure, or a surrogate attachment figure—a therapist, for example—is the natural place to learn to regulate our emotional responses. It’s when we can’t reach for others or access inner models of supportive others in our minds that we resort to more problematic regulation strategies, such as numbing out, blowing up, or rigidly trying to control our inner world and loved ones. The attachment perspective allows a therapist to see past these secondary strategies to discern deeper, more primary emotions—the desperate loneliness and longing for contact behind apparently hostile or dismissing responses, or the sense of rejection and helplessness underlying a withdrawn person’s apparent apathy. The attachment perspective asserts what neuroscientists like James Coan are discovering in their MRIs: regulating emotions with others is a baseline survival strategy for humans. Effective self-regulation, behavioral psychology’s mantra for years, appears to be dependent on and emerge from positive social connection.
Emotion in the Consulting Room
So what are the main messages of this new revolution in emotion for therapists? The first message is that emotion matters. When it’s dismissed or sidelined, we’ll often fail to engage our clients optimally or make the tasks of therapy personally relevant, and thus limit positive outcomes. The second message is that if we know the structure and function of emotion, as well as how it’s shaped in human relationships, we can use its power to create lasting change in a deliberate, effective manner. This is true in individual and couples therapy, and for each, I suggest that the old adage that significant change requires a “corrective emotional experience” applies. But specifically what have experiential therapists learned from the science of emotion about dealing with emotion and creating such corrective experiences?
Nearly all therapy models now agree on the necessity of creating safety in session, if for no other reason than to facilitate our clients’ open exploration of their problems. This safety is particularly essential if a client is to engage with and explore difficult emotions. For an attachment-oriented therapist, it has a specific meaning: in the session, therapists have to be not just kind or empathic, but truly emotionally present and responsive. This creates a holding environment, where clients can risk engaging in what Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy, called the “safe adventure” of therapy. Part of a therapeutic presence relates to transparency, the therapist’s willingness to be seen as a person who can be unsure or confused at times, rather than an all-knowing expert. If I’m emotionally engaged, my mirror neurons will help me check into my own feelings to understand those of a client.