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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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So with Mike and Emma, the therapist might say, “Can you help me, Mike? You’re saying that you want some magic words that would stop Emma from being upset? And you’re worried that if we talk about emotions, it’ll be just like the arguments you have at home?” Mike nods emphatically. “You’re going to hear Emma complaining about you, saying she’s disappointed with the relationship, while you don’t even understand what’s really wrong here? Talking about this is almost like a danger zone you don’t know the way out of. So you get frustrated and just want all this fixed. And when you can’t fix it . . . ?”

“I leave,” Mike says. “I go for a walk. What’s the point of standing there arguing? I just shut the door on her and go for a walk. There’s nothing else to do.” Understanding emotions in the context of attachment, it’s easy to anticipate that Emma experiences Mike’s withdrawal as a sign of abandonment and then protests his distance by further complaining and criticizing. Indeed, she now adds, “Right, and I’m all alone in the house upset. You just walk away like I don’t matter. I hate feeling so hurt all the time. I spew. I can’t let you just walk away.”

The therapist might reflect the whole emotional drama by saying, “And the more you turn away, Mike, to try to stop the upset, the more you feel alone, Emma? You end up spewing words to get him to turn around and not leave you? This loop has kind of taken over. It’s painful for both of you.”

Experiential therapists would be careful to validate and normalize Emma’s hurt so that she’ll continue to explore and own it. Hurt feelings have been identified as a combination of reactive anger, sadness over loss, and fear of abandonment and rejection. Attachment theory predicts that Emma’s critical pursuit is fueled by anxiety and a sense of lost connection with her partner. This knowledge guides the therapist as he or she reads Emma’s emotional cues. As Emma opens up to her emotions, she moves past her rigid, angry stance into deeper emotions of sadness and bewilderment, and begins to tell Mike about her loneliness. The expression of new emotions then evokes new responses. Mike sees her sadness and feels relief and compassion—as it’s happening, in the present.

Therapies that privilege emotion, such as EFT and Accelerated Experiential-Dynamic Psychotherapy, state that the most powerful way to work with emotion is in the present moment, as it’s happening and being encoded in the neurons and synapses. Working with emotion from the bottom up, as it’s being shaped, makes for a vivid encounter with key emotional responses. Clients usually start a session by giving a cognitive account of their feelings or going over past emotional stories. But to access the true power of working with emotion, the therapist must bring pivotal emotional moments and responses into the session. This creates an intense spotlight on process, the specific way emotion is created, shaped, and regulated.

Mostly, we act as if emotions simply happen to us; we don’t see how we shape our own experience and induce negative responses from others. Viewing experience as an active construction is empowering. Clients are then able to face the ironic fact that their habitual ways of dealing with difficult emotion—ways that may have gotten them through many dark nights of the soul—now trap them and create their ongoing pain.

So I ask Mike questions that help him tune in to his own emotional processing. “Mike, right here, right now, Emma is telling you that she’s angry and that the moment that really triggers her is when you turn and walk away. What’s happening for you as you hear this?”

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