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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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“That’s just what she did yesterday,” he replies, and offers a theory that all women get angry for very little reason.

I try again: “Right now, how do you feel when she says, ‘You just walk away,’ in an angry voice?” Mike just shakes his head. He begins, “I don’t know—don’t know which way is up here—lost my balance.”

I lean in and ask, “Can you feel that sense of being off-balance right now?” He nods again. “What does it feel like?”

He slumps back in his chair and says, “Like I’m lost in space. My world is falling apart and I don’t know what to do.” He gives a long sigh.

Many therapists who are comfortable going to the leading edge of a client’s emotions will go one small step further and make small additions or interpretations, such as, “Falling, losing direction, no balance—that sounds very hard, scary even.” If Mike accepts the inference and allows himself to touch his fear, he might reply, “Yes. I’m scared. We’re falling apart. So I run away. What else is there to do?”

By staying focused on Mike’s experience and continually piecing it together in vivid and specific language, the therapist helps him create a felt sense of his experience and expand it. Continual validation of his experience and reflective summaries allow him to stay engaged with, but not be overwhelmed by, his emotions. He can begin to pay attention to Emma’s messages about how his distancing affects her, and both partners can see how they generate the demand–withdraw dance, which triggers their distress. Once difficult emotions become clear and workable, clients can better hear and empathize with the other partner. They begin to own their problematic emotions, move past surface responses into deeper concerns, and take a metaperspective on inner processing and interpersonal responses. But this is only the first stage in personal and relationship change.


New Emotions, New Signals, New Steps

Emotionally focused therapists have to help clients create positive patterns of effective emotional regulation and response. These patterns build a sense of efficacy and foster positive cycles of emotional responsiveness, which shape secure bonds with others. These, in turn, reinforce the effective regulation of emotion. Moving into deeply felt vulnerabilities and congruently sharing them with a trusted therapist or loved one leads naturally to a new awareness of heartfelt emotional needs. This is the first crucial step to meeting these needs in a positive manner.

In couples therapy, the open, congruent expression of such needs tends to touch and move the other partner, evoking empathy and increased responsiveness. To deepen emotion, therapists can reflect back on and repeat the emotional images and phrases a client has used all through therapy, carefully eliciting the deeply felt elements of an emotion to create a cognitively coherent yet bodily experienced reality. When this core emotion is owned and integrated, it changes a client’s sense of self and engagement with others. After about a dozen sessions of couples therapy, Mike is able to reach for his wife with a new openness and clarity.

He begins, “I know I’ve shut you out. But it’s all I knew how to do. When we get into our fights, I feel so lost [initial perception]. I get all spacey and confused [body response]. I’d tell myself that you’d never loved me—me with my grade-12 education. I just wasn’t good enough for you [catastrophic meaning]. So I’d run [action tendency]. Now, I don’t want to hold on for dear life every time you’re angry, but I want you to stop pushing so hard. Give me a break. I don’t want you to feel alone. I want to learn to be with you. I need you close to me.”

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