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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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Mike’s longings and needs are now clear, and he reaches for Emma in a way that triggers a reciprocal openness. These fully felt emotional moments and interactions release a torrent of positive feelings and new ways of seeing. A new music of positive emotions—surprise and joy—begins to play. New vistas of safe connection to one’s own experience and to others open up. More coherent emotions lead to more coherent messages to others and more organized, effective action. As the proponents of Positive Psychology suggest, positive emotion has a broadening and building effect on the human psyche.

A Corrective Emotional Experience

Just as we can now unpack the elements of emotional experience, maybe we can unpack this age-old phrase and try to capture the essence of change. “Corrective,” emotion researchers remind us, doesn’t mean that older experience is erased or suppressed. The emotional system doesn’t allow data to be removed or placed to one side easily because nature favors false positives over false negatives where matters of survival are at stake. But old neural networks can be added to or even overwritten. So there’s no need to “get rid of” negative emotions; rather, we should try to expand them. When reactive anger is validated and placed in context, the threat that’s a vital part of that anger comes to the forefront, and this awareness changes how the anger is experienced and expressed. This sense of threat, or any primary emotion, is most easily discovered, distilled, and made into an integrated whole within an emotionally congruent, accepting therapeutic relationship. This sense of safety is necessary for a corrective experience, but it’s not enough.

For a corrective experience to occur, we must engage with and attend to our emotions in new ways and on deeper levels. I remember telling my therapist that, in spite of flying constantly, I was still somewhat afraid. We explored this, going moment by moment through my experience of flying and ordering the elements so that the structure of this experience became clear. Suddenly, we both realized that I was using so many techniques to “deal with” being on the plane that I was never actually present enough to experience anything new! My extensive coping mechanisms had become the problem. Imagine my surprise when I actually sat on a plane, heard my therapist’s voice in my head telling me to just be present, and found that I liked roaring into the air and floating off to new places! Part of correction is also the creation of new meanings. Flying became a way to explore my universe, rather than a near-death experience to be survived.

Corrective experience redefines the experiencer. I became someone who could get used to flying and felt able to fly. With a new sense of mastery comes new emotions; in this case, exhilaration. New action tendencies follow. I joyfully signed up for a trip that included many flights on small planes through foreign lands!

Corrective also implies that the emotional messages I send to others, as well as their impact, will evolve and change as they’re received and reciprocated. As Emma becomes more empathic, her acceptance acts as an antidote to Mike’s acknowledged sense of failure, especially when he directly shares these feelings and takes in her tender acceptance. As Mike feels less lost and overwhelmed in his interactions with his wife, he can tolerate her expressions of disappointment and tune in to her hurt. She accesses her longing and asks for comfort. As he responds, they create powerful bonding interactions. Their new safe-haven connection will continue to reshape not only their old habits of defensive withdrawal and reactive criticism, but also their vigilance for potential threat.

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