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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.

 “God guard me from those thoughts men think in the mind alone. He that sings a lasting song, thinks in a marrow-bone.”—W. B. Yeats.

Mike leans forward, and in a low, intense voice, says, “Look. It wasn’t my idea to see a couples therapist. And I hear that this therapy you do is all about emotions. Well, that about counts me out. First, I don’t have them the way  she does.” He points to his wife, Emma, who’s staring angrily at the floor. “Second, I don’t  want to have them or talk about them. I work through problems by just staying cool. I hold on tight and use my little gray cells.” He taps his head and sets his jaw. “Just tell me what’s wrong with us—why she’s so upset all the time—and I’ll fix the problem. Just tell me what to say, and I’ll say it. We were just fine until we started to have kids and she started complaining all the time. All this spewing of ‘feelings’ just makes things worse. It’s stupid.” He turns away from me, and the silence is filled with the sound of his wife’s weeping.

The irony of this type of drama never fails to intrigue me. In one of the most emotional scenarios ever—a couple trying to talk about their distressed relationship—here’s a partner insisting that the solution to distress is to ignore the emotion! Worse still, I’m getting emotional! This client is upsetting me. I breathe in and get my balance.  After all, I remind myself,  what he’s saying is so normal.

Mental health professionals would agree with him. In fact,  I agree with him, to some extent. Venting strong, negative emotion—usually called catharsis—is nearly always a dead end. More than that, most of us are wary of strong emotions. Emotions have traditionally been seen, by philosophers like René Descartes, for example, as part of our primitive animal nature and, therefore, not to be trusted. Reason, by contrast, has long been thought to reflect our higher spiritual self. In neuroscientific terms, the implication is that we’re at our best when we live out of our prefrontal cortex and leave our limbic brain behind. More specifically, emotion is often associated with disorganization and loss of control. As Latin author Publilius Syrus, known for his maxims, wrote in the first century B.C., “The sage will rule his feelings; the fool will be their slave.”

All this is now changing. We’re in the midst of a revolution, as far as emotion is concerned. Antonio Damasio, one of the great scholars in the emotion field, notes that this revolution began in the 1990s, when the inherent “irrationality” of emotion began to be questioned. We’re now at the point where emotion—the apparently crazy, irresponsible sleazebag of the psyche—has been identified as an inherently organizing force, essential to survival and the foundation of key elements of civilized society, such as moral judgment and empathy. Emotion shapes and organizes our experience and our connection to others. It readies us for specific actions; it’s the great motivator. As the Latin root of emotion,  movere (to move) suggests, strong feelings literally move us to approach, to avoid, to act.

Way before this emotion revolution, many therapists accepted that there was more to emotion than simply learning to control it—that directly working with emotion was somehow central to the task of therapy. We recognized that old Publilius was wrong: it’s not always good to control your emotions rigidly, and it’s not always foolish to listen to them! The idea that some kind of “corrective emotional experience” was necessary for any kind of effective psychotherapy was repeated endlessly, at least in the more dynamic psychotherapies. But exactly what the key elements of this experience are and how we get there with our clients remains difficult to define.

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