When you begin a course of therapy you bring your whole internal self – mind, will and emotions. Since focusing on emotions plays such a big part in the process of therapy, let’s spend a few moments thinking about what emotions are.
Emotions are messages from our self to our self, in response to internal or external stimuli, that move us toward that which is life-giving or pleasurable and away from that which is life-denying or painful. One of the chief tasks of our intellect is to regulate our emotions, bringing them into line with present-day reality and channeling them into life-affirming directions.
Some emotional responses are directly caused by interactions with the environment, e.g., the fear I experience if I look over the side of a cliff, or the startle response I experience when I hear a loud unexpected noise. Other emotional experiences are conditioned by influences of family, culture or education, for instance, the embarrassment I would feel if I walked into a room casually dressed and everyone else was dressed formally.
Everyone has unprocessed emotions, or “unfinished business.” We can’t act our emotions out all the time, and we don’t want to “act them in” for too long (this might lead to depression, passive-aggressive behavior, etc.). So how do we process our emotions? Here is one suggestion (adapted from William Gray DeFoore’s book, Anger: Deal with it, Heal with it, Stop it from Killing You):
- You sit still, long enough to allow some emotion to come into conscious awareness.
- You identify the emotion you’re feeling – you name it (e.g., “Right now I’m feeling mad, sad, scared, lonely, happy, confused,” etc.).
- You claim the emotion as your own – you realize that, whatever internal or external factors might have triggered this emotion, right now you are the one experiencing it, and you accept it sympathetically, instead of pushing it out of awareness.
- Finally, you express your emotion honestly to a safe person with kindness to yourself and others.
One great resource for the practice of processing emotions is Ronald Frederick’s book Living Like You Mean It.
We need to process our emotions regularly, but we can’t fully process our emotions all the time all by ourselves. Dr. Sue Johnson, in her book, Hold Me Tight, explains the need we have to include other people in the process of regulating our emotions:
- “This drive to emotionally attach … is wired into our genes and our bodies. It is as basic to life, health, and happiness as the drives for food, shelter, or sex. We need emotional attachments with a few irreplaceable others to be physically and mentally healthy – to survive.” (p. 15)
- “Suffering is a given; suffering alone is intolerable.” (p. 24)
- “The people we love … are the hidden regulators of our bodily processes and our emotional lives.” (p. 26)
The environment of the therapist’s office is designed to be a safe, sympathetic and supportive context in which to process your emotions. Are you ready to bring your emotions out into the open and begin the work of emotional awareness and healing? It would be my privilege to do this work together with you!