I have encountered therapy seekers who express concern about whether therapy is right for them given their inclination toward logical reasoning and their discomfort with emotional expression.
I think this is a reasonable concern. Therapy is known for and lends itself to cathartic moments and heartfelt emotional expressions, which can be healing and productive. It can also feel exhausting for clients. Some report feeling “raw” or “purified” after especially emotional sessions. I’m a big fan of these sessions, but where does this leave the person who can’t remember the last time they cried or who may have a difficult time answering the question, “how does that make you feel?”
I firmly believe that therapy can be useful to people who are more inclined to express thoughts than to inhabit their feelings or be intentionally aware of their bodily sensations (this is also called mindfulness). However, because of the effectiveness of using one’s feelings in therapy, I appeal to logic to make a case for paying close attention and learning from your reactions/emotions/feelings:
Therapists regularly ask questions that aim to aid people in understanding themselves and their reactions because emotions, reactions, and feelings (I use these words interchangeably) are tools. More specifically, they are tools of indication. Much like an alarm, emotions can be annoying or seem unnecessary. This metaphor breaks down when malfunctioning hardware is taken into account so let’s stick with thinking about an alarm in working order. In a properly functioning smoke alarm, when it is set off, it is an indication of smoke. The lasagna is burning. The alarm points to the need to take the lasagna out of the oven.
Likewise, when a difficult emotion is felt, like shame, it is a potential indicator of a time you were made to feel embarrassed or rejected. Your “alarm” is doing its job to bring a need or area of healing/growth to your awareness. Once you view emotional reactions as a tool, you can begin to implement this understanding in your growth and the improvement of your life. In other words, you can choose to leave the emotion-lasagna to burn or you can attend to it.
Here is an unsophisticated outline of how emotions can work in therapy:
1. You realize that you are unhappy with something in your life. Let’s say you are having racing thoughts that make it difficult to sleep or intrusive unpleasant thoughts in general.
2. You seek out a therapist that helps you learn to which emotion(s) these thoughts are connected. Common emotions that are attached to racing or intrusive thoughts are anxiety or sadness.
3. Here is where it tends to get difficult, but produces the biggest pay off. With your therapist, you talk about the situation or thoughts that lead to the anxiety or sadness in-session until you can feel the anxiety/sadness occurring in you. Then, you refrain from distracting yourself or changing the subject and let whatever comes up come up for as long as you can. You start with short periods of focusing on the emotion (5 seconds or even less is fine). Eventually, you begin to tolerate longer periods. The therapist accepts you and all of your reactions and dumps compassion on you.
Here is one theory of how this works to bring about growth and healing. Humans are taught to think that being emotional or needy will cause others to reject them. We are afraid of being needy burdens so we push out indicators of our needs (emotions). Your brain expects your therapist to try to shut you up, pressure you to feel better, or judge you when you express emotions. Then, your therapist does the exact opposite and your brain is forced to process this new and healing response from your therapist. The healing happens when you internalize your therapist’s acceptance of you and of your reactions as a healthy and good part of the human experience. You begin to meet the needs that your emotions indicate and no longer shame yourself into not needing or feeling.
For extra credit, you talk about your emotions to people that love you and that you trust in and bask in their acceptance and care for you.
Eventually, it becomes easier for you to see your emotions as tools as opposed to threats or annoyances. You begin to give yourself the compassion that you received from your therapist. In essence, you give yourself the compassion and love that you have needed since you were a kid (Even people with amazing parents benefit from this process because of how anti-emotion/anti-needy society can be). You no longer strive to distract from, suppress or otherwise change your feelings because you gain wisdom from them instead. You find that listening to them brings about growth.
I swear, your feelings are not being stupid when they make themselves known. They are trying to get a need met that has probably been around for a long time.
Some options for the client who doesn’t like feelings:
1. Tell your therapist about your discomfort around feelings. If they are worth your money, they will understand and make efforts not to push you too far too quickly.
2. Try to remember a time when you had an emotion and someone screwed up by not listening to you or by acting in ways that led you to feel like you should not feel that way. This may bring up unpleasant feelings, but it may be a decent place to start. It’s like your emotion-suppression origin story. You may have several.
3. Give yourself a break. If interacting with your emotions was easy, you would be doing it already. You do not need to listen to people who expect you to change just because it is easy for them. They don’t understand and that’s ok. There is nothing wrong or bad about where you are in your process.