"And how does that make you feel?" For many, this may be the quintessential question of therapy, the most frustrating question of therapy, or the most complicated question of therapy.
Most clients initially reach out to me and tell me things like "I'm having communication problems in my relationship", "I'm just feeling stressed all the time", "I need to know how to manage all of these responsibilities and have better time management", or "I just seem to be having the same argument/discussion all the time". These are valid concerns. However, in my work with clients, I incorporate a significant focus on emotions and the emotional process that my client experiences. Why? Exploring the emotional process is not necessarily what a client is asking for when they speak to me for the first time- so why do I typically come back to emotions and the emotional process in my work as a therapist?
1. Limited feelings vocabulary
The ability to recognize, identify, and regulate feelings is a skill like any other- it must be modeled, developed, practiced. You may have not had this modeling, had the opportunity to develop a vocabulary and understanding of a range of emotions, or had the practice of regulating (not ignoring) emotions. You may know the words for different feeling states, but really only be familiar enough to recognize one or two specific emotions when they arise in you- other emotions may be grouped together with a more familiar emotion, or may simply be ignored.
When I am sitting with a client and he/she begins to appear angry in response to a particular discussion, I recognize and validate that anger. But, I am also going to begin to work with the client on exploring what else is there. Anger so often is the "tip of the iceberg" in regards to emotion. Hurt, resentment, vulnerability may be outwardly expressed by anger. It is not that the anger is not an important and valid experience, it is that it is only a part of your experience. The greater your ability to identify and understand your complete emotional experience, the greater your ability to begin to regulate your emotions and express your emotions to others.
2. Becoming a pro at skills will not eliminate life stress
I will state right off the bat, skills are important- communication skills, coping skills, stress reduction skills. They're all good! However, becoming a master at these skills does not mean that miscommunication will not arise or distressing events will not cross your path. What I often observe, if I work only on skills with a client, is that my client will inevitably encounter an experience in which the emotional piece becomes so intense and overwhelming that the ability to use all the great skills he/she has cultivated goes out the window. Perhaps I work on communication skills with a couple, and they improve- they manage day to day interactions more effectively, have eliminated habits like name-calling or yelling. But then something happens- an interaction leaves one or both partners feeling hurt, betrayed, or misunderstood, and suddenly all of those communication skills are thrown to the curb. If we do not work on truly understanding and sharing our deeper emotional experience, we will not be able to reach for those communication skills in times of distress.
3. Ignoring the role of feelings does not make them disappear
It is not uncommon for clients to ask "What's the point of talking about my feelings if there is nothing I can do to change what happened?". I can see that. Talking about sadness and grief will not give us the ability to go back in time and change the event. Sharing our hurt and betrayal will not make the perpetrator see or understand our experience. However, denying the feelings that are part of our experience will also not change or stop the impact that they are having on us. We can keep our difficult feelings boxed up tight, and that box is still there. We will still feel the ripple effects of these deeply hidden feelings. Recognizing, acknowledging, understanding, and accepting our emotional experience will not change the events that contributed to it, but it might begin to change our relationship with those feelings and the role that these feelings play in our lives.
To learn more or to book an appointment, contact me via telephone or email.
Brenna Burke, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Santa Clarita, CA. She provides individual psychotherapy and couples counseling. Information provided through this website is for informational purposes only. It does not create a therapist-client relationship and does not replace clinical assessment or professional consultation.