In our culture, we view emotions as something to either control or avoid. At times overwhelming and at others minimized. You may worry that therapy will involve an endless and fruitless questioning of “how you feel about that?”
It is not uncommon for emotions to be seen as weakness. And we see the need to express emotions as somehow being soft. Emotions themselves are incredibly powerful and can be very painful. But, we are wired to pay attention to the things that cause us pain. This is because emotions are a part of a system designed to keep us safe.
SO what is the case for starting with emotion? And why are emotions essential to your health and wellbeing?
Emotion Provides you with Critical Information
The downplaying and dismissal of emotion misses their adaptive function. At their core, emotions are a part of a warning system developed through evolution. They alert you to what is most important to you. They say “LOOK HERE NOW!!” For example, anger warns you about the violation of a boundary, sadness tells you there is loss or a lost connection afoot, and love directs your attention to someone or something you value.
Emotion Directs Action
Emotion moves us forward. It motivates. Once you have given attention to the “look here,” you become connected with your inner world. Then, you can take action in ways that are consistent with your deepest needs and desires. This adaptive response steers us to the moment and environment first. Our bodies react to the situation, then we act and make meaning out of our experience. In orientating to our emotional experience first, we can react quickly. Once safe, we can make decisions about how to act in ways consistent with our inner most needs.
Emotion Gives Us a Sense of Wholeness
Emotion gives our lives a sense of continuity. They tie together your past and present. They bring cohesiveness to your experience in the world. It is the thread in our stories. A hook that can rapidly bring us back to experiences and relationships. And on which can propel us forward into our future. It is the quality of our emotional experience, it’s salience, that drives our focus and understanding of ourselves in the world.
Emotion Connects You with Others
Emotion, as expressed through facial expressions and body language, is a kind of universal language. Through this both innate and shared cultural language, we can instinctively recognize the states of others. Awareness and knowledge of your own emotional states also helps you understand, empathize and connect with those around you.
The avoidance of emotion can increase distress and cause unnecessary suffering.
I think we all know that ignoring an emotion hardly makes it go away. Instead, we find it expressing itself in other, less optimal ways. In fact, there is a real danger in its avoidance—difficulties with mental, emotional, and even physical health can result. The act of noticing, then opening yourself to make sense of your current emotional experience, paradoxically, allows the emotion’s intensity to pass.
Your emotional responses have been formed by years of experience. At times these complex emotional states and responses can be difficult to experience, understand, and communicate. One way therapy can be helpful is in supporting you to face your most challenging, painful feelings. A therapy that attends to your emotions, supporting awareness and understanding, can also enhance emotional regulation and the transformation of your experience.
To sum it up, I think it’s pretty clear that emotions are normal and necessary!! Being in touch with your emotions allows you to orientate to your inner world, relationships, and the environment in ways most meaningful and fulfilling to you.
If all of this emotion stuff still feels a little confusing, please check out the BRILLIANT video “Alfred & Shadow—A short story about emotions,” by the incredible Anne Hilde Vassbø Hagen, with support from the Institute for Psychological Counseling and The Norwegian Institute for Emotion Focused Therapy.
If sitting in your emotions feels scary or overwhelming, you don’t have to do it alone!
About The Author
Sabrina Gibb is a Maryland and DC licensed graduate professional counselor and psychotherapist at Montgomery County Counseling Center. She has completed Level 1 and 2 training in Emotion-Focused Therapy and recently completed initial training in Emotion-Focused Family Therapy. She supports individual, couples and family clients by guiding them to recognize and transform painful emotions, behavior and dynamics—freeing them to pursue a more fulfilling life and relationships. Sabrina is currently accepting new clients at MCCC.