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The Role of Emotion in Therapy

While we most likely didn’t learn to gamble, drink or watch porn when we were children, it was probably then that we learned that we needed to avoid our feelings – often because we thought they meant that something ‘bad’ was going to happen or that we were ourselves in some way ‘bad’. And this is why is emotion so important in therapy – and also why therapy can be demanding. Because many of us have deep implicit learnings that tell us that emotion is dangerous - that it will cause us to be rejected, overwhelmed, that nothing good will come of it and that we’ll be just left alone with it. This might actually have been the case at some time in our past, but it is not a rule that applies at all times – your sessions with your therapist are definitely one example where this is not the case. And probably in your current life, you will have other relationships where this isn’t the case – if those relationships are given the chance. So when we experience an emotion - sometimes even 'good' emotions - our brains predict that it means something bad will happen. Then, our unconscious ‘defenses’ will come on line trying to stop us feeling the emotion. For example, if a conversation is starting to touch on a difficult topic and we notice that we are starting to feel awkward, we might change the subject; say something humorous or if we are used to using substances or other distracting behaviours, we will most likely turn to them. Often our unconscious defenses get so tuned in to the start of any difficult feeling that they have brought our compulsive behaviour into our minds as an idea before we have even consciously registered the emotion. So we don’t even realise that we are using the behaviour to self-soothe. This false belief about emotion indicating something bad happening is the basis for much of our suffering. It is not the emotion itself that causes suffering, it is the belief that emotion is harmful and must be avoided. That’s how suffering works for us. If our brain interprets an experience as dangerous or bad, we will suffer in our attempts to be rid of it. For example, compare these two experiences: How you feel when waiting at the top of the new Alton Towers roller coaster ride that you’ve been excitedly waiting for with How you feel while sitting in the consultant’s waiting room expecting to be called in for the results of a recent scan for a serious health condition. The physical experiences are extremely similar – but whether it leads to suffering or pleasure for us is completely dependant on how our brain interprets the experience. And it’s the same with the experience of emotions – which in itself is not necessarily good or bad. The suffering comes when we think that what we are experiencing right now is going to lead to a negative outcome – we’re going to be overwhelmed or we’re going to sink into a pit of despair; we’re going to be rejected, or get angry and hurt someone or be hurt ourselves. And most often this is where our addictive or compulsive bahaviour has its roots – in avoiding the suffering related to strong emotions. It is often the case that these unwanted behaviours begin in an innocent, or experimental, way that genuinely does not seem related to any kind of emotional management. But once they start to become established we can begin to attach our identity and self-esteem to them which then makes them hard to give up. They can begin to stir up feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anxiety, helplessness etc and then the cycle of avoidance can set in. So another really key part of therapy is learning that it is not dangerous to feel your emotions. Your therapist won’t judge or reject you whether you cry in despair or scream in rage. You can come to see that having your emotion doesn’t lead to any harm. You can take the time to notice your fears about the consequences of emotions and experiment with stating your fears out loud. And what you’ll find is that allowing your emotion to manifest is actually a helpful experience. Maybe you learned to trust another person, your therapist, to be witness to your feelings; you might understand yourself a little better; perhaps you feel a little more inner freedom and energy – You will have disconfirmed your brain’s predictions about emotion being ‘bad’. This will result in ongoing work continuing with more flow and ease.

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