John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

Emotions and Therapy

Expressing anger in therapy is easy enough. Anger is an easy emotion to label and, it seems, discharge.

Usually we know when we feel sad, but deep grief, sobbing grief, is something we often fear. Some will try to avoid it altogether. Others will express it, just not in front of a therapist.

Guilt nags at us. It’s uncomfortable but not unbearable, and often it is accompanied by a nagging sense that we need to make things right.

Anguish is psychological pain. When it’s bad, it’s gut-wrenching. When it’s mild, we are upset, distressed, unsettled. We want it to stop.

Shame is a powerful emotion. When we fee ashamed, we feel don’t just feel that we have done bad (guilt), but that we
are bad. Shame prompts us to withdraw, pull back, or even hide if the emotion is intense enough. To be “exposed” would be having our badness revealed. Better to cover.

Sometimes the emergence of emotions are preceded by anxiety. Anxiety is easy to understand when it is directed at something external–-a social situation, a snake, a spotlight on performance. But we can feel anxious in responses to our own emotions, too. Indeed, sometimes the anxiety is so pressing that we believe it is the only thing we feel, and it takes some reflection to identify the deeper emotions that are behind it. Negative emotions, especially powerful emotions like deep grief or shame, are necessary, just not always welcome.

Broadly speaking, emotions are true guides. Without them, we would not be able to make good decisions, have preferences, values, responses to danger, know when we have been violated, or recover from loss. Emotions are a very important part of therapy, especially when someone is trying to recover from emotional injury.

When a toddler is happy, she hugs. When she is distressed or sad, she cries. When she is frightened, she runs. Toddlers are not conflicted about their emotions. They do not worry about the time or place when expressing them. Adults, however, must learn to control their emotions, express them at appropriate times, in some cases conceal them, and understand how they relate to perceptions, thoughts, and actions. But sometimes this process gets off track. Sometimes we have to stop and relearn how to identify, experience, express, or regulate emotions before we can move on with life.

Human beings do not operate strictly according to logic and reason. We are emotional creatures, for better or worse. Therapy is simply one way of helping you sort things out.