How Therapy Can Help with Emotional Expression

Multi-exposure photo of face with three different emotionsI like to think of therapy as a place to try on emotions. I’m not implying there are emotions we don’t have yet; we’re given the capacity for the spectrum. But fully expressing how one feels in a healthy manner is not always easy to do.

It’s not easy because it gets socialized out of us early on. As children, we quickly learn what is “appropriate.” This may differ at home, at school, and maybe even with different caregivers. At some point, we settle into how we generally express ourselves, whether it’s with anger, sadness, happiness, amusement, or some combination of emotions. This is part of how we identify our personality. Feelings big or small, held in or let loose, comprise an unconscious, growing sense of how we emotionally exist in the world.

Sometimes people seek therapy to learn to express these feelings. Anger management, for example, is meant to shift how anger is expressed. Likewise, grief and bereavement counseling following a loss can help with those emotional expressions.

More often, though, people’s reasons for coming to therapy are different. Feelings and emotions more typically come up with respect to movement toward another goal, such as improving relationships, work advancement, or assertiveness. Still, cruelly, it’s often the unhealthy expression of feelings and emotions that gets in the way of these presenting goals.

In therapy, we travel back in time to see how the ways we emotionally express ourselves were taught to us and subsequently internalized. With these insights, we can make new decisions going forward about how we want to show our feelings.

Being Taught How to Have Emotions

In therapy work with parents, one major focus tends to be modeling. This looks at how you’d like your child to act in different situations, of course, but also at teaching your child how to express their feelings in a healthy way.

In therapy, we travel back in time to see how the ways we emotionally express ourselves were taught to us and subsequently internalized.

You don’t have to be a parent to know kids tantrum. It’s how they express anger, exhaustion, fear, disappointment, excitement, and other emotions. By labeling emotions—“That uncomfortable feeling when your face gets all hot and you want to crawl into a hole? That’s embarrassment”—we slowly learn we don’t need to throw ourselves on the floor anymore. We come to understand the emotion, how it feels in our body, how it feels in our heart. We can express it and not let it control us.

Children watch their moms and dads be angry or sad, and in so doing they learn how to “have” these feelings. Parents who hide their tears or never argue (in a healthy way) in front of their children rob them of amazing learning opportunities. When these opportunities arise, with their kids watching, parents can model, “This is how people settle differences. It’s uncomfortable, but these emotions don’t have to be scary.”

Experimenting with Emotions in Therapy

Emotions are layered. Sometimes we have to go through a lot of anger to get to sadness. Sometimes we need to locate that anger under strata of sarcasm.

And this is what often keeps people from achieving those presenting goals, from making their relationships and work lives better. We spend time and energy protecting the expression of these feelings. We don’t peel back the layers.

The therapeutic relationship allows for a safe space—and I don’t use that term loosely—to express feelings and emotions, to peel them back, to study them, to see how they work. In daily life, it’s rare we show how we authentically feel, even in our most trusted relationships. Sometimes we think we’ve expressed a feeling because we expressed it the way we were socialized to do. Then we realize how our stomach still hurts, how we’re still replaying that moment with our boss over and over in our head, how we can’t sleep, how we’re eating way more than we need to.

In the therapy room, we can look deeper. We can unpack our feelings and emotions and see if there is more to express. We can take a chance and get really angry or really sad—or even really, unabashedly happy, if that’s difficult for us.

Therapy is a place to experiment with emotions we’ve always had but either didn’t know how to express or felt inhibited in expressing. We can try it all on. Because it’s all inside us.

© Copyright 2017 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, MSW, LCSW, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Carolyn

    January 18th, 2017 at 11:12 AM

    It can be nice to know that there is a safe place where you can try on these emotions as you said, see what it feels like to really express yourself maybe in a way that you haven’t ever felt that comfortable doing before. It can be a safe place for you to hash out a bunch of things that could be bothering you but you haven’t evr felt like there was a good way to bring them up with someone.
    It is always nice to be able to get another’s opinion in a place that does not feel judgmental, just wanting to help you sort it all out. I don’t think that there’s anyone out there who couldn’t use this from time to time.

  • Justin Lioi

    January 23rd, 2017 at 7:43 AM

    Absolutely, Carolyn! Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Kate

    January 19th, 2017 at 10:57 AM

    In many ways going into therapy was helped me finally understand who I was, I think that for the longest time I had this mental image of what I thought that I should be but never any clear cut path for how to get to that. In therapy I came to understand that much of this was about what other people wanted for me, not really what I ever saw for myself. That’s why I had such a hard time figuring out my way there because it wasn’t meant to be my path. Once saw in myself what I really wanted, then the path and the journey as a whole became a whole lot easier for me.

  • Justin Lioi

    January 23rd, 2017 at 7:44 AM

    That’s great to read, Kate. Glad therapy was so helpful for you!

  • sadie

    January 20th, 2017 at 7:49 AM

    We have all encountered those times when we know that we have something to say and yet we don’t feel comfortable saying them.
    Therapy can help you get over that

  • Justin Lioi

    January 23rd, 2017 at 7:44 AM

    Couldn’t agree more, Sadie. :-)

  • Edward

    January 20th, 2017 at 1:40 PM

    For me the greatest gift has been coming to know that there is no right way and wrong way to feel or even to express yourself. Going to counseling has helped me to see that the only wrong thing is to suppress all of those feelings.
    I might not act out on them but I do have to be willing to acknowledge them and then come to terms with them.

    But you should not ever believe that you are wrong fro feeling the way that you do, just mindful of how this is causing you to live your life and coming to an understanding with how you can better express those feelings and improve your life at the same time.

  • Justin Lioi

    January 23rd, 2017 at 7:46 AM

    Yes, Edward! Although I wouldn’t even say that it’s “wrong” to suppress them as we often do that as a coping mechanism for places where we can’t really show how we’re feeling. Therapy is hopefully a good place to take a look at them.

  • Anne

    January 21st, 2017 at 5:55 PM

    It can be good for learning how to react and conversely how not to over react as well

  • Justin Lioi

    January 23rd, 2017 at 7:46 AM

    Good for exploring all of that, Anne. Thanks for your comment!

  • Grady

    January 23rd, 2017 at 6:40 AM

    Even though this is meant to be a place where you can try these emotions on, I would still feel a little uneasy doing that, especially since this is someone who could easily dismiss me as a patient. What if they didn’t like that and just said that they couldn’t deal with that?

  • Justin Lioi

    January 23rd, 2017 at 11:21 AM

    Great point, Grady. So much about the work between the counselor and the client is to build up trust. That fear of being told that someone can’t deal with our emotion is what gets in the way of our personal and even our professional lives sometimes. While even the most skilled therapist can’t remove the risk for us entirely, the work that both put into therapy is that when we do take that risk we trust that the therapist can handle what we’re bringing. It’s not something you do on day one or even for many days after that–it’s when you’re ready.

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