I 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 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, LCSW, therapist in Brooklyn, New York
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