Cultural Considerations in Working With Feelings
Helpers should also be aware of cultural considerations in working with feelings, given that cultures differ in beliefs about how much emotion should be expressed. In the United States, people are generally encouraged to be open about their feelings and experiences. One only needs to turn on radio and television talk shows to see how people share their innermost feelings freely. People from non- American cultures, however, are often more reserved about admitting and expressing feelings, especially with nonfamily members (Pedersen, Draguns, Lonner, & Trimble, 2002).
There are also gender differences in the expression of emotion, in that men often have a harder time expressing feelings than women do. Men are not typically socialized to be sensitive to feelings and often feel threatened if asked to say what they are feeling (Cournoyer & Mahalik, 1995; Good et al., 1995; O’Neil, 1981). Helpers may need to proceed more slowly with clients who are not comfortable with emotions, remembering that emotions occur cross-culturally but that some people have a hard time expressing emotions.
Before working with feelings, it may be important to educate some clients about why you are focusing on feelings. My friend EunSun Joo in Korea pointed out that Korean clients need such information about the importance of feelings because they worry about losing respect if they express feelings.
Reflection of Feelings
A reflection of feelings is a statement that explicitly labels the client’s feelings (see Exhibit 9.1). The feelings may have been stated by the client (in either the same or similar words), or the helper may infer the feelings from the client’s nonverbal behavior or from the content of the client’s message. The reflection may be phrased either tentatively (e.g., “I wonder if you’re feeling angry?”) or more directly (e.g., “It sounds to me like you’re feeling angry”). The emphasis can be just on the feeling (e.g., “You feel upset”) or on both the feeling and the reason for the feeling (e.g., “You feel upset because your teacher did not notice all the work you have done recently”).
E XHIB IT 9 . 1 Overview of Reflection of Feelings
Helpers use reflections to help clients identify, clarify, and experience feelings. In addition to labeling feelings, helpers try to facilitate clients in experiencing the feelings in the immediate moment (i.e., an experience is more important than an explanation). For example, a couple might recount an incident in which they became angry with one another. The helper would encourage them to express their current feelings and talk to each other about how they are feeling about the incident now. Cathartic relief occurs when feelings begin to flow rather than being stuck or bottled up and when clients accept their feelings.
BENEFITS OF REFLECTIONS OF FEELINGS Reflections of feelings are ideal interventions for enabling clients to enter into their internal experiences, especially if delivered with concern and empathy for clients’ reluctance to experience painful feelings. Clients often have difficulty identifying and accepting feelings on their own, perhaps because they do not know how they feel, are ambivalent or negative about the feelings, or have been punished for having had such feelings in the past.
It can be difficult to articulate feelings because emotions are often sensations rather than fully understood awareness. People often do not have words to symbolize feelings, so working together with helpers to struggle to label feelings helps clients identify the feelings. In effect, clients do an internal search (Gendlin, 1996); in other words, clients focus inward and identify sensations and then try put words or labels on the sensations (e.g., “I feel a something in the pit of my stomach. I’m not sure what it is . . . I guess it’s kind of worry . . . no, maybe it’s more fear, kind of like I’m not sure what will happen. Everything seems up in the air . . . yes, I definitely feel apprehensive about the meeting.”).
Hearing reflections enables clients to rethink and reexamine what they really feel. If a helper uses the term disgusted, this forces the client to think about whether disgusted fits his or her experience. This searching can lead to deeper exploration of the feelings in an attempt to clarify the feeling. It is often difficult for clients to verbalize their deepest, most private thoughts and feelings. In a safe and supportive relationship, they can begin to explore the feelings, which are often complex and contradictory. They can feel a combination of love, hatred, and guilt toward the same person in the same situation. Being allowed to admit these ambivalent feelings to another person without rejection can enable clients to accept feelings as their own.