Rationale for Exploring Feelings
As Rogers noted (see Chapter 6), emotions are a key part of our experience. They tell us how we are reacting to stimuli and what we need to do. Often we ignore, deny, distort, or repress feelings because we have been told they are unacceptable (e.g., being told “big boys don’t cry”). Hence, we grow apart from our inner
experiencing and cannot accept ourselves. We need to return to and allow ourselves to feel our emotions because only then can we decide what to do about them.
From an evolutionary perspective, emotions are important because they inform us about what actions to take, whether to fight or take flight. Thus, the emotions serve as an immediate trigger that informs one how to behave. From a biological perspective, verbalizing feelings is also important. Functional magnetic resonance imaging research by Lieberman et al. (2007) showed that verbalizing feelings is helpful. Putting feelings into words (affect labeling) helps to diminish negative emotional experiences by decreasing the response of the amygdala and increasing the activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex as mediated by the medial prefrontal cortex.
Summers and Barber (2010) provided a good justification for encouraging clients to experience their feelings at a deep level. They suggested that
by experiencing old feelings and understanding their context, patients begin to work through the meanings (sometimes unconscious) attached to these events. Slowly, the old feelings and perceptions reenter consciousness, and once they are conscious, patients’ natural problem-solving capacities can be engaged. This process unites insight or self-understanding and emotional re- experiencing. Some have characterized this aspect of therapy as habituation or desensitization to the painful feelings. . . . Becoming distant from (or habituated to) these feelings or thoughts is therapeutic, increasing the patient’s sense of mastery, control, and autonomy. The patient is no longer afraid of them and can be more emotionally open and flexible. (p. 34)
Feelings are at least as important as content or thoughts in client communication. Clients seem to be most able to solve their problems when they get in touch with their feelings (see also Elliott, Watson, Goldman, & Greenberg, 2004). Experiencing feelings allows clients to evaluate events in terms of their inner experiencing.
Furthermore, clients’ expression of emotions enables helpers to know and understand them. People respond differently to events, so helpers need to know how experiences are interpreted by individual clients. For example, when Varda came to a helper’s office because her father died, the helper initially assumed that Varda felt sad, depressed, and lonely because that is how the helper felt when her father died. But in fact, Varda felt angry because she had been having intrusive memories of childhood sexual abuse since her father died. It was safe for Varda to remember the abuse only when her father was no longer able to hurt her. In addition, Varda felt relief that her father was dead because she no longer had to deal with him. This example illustrates the importance of listening carefully and not imposing assumptions on clients.
If clients experience, accept, and own their emotions, they can become open to new feelings and experiences. Feelings are not static but change once they are experienced. When a person experiences a feeling fully and completely, new feelings often emerge. For example, once Varda experienced her anger, she became aware of other feelings such as sadness, which then led eventually to feelings of acceptance and peace. The goal of helping is not to make the client feel “better” but rather to help the client experience emotions more deeply: to laugh when
happy, cry when sad. Clients do not have to act on the feelings, but they can make more informed
decisions about what to do when feelings are out in the open. In fact, being aware of one’s feelings makes one less likely to act on them unintentionally. In contrast, unaccepted feelings are likely to “leak” out, sometimes in destructive ways. For example, Robert unintentionally was rude and hostile to a friend who was accepted into a prestigious law school because Robert’s own application had been rejected. Consciously, he was happy for his friend, but he had not worked through his own wounded feelings. All of us know people who do not directly say they are angry but indirectly communicate subtle, nasty messages that make it difficult to respond to them. Other people get stuck because they cannot accept their feelings. Similar to the obstruction that occurs when a river gets dammed up, these people get blocked if they do not allow themselves to have and express their feelings.
Feelings are rarely simple or straightforward; therefore, it is important to note that clients might have several conflicting feelings about a topic. For example, Diana might feel excited about taking a new job and pleased that she was selected over other candidates. However, she might also feel anxious about what is required of her, afraid of working too closely with the boss (who reminds her of her father), insecure about how others may view her, and worried about whether she can make enough money to pay the rent. It is important for helpers to encourage clients to experience and express as many feelings as possible without worrying about whether the feelings are rational, ambiguous, or contradictory.
Anger, sadness, fear, shame, pain, and hurt seem to be the most important emotions involved in therapeutic change (Greenberg, 2002). These negative emotions are often bottled up and not expressed or experienced because of shame and fear of disapproval. Many people cannot allow themselves to even think about such feelings. Hence, clients require a supportive environment to feel safe enough to express these feelings openly.
In addition, it is important to note that sometimes emotions exist in layers (Greenberg, 2002; Teyber, 2006). For example, after anger is expressed and experienced, sadness and shame often emerge. Inversely, after sadness is expressed and experienced, anger and guilt often emerge. Similarly, gestalt therapists believe every feeling has two sides. If clients talk only about fear, helpers might wonder about wishes; if clients talk only about love, helpers might wonder about hate. By fostering exploration of the feelings, helpers enable clients to admit the multitude of feelings they might not otherwise have been able to acknowledge.
Helpers need to remember that feelings are multifaceted and change over time. New feelings emerge as old feelings are experienced and expressed. Understanding and reflecting feelings at one point in time is just the beginning of entering into an experiential process; helpers need to constantly look for new feelings that emerge during the exploration process