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No Emotion Allowed Here—Therapist at Work!

The Emotional Revolution

As therapists, probably most of us know only too well the queasy, anxious feeling we had as young practitioners (maybe even still have) when faced with a highly emotional client, perhaps sobbing uncontrollably in the chair across from us. Trained to believe that our job is to help that person feel better, we want to do something or say something that will provide comfort and ease that pain. But all too often, there’s been almost nothing in our academic education and survey of clinical theories to help us feel at home with our clients’ emotions, much less our own.

And what about sitting face Emotional clientto face in a room with someone in a state of transferential rage—yelling, pounding the chair, blaming us for his/her problem? And couples! No wonder so many couples therapists favor coaching clients in highly cognitive skills-building and problem-solving techniques. In one interview of our upcoming webcast series on emotion, Sue Johnson remembers many years ago watching a therapist basically scold couples who seemed to be getting too upset, even sending one partner out of the room to calm down. The title of that session must surely have been, “No emotion here, please—therapist at work!”

This fear of out-of-control emotions, even among therapists who are supposed to be comfortable with “strong affect,” as we hygienically call it, reflects an old Cartesian prejudice in Western society against the “lower,” messier emotions—primitive, animal-like passions rooted in the body. For many hundreds of years, we’ve preferred the more respectable, “higher” faculties of logic and reason, products of the thinking, rational mind. From the very beginning, psychotherapy models, of whatever stripe, have shared this cultural bias. Rather than welcome emotions into the consulting room, they’ve tended to regard excessive expressions of emotion as symptoms of something awry in the psyche. The clinical goal has often been to get all that raw stuff under control. Freud’s directive—“Where id was, there shall ego be”—has been the implicit watchword for one hundred years of psychotherapy practice.

But, lo and behold, over the past two or three decades—even just in the last 10 years—we’ve been witness to nothing less than a revolution in our knowledge and understanding of emotion. Neuroscience research, for example, has demonstrated beyond all doubt that emotion is itself the driving force of much of our mental life, including our precious reasoning faculties. “We’re not necessarily thinking machines,” says renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, “but feeling machines that think.” Without the literally moving force of affect—e-motion —we’re like high-IQ slugs in a sense, not likely to go anywhere or do much of anything except munch on whatever nutrients fall in our path. Without emotion, we’d be like disabled computers, with no desire, love, sadness, fear, need, impatience, anger, frustration, enthusiasm—those experiential states that literally turn us on, make us go. Without emotion, the wiring may be in place, but the power has been disconnected.

Luckily, therapists are also beginning to catch up to the neuroscience in their growing recognition that working sensitively and skillfully with clients’ emotions is critical to clinical success. In our new Networker webcast series beginning July 18th, “The Emotion Revolution: Harnessing Mind, Body and Soul in the Consulting Room,” I talk with 6 therapeutic innovators—Susan Johnson, Rick Hanson, Joan Klagsbrun, Jay Efran, Ron Potter-Efron, and Diana Fosha—about the latest developments in helping clients experience emotion as a coherent, vital, enlivening force in their relational lives.

But even more than that, this group of noted contributors to our field show us the importance of how navigating through the ebb and flow of emotion is at the heart of our therapeutic craft. As Damasio has written, “Most of what we construct as wisdom over time is the result of cultivating the knowledge about how our emotions behave and what we learn from them.” I hope you can join us as we explore that state of our current clinical wisdom about the role of emotion in effective psychotherapy.

Want to read more on emotion in the consulting room? Take a look at the May/June 2012 issue here to peruse articles from some of the field’s visionaries, including Susan Johnson.

The Emotion Revolution:
Harnessing Mind, Body and Soul in the Consulting Room

Starts Wednesday, July 25th

Click here for full course details.

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19 Responses to No Emotion Allowed Here—Therapist at Work!

  1. Ole von Frausing-Borch, MSEd, RN, LMFT says:

    I was shocked and confused by this article. I have been licensed for over 35 years, trained in Humanistic-Existentialism, and we ALWAYS worked with the emotional aspect of the person. A common question utilized during therapy was, “How did you feel about that?”. In working with my interns I always emphasize the emotions and how they connect us as human beings. So…this is not “news” to me. Unless…has the majority of the psychological community been actively avoiding emotions? Then perhaps I am out of touch with what has been happening. Has CBT taken over that much?

    • Brian J Whelan, LCSW, CST, SEP says:

      I can understand why you might be confused by this article. Psychotherapists have always considered emotion the realm of their expertise. Humanistic approaches, however, have not been the the dominant modalities of the last decade and even humanistic approaches existed prior to the recent revelations in neuroscience of what emotion actual is. Most psychotherapists lack an true understanding of what an emotion actually is and therefore lack an understanding of how to help facilitate change in regards to various emotional states. If you have not read Descartes Error by Antonio Damasio or The Emotional Brian by Joseph Ledoux, you may be missing the point of the above article. For one thing there are neuroscientific distinctions between an emotion and a feeling. There are various parts of our brain that play various roles in processing and integrating and regulating emotional states. Emotions also precede cognition and can occur without conscious awareness. Emotions play their symphony in the arena of the body and the body state feeds information back to the brain (either consciously or unconsciously). The right brain is dominant for processing emotions and the right brain is also dominant for instinctual survival related functions. The right brain is dominant for regulating the autonomic nervous system and regulating the internal organs and it is these visceral shifts that inform us about the emotions we are having, if we are even aware of these visceral shifts. Most psychotherapeutic approaches live in the left brain exploration of how a client “feels”, but fails to delve deeper into the subtle contours of the bodily experience of emotional states that often underly their conscious awareness. Most psychotherapy lives in the realm of language and cognition around emotions rather than in the “felt sense” experiential non linear processing of emotional physiological states of the right brain and body in order to help the client return to physiological homeostasis or increase capacity to tolerate and experience the full realm of human emotional experience. I hope that helps clarify things. I highly recommend looking into the work of Damasio and LeDoux.

      • Cris says:

        Still, after several decades as a neuropsychologist, I smile when I read people talk about left brains and right brains. As if we have two brains like we have two arms, two legs…

  2. C evans says:

    Unfortunately yes in many cases.

  3. Lynda says:

    “Has CBT taken over that much?” I can’t imagine where the notion of CBT being a therapeutic method that dismisses or ignores or does not use a client’s felt emotion came from? Quite frankly just the opposite is true Ole! In addition, the question “how did you feel about that” does not always get to the deeper identification of emotion. My follow up questions are always, “what does it feel like?; constriction? spasm? bubbling? buzzing? stabbing pain? etc. and “where in your body did you or are you feeling that right now?”

  4. jeffrey von glahn says:

    Jeffrey Von Glahn, Ph.D.
    It’s certainly welcome news that emotion is once again a respectable topic. However, the idea of “emotional release” – or dare I even say “catharsis” – as having any value in itself remains as taboo of a topic as ever. The current manifestation of this attitude is the suffocating fear of “re-traumatization,” which says that a client is being “re-hurt” if he seems “too upset.” A testable definition of re-traumatization does not exist. Hence, even in this era of evidence-based research there’s no study that shows that a client is being “re-hurt.” Neuroscientists, unfortunately, are only compounding the problem. They are just as guilty of urging the therapist to not let a client’s emotional experiencing get too intense. For a fundamental re-conceptualization of catharsis and of the value of what I call therapeutic crying, see my article in the May/June issue.

  5. Lynn says:

    Those questions all serve to get a client thinking about and analyzing their emotions, which isn’t a bad thing. But I sense the article is talking about a different process and it sounds intriguing. Even after 23 years as a clinician, I experience myself getting very “in my head” when a client is experiencing raw and powerful emotion. And I can almost put words to it, “Oh no, I’m not joining you THERE.” While I can empathize, say all the right things,ask all the right questions, it’s most definitely “from a distance”. Not that I’m supposed to literally “join” my client in that place, but I think to allow myself to be a bit more impacted and moved by their state rather than just analyzing it, and helping them analyze it would be best. Regarding this seminar, I may be signing up for this one.

  6. Judy Lipson, MA, LPC says:

    Hi Brian, I love the statement: ‘Emotions play their symphony in the arena of the body and the body state feeds information back to the brain (either consciously or unconsciously).’ and would love to include it in a newsletter that I’m writing about trauma and the recognition that it is held in the body. Was this originally from Damasio or Ledoux? Or is this your statement? May I use it?
    Thanks, Judy

    • Brian says:

      I believe it was probably Ledoux. In one of his books or even lectures. I am sure he repeats himself. My words are just a paraphrase of his original statement.

  7. Judy Lipson, MA, LPC says:

    Hi Brian, I love the statement: ‘Emotions play their symphony in the arena of the body and the body state feeds information back to the brain (either consciously or unconsciously).’ and would love to include it in a newsletter that I’m writing about trauma and the recognition that it is held in the body. Was this originally from Damasio or Ledoux? Or is this your statement? May I use it?
    Thanks, Judy

    • Brian says:

      I believe it was probably Ledoux. In one of his books or even lectures. I am sure he repeats himself. My words are just a paraphrase of his original statement.

  8. Brian J Whelan, LCSW, CST, SEP says:

    Cris,
    That sounds a bit condescending. The brain has many integrated and specialized functions and it’s complexity certainly goes way beyond the pop cultures use of right brain and left brain. Despite the fact that such discourse oversimplifies thing our neocortex is indeed split into two hemispheres and indeed has a right and left side. Even our Amygdala has lateralized functions and the vagus nerve has a left node and a right node and the right node is more integrated with regulating emotional state, in particular it is only the right vagus which innervates the sino atrial node of the heart. The word “dominance” does not imply sole or exclusive control without integration contralareral parts of the brain. As far as right and left arms and legs, this is one function where control is very much specialized in a contralateral right/left split.

    While my above statement may be a short concise reference to the works of two of the most prominent and renowned neuroscientist of our time, I don’t quite find my understanding of neuroscience to be anything less than comprehensive. While my statement above may not be a thorough review of what neuroscientists know about the brain, nothing I said above is factually untrue. If you disagree that the left brain is dominant for linear and language based operations and that the right brain is dominant for regulating the autonomic nervous system I would live for you to show me the neuroscientufic studies that have shown that to be the case.

    Sincerely,
    Brian

    • Cris says:

      Brian, didn’t mean to trip your trigger so. I can see you’re very into neuroscience. That’s good. Still, there’s only one brain, slang notwithstanding. The not-so-informed are easily misled by a perversion of terminology.

      • Brian says:

        Thanks! I will be sure to say left side or hemisphere so as not to give people the impression they have 2 brains. I just thought people with half a brain could figure that’s what that means.

        So I am sure your years in the field give you a knowledge to contribute that goes beyond making sure none of us are misinformed about how many brains we have?

  9. Stephen Vernon MFT says:

    Let me reword the opening sentence of your fifth paragraph to more accurately represent the reality of many of us in the field– not the academicians who have “controlled” the thinking more or less from the onset of psychotherapy/psychology.– Luckily, for those that need it, neuroscience is also beginning to catch up in its growing recognition that which therapists have long known, that working sensitively and skillfully with clients’ emotions is critical to clinical success.
    However, some of the other comments are shocking in their apparent unawareness of the dominance the “scientific” ,cognitive branches our field has taken. Just about every study that compares “psychotherapy” to other forms of “treatment” (pharmaceutical, no treatment, etc) uses CBT for the “psychotherapy.” In fact a Harvard study a couple years ago seemed shocked in presenting their findings that emotionally based therapy seemed to be at least as successful as CBT. (Of course the drive is toward quantitative outcomes and reduced costs– both of which are hard to measure in long term depth therapy.)

  10. Brian says:

    I believe Ledoux uses the metaphor of the emotions playing their symphony in the body. If you want to quote LeDoux you need to find his exact quote as that sentence I constructed are my own words, although it was inspired by LeDoux.

  11. Cort Curtis, Ph.D. says:

    Amen

  12. Jennifer Sneeden, LMFT, Boca Raton Therapist says:

    Looking forward to this series. I started recognizing the importance of dealing with emotions when I began implementing Gottman’s approaches in my work. If an out-of-control client can have the space to work through those emotions and come out the other side with the guidance of a professional, isn’t therapy providing a tremendous value?

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