Psychotherapists are supposed to be able to handle emotions—particularly the unpleasant, out-of-control, negative emotions exhibited by their clients. After all, people don’t seek out therapy because they’ve made a logical decision to improve their cognitive abilities or learn better, more effective people skills. They come because they’re hurting. The nasty feelings that beset them—anger and resentment, despair, grief and sadness, anxiety, fear—have taken on a life of their own and, as a result, taken over their lives. Yet, for much of our field’s history, we’ve pretended that while clients might be overcome with emotion, it’s our role to transcend those volatile, moment-to-moment perturbations that are at the heart of the therapeutic connection.
This orientation toward holding feelings at arm’s length reflects a dichotomy between reason and emotion with a long pedigree in Western thought. At least since the Enlightenment, reason and emotion have traditionally been associated with two entirely different realms—the former reflecting our “higher,” nobler, somehow more genuinely human self, and the latter representing our lower, baser, animal nature. For much of our field’s history, exponents of the “talking cure” have coolly engaged clients in rationally discussing their emotions, with the goal being, as Freud said, “where id was, there shall ego be.” In short, a dispassionate, detached, eminently rational therapist would somehow—through quiet, soothing conversation—help emotionally overwrought clients bring reason to the task of taming their id-driven passions. For an up-to-date, neuroscientific gloss on this project, read “amygdala” for “id” and “frontal cortex” for “reason.”
Of course, the idea of the clinician as a wise, earthbound Dr. Spock has always been a caricature, and therapists have known that, as human beings, they’re just as prone to emotional dysregulation, disorientation, and discombobulation as their clients. Faced with two spouses screaming invectives at each other, we can feel the same flight/freeze reaction as a mouse trapped in a corner by a predatory cat. A client’s tormented revelations of early attachment trauma can trigger unhappy memories and emotions stemming from our own long-past childhood wounds. Naturally, we don’t like these feelings. They make us afraid, embarrassed, out of control, confused. We’re supposed to be in charge, after all.
But in this issue, the authors explore how therapists can more fully embrace and utilize the continual ebb and flow, rise and fall, and shifting intensity of their own inner emotional state. They take on such questions as, can we more deeply—and usefully—engage our own emotional life as it plays out in our interactions with our clients? Or, are there other alternatives to the slightly distancing posture of disinterested guide and kindly teacher, whose main intervention is restricted to helping clients acquire the skills to tamp down their unruly, dangerous emotions? This issue maps out not only what the latest science tells us about how emotion works, but also how therapists can more fully acknowledge within themselves the embodied experience of emotion in the consulting room, and consciously put it to use in clinical work. After all, psychotherapy effectiveness studies increasingly tell us that the most important factor in every approach is the connection between therapist and client. Even with the most rationalized and manualized clinical technique, it’s the relationship, stupid! And, as this issue repeatedly reminds us, human relationship—every relationship—is, at its core, profoundly emotional.
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.