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 to 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.