People come into therapy because of some degree of emotional discomfort. The well-known psychotherapist Irv Yalom wrote that often he begins a session with the question: “What ails?” And while the causes – the stressors – of that suffering are often the focus of therapy, so too are the feelings themselves. And sometimes having these feelings – anger, sadness, loneliness – is more problematic than the actual stressful situations.
An important aim of psychotherapy is to help the client feel those distressing feelings. In this way therapy evokes the process that may or may not have occurred in the client’s childhood of feeling his or her feelings with someone. Ideally, in childhood, when a child falls and scrapes his knee, there is a caring person (often a parent) to pick him up and make it better. Through that process the child not only comes to feel relief of pain, but also learns that this pain is bearable and can in fact be made better through a relationship. It is that relationship that psychotherapy provides.
In my work, I often ask the client to tune into his or her feelings, to notice them in his or her body, and to talk about them to me. However, for many people, especially those who have experienced trauma, this is not an easy process. These distressing feelings feel unbearable. And sometimes in a person’s past these feelings have led to an emotional breakdown.
A client of mine described this situation so well when he said that to feel these feelings is like sticking his hand into the fire. He told me that every nerve in his being reacts to stop that and flee the situation/feeling. Psychotherapy is turning down the flames. Through the process of experiencing these feelings, including those that seem unbearable, with the therapist, the person can tolerate them and allow for a natural process of change to occur. Feelings are like waves: they ebb and flow, they change. It is only when we don’t feel the emotions, that we push them away or distract ourselves from them, that they linger and the fear of feeling them remains. That’s why therapists are so pone at asking, “So how does that make you feel?”