Feelings often occupy the focus in psychotherapy. Often I will ask my clients how they feel; often they will either speak of or show their feelings, particularly the distressing ones. I have been thinking about feelings lately and it occurs to me that there are different types – I’m inclined to say species – of feelings.
There is, of course, what one would immediately think of as feelings. Those states of being that are described as “happy,” “sad,” “frustrated,” “angry,” etc. Often when talking about those feelings, I ask my clients to find them in their bodies because I believe that feelings are housed in the body. We may “think” about how we feel; but we know how we feel by feeling the sensations. If I feel sad, I may become aware of heaviness in my chest, a swelling of tears in my eyes, heartache. If I’m anxious then there are corresponding feelings, a fluttering heartbeat, chills, a feeling of jumping out of my skin. All of these physical sensations manifest what the feeling is and what it feels like.
Often a goal of psychotherapy is to help the client share, express, emote what he or she is feeling. Feelings can sometimes feel or be thought of as overwhelming. In fact, given many people’s earlier experiences of feelings as extremely painful and particularly unempathic responses to those feelings by others (“I’ll give you something to cry about,” “big boys don’t cry”), a central problem often emerges for people about feeling their feelings: The belief that they will be too much, too overwhelming, and generally unwelcomed by others. For those with some history of trauma, feelings were too much. Thus people learn to disconnect from their feelings, to repress them, or seek behaviors and patterns that help numb those feeling. A psychotherapeutic relationship, therefore, provides a way to reinstate the process of feeling, learning to tolerate (they are now not as overwhelming or scary as once believed) and express them.
In this way, through the supportive and understanding relationship that we create, the client can explore and move through those feelings that are troubling and distressing. This process does not occur all at once; but through the sustained practice of expressing feelings – in the context of a relationship, where someone witnesses and participates in that process – the client can learn to tolerate feelings and to move feelings along when one has felt so stuck.
When helping clients to identify and express their feelings, I work with a central principle that feelings “can’t be wrong.” This doctrine applies in particular when working with couples, where it may be hard for each person to hear and recognize the other’s feelings. Feelings can’t be wrong. One may see a situation differently; one may want something different from the other. However, a central task in couples therapy is helping each person to understand the other’s feelings. And a central task in individual therapy is often to help the client support and accept his or her own feelings.
I’ll share more thoughts about other types of feelings in the next postings.