What is all this focus on emotions in psychotherapy anyways? Sometimes I wonder if my clients are wondering that. Sometimes they ask me directly. And indeed there is a lot of focus on feelings ones feelings. Often in a session, when a client is getting in touch with feelings –sadness, anger, joy – I will slow our process down, make space for the client to really feel what he or she is feeling. I’ll encourage us to take some time with those feelings. To really feel them, including how one feels feelings in one’s body. Why do this?
A central aim in psychotherapy is to help the client develop a greater range of emotional expression. Clients who report depression or anxiety generally have a more constricted range of feeling. And often clients come into therapy feeling flat or dull. By focusing on the feelings that emerge in session, a client discovers that he has these feelings and has the capacity to feel. This capacity includes feeling the positive and light feelings as well as the dark and bleak.
By feeling these feelings – including the really painful, sometimes traumatic ones – the healing process takes place. The way through grief and loss is exactly that: through it. Though often, because this process is so painful, people would rather skirt it, go around it. In these cases, often substance abuse and other addictive habits become ways of trying to avoid the pain. But by going through it – with someone else: the therapist – there is the possibility of healing.
While it is certainly true that we can’t change the past and the painful events that have occurred, we can through the process of grieving make room for other feelings. In my work with clients, it is not uncommon to witness this. After some period of time (sometimes this is a long period, and sometimes it is of shorter duration, such as one session) of focusing on really painful feelings from the past or from the present, a client will come into therapy feeling much lighter, more alive. This change can seem quite dramatic.
The other day a client said “You have to feel the sorrow in order to feel the joy.” He was speaking of feeling that kind of joy that is born out of sorrow. The kind of joy that feels joyous because of the experience of sorrow. This kind of joy is a wonderful experience to have and to participate in.