Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Emotions–How important are they?

I have written about emotions a few years ago but because of my involvement in other areas I have failed to focus on this aspect of my practice. The passion of the injustices I experience seem to be more important than the fundamentals of therapeutic practice. So for a while I will let the issues around child protection go and give my blog a more diverse flavour.

Recently I was watching an episode of “Insight” (SBS TV) which discussed how we retain memories when we have experienced a trauma and how we process the emotions relating to the trauma. A focus on emotions is important to my practice and the role they play in informing us of events in our lives is pivotal. 

The term “emotional intelligence” is commonly used these days in order to either sell a few books or programs that tell us that if we can develop more EI we will be happier and healthier. I don’t know if that is true or the hype developed by those who are have a vested interest in this concept. What I have done over the years is develop my own model and theories around emotions which are not necessarily substantiated by any research or supported by any theory. This is the Tony Tonkin version of emotions. An idea which works with my clients and offers insights and understandings about their experiences.

Over the past 20 years I have run many programs which discussed anger. I decided a long time ago that we wouldn’t call one of these programs “Anger Management” but rather “What to do about anger’ or “Understanding Anger”. I wondered why we would want to manage anger and how do we manage an emotion anyway? For years I was also confused about the difference between “emotions” and “feelings”. In a moment of rare insight and profound understanding I discovered that “emotions” are a cluster of feelings, which cause an intense experience which we call “emotional”. For some years I would draw on the white board a very poor version of an ice berg and one day realised that the anger which was the part of the iceberg that was above the water line was a cluster of all the feelings under the water line. No one that I had worked with over the years had made the connection. The “anger” was always described as the behaviour which everyone could see. Anger was always portrayed as the emotion being expressed as behaviour. The problem with this was the notion that there was something wrong with  feeling “Angry” and that anger equalled bad behaviour.

Anger, like any other feeling or group of feelings (emotion) is the way we acknowledge our experiences.Without feelings we would be no more than a cardboard cut out or a robot. Feelings are our soul, they are the most intricate and vital part of the human experience. Yet we resist understanding our feelings, even worse we refuse to even identify them.

We know that the brain struggles to differentiate between physical and emotional pain. If it sees emotional pain as the same as physical pain then it makes sense that there would be some form of resistance. It seems rather contradictory though that we don’t store physical pain but we do emotional pain. I guess we learn not to touch a hot stove, we don’t even have to touch one to know that it will generate physical pain. People throughout our life are telling us how we are to interact with the world, who we should associate with, what we should or shouldn’t be ingesting, that there are consequence for our behaviour and so on. In my experience very few people tell us that it is okay to feel.

The very aspect of our lives which needs to be acknowledged and which we need to be encouraged to embrace we are often told to ignore. The result is that our emotions, which are as significant as oxygen, are not expressed appropriately which leads to unhelpful behaviour, poor health and terrible relationships. I know from personal experience the confusion which emanates from the failure to understand our emotions. I often wrestle with what my feelings are telling me. I also know that the decisions needed when you do understand what your emotions are telling you are often not decisions that you want to make. It is easier therefore to ignore the feelings and continue on the path you have chosen because you know that a certain path is going to create more emotional pain and uncertainty.

Even though our emotions tell us where we have been, where we are now and the direction we may need to take, following the message is not always easy. Understanding our emotions means that we are going to be better informed and even though we may wish to remain in emotional despair at least we have an emotional context to work with. It is a relief to be able to say “this relationship makes me feel devalued, hopeless and helpless, but I also know where these feelings come from and they will only play out in the present if I give them permission to do so.” We can now change the thought patterns which create these emotions by realising because my parents referred to me as hopeless doesn’t mean that I have to accept that version of myself any longer. Understanding that the messages given to you, for example,  in your relationship, would not have the influence and power if we weren’t holding onto messages of the past and the feelings those messages generated.

There is much that can be written about this topic. I would be interested in you thoughts. Feel free to comment.

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