Emotions can be difficult things to talk about. They’re invisible, complex, and entirely subjective. They’re kind of like the snowflakes of the human condition - no two people feel the same emotion in exactly the same way. While some emotions feel wonderful and others feel dreadful, one thing is clear: they are a fundamental part of our humanity.
A lot of people seek therapy because they believe their emotions are a problem. I don’t blame people for thinking this. I’ve thought the same thing about my own feelings at an earlier time in my life. It makes sense: we’re given plenty of messages that invalidate our emotional responses to events in our lives. In fact, our emotions are rarely even considered within the contexts we experience them. Instead, they're positioned as irrational ways of being that point to some underlying pathology or mental health problem. The tradition behind viewing our emotions in this way is longstanding and worth abandoning.
Looking at Emotions in Context
One of the most amazing aspects of my work is watching people’s perspectives shift toward greater emotional self-acceptance and compassion. It’s common for a first counselling session to begin with someone saying that there may be something wrong with how they’re feeling. However, as we explore the context around their feelings as responses to their lived experiences, it becomes clear that their emotions actually make a lot of sense. There is, in fact, great wisdom behind our feelings.
Psychology has a lengthy history of looking at our emotions out of context. When we do this, we’re far more likely to view our feelings with a negative bias. Rather than seeing our emotions as responses, we see them as “effects” of supposed underlying psychological problems. Context helps things make sense. When we withhold or fail to acknowledge important pieces of context, the picture looks distorted and our emotions make less sense.
Here’s an everyday example of what I mean:
Jimmy is a 12-year-old boy attending middle school in Victoria. Since starting grade 7 four months ago, his mom and teachers have noticed that he’s been increasingly unhappy. He’s withdrawing more and more, taking less interest in hobbies and activities he was once excited about, frequently late for school because he struggles to fall asleep, often sleeps until mid-morning, eats a fraction of what he did the previous summer, and tends to oscillate between tearfulness and emotional flatness.
From a mainstream psychological perspective, Jimmy is depressed. There is an underlying, implied negative assumption that his emotional state is problematic and in need of fixing. The means to do that could be through prescribing Jimmy antidepressant medication, or sending him to see a psychologist, who might seek to help him address his irrational/distorted negative thinking and get back to having happy thoughts.
Now consider this: Jimmy’s parents divorced 18 months ago and tensions have been high between them. His father has been opting not to have his scheduled visits with Jimmy, spending time instead with his new girlfriend. He’s also been calling Jimmy at his mom’s house, telling him to tell her that he’d rather be living with his dad. Lastly, he started at a new school the previous Fall, where a group of boys have been bullying him because his mother visibly makes less money than their families do.
After reading more about what Jimmy is responding to, did your perspective change at all? Did it make more sense as to why he might be withdrawing, struggling with sleep, eating less, and is frequently tearful? When we look at our emotions as meaningful responses to events in our lives, they become far more understandable. In a case like Jimmy’s, we may even be more worried about him if he wasn’t responding to those circumstances as he is. When we respond to adversity in these ways, it shows we have a pulse and are tuned in to our environments.
Emotions and Meaning
A big reason why we feel the way we feel in response to events has a lot to do with meaning. Generally, the more important something is to us, the more intense our emotional response will be. In other words, the bigger the meaning, the bigger the feeling.
Meaning making is a very individual process. This is why no two people experience the same emotion in exactly the same way. While there are social and cultural consistencies around the meanings we ascribe to things, they are also very personal. The cultural aspect of meaning making helps us form standards and expectations when it comes to our emotional responses to events. This is why we might expect someone to respond with grief after losing a loved one, and also why we might anticipate how long the intensity of their grief will last. However, because of the highly personal nature of meaning making, the experience of loss could mean something very different to two people. One person could respond by shedding a few tears (or none at all) and feel “over it” after a week, while the other could be in mourning for years. It all depends on what the loss means to each person.
It’s both easy and shortsighted to conclude that the way someone is feeling is “distorted” or “irrational” when we don’t know the meaning things hold for them. For this reason I am especially wary of labeling people’s emotions as “pathological”. When we do this, we position people as deficient, and their responses as abnormal. We buy into an assumption that there are “normal”, acceptable ways to feel, and that people experiencing emotional distress are outside that scope. Therapy then becomes about enforcing rules of normalcy, rather than helping people heal on their terms, within the contexts of their lives. From my perspective, this approach totally ignores the very good reasons people have for feeling the ways they do.
Our emotions can work like a compass, pointing at things we need to consider and address in our lives. Rather than fruitlessly working to stop experiencing our feelings, we can look at the things our emotions are pointing to and make meaningful changes in those areas.
For example, in some cases anxiety may be a response to anticipated danger. As such, we can take measures to help ourselves feel safer. We can do this by making adjustments to both our external and internal environments. This might include choosing actions that align more closely with our sense of safety, as well as practices that help bring down our stress response, like meditation and breathing exercises.
Counselling and psychotherapy can be helpful when it comes to understanding troubling aspects of our lives in a new light. Many people talk to therapists to redefine the meaning they make of events that they feel distressed about. For example, I’ve helped men who were subjected to sexualized abuse as children, who then feared that they too would offend against children as adults. These men came to understand that their distress actually demonstrates that they take a firm position against perpetrating sexualized violence. Once they felt secure in that understanding, their levels of distress were far less troublesome for them – even nonexistent. Examples like this show how understanding circumstances and our responses to them more thoroughly can help us foster acceptance and feel more at ease.
I encourage everyone to claim their right to self-identify what is and is not working for them in their lives. What others (even professionals) misread as being problematic or pathological are likely well-founded, contextually relevant emotional responses to troublesome life events.
How have you responded to people (professionals or otherwise) suggesting that your emotions were problematic?
What are some ways you find helpful when it comes to addressing the concerns your emotions point toward?
What other ways do emotions enrich your life?
Feeling down, worried, or anxious? Wondering if how you're feeling makes sense?
Are you wanting things to be different?