The #1 Skill You Need to Have to Make Therapy Work

color pencils and open exercise book

As it turns out, many of my clients struggle to isolate their emotional experiences and put words to it.

And that’s okay, because I work with every one of my clients with what they come with to give them the best help I can.

But so often I think, wouldn’t it be great if you could come into therapy with these tools already?

Just imagine how much more effective therapy could be!

So, that’s why I’d like to walk you through this tutorial on Emotions.

Because I know that once you go through this tutorial, you’ll have one of the most important skills that you need to be successful in therapy.

And it is really important to me that you are successful in therapy.

So let’s get started.

Overview

In this tutorial I’m going to teach you all about emotions;

what they are,

why they’re so important,

and how to identify them,

so that your experience in therapy can be even more straightforward and effective.

So, what are emotions?

On a basic chemical level, emotions are the result of complex chemical interactions within and between the 100 billion cells in your brain.

It’s what results when your brain perceives and interprets cues from the outside world.

You see, hear, touch, feel or taste something and your brain interprets that information, and then instantaneously generates a chemical response, which you experience as an emotion.

And the point of your emotions is to get you to do something, or to stop doing something- whatever keeps you alive.

Fear, for example, prompts us to flee from dangerous situations, like when I walk past this one house in my neighbourhood and without fail, I yelp in fear (it’s hilarious, believe me) when this dog jumps up and barks ferociously from behind the fence. In this case my brain interprets the information my senses deliver and as a result I jump into a running start.Disgust is another example of a quick response when we encounter something that might make us sick. Anger quickly transitions us from a placid state to one where we’re ready to fight, and sadness can generate resolve to change the direction of our lives.

Even joy is a pleasurable emotion that motivates us to continue whatever behaviour led us to that emotion in the first place.

What’s the catch

The catch is, our brains don’t always interpret reality correctly. Like the neighbourhood dog that jumps out at me from behind the fence, while seemingly threatening, he can’t actually hurt me.

But you can’t blame your brain, even though I feel pretty stupid yelling in the middle of my street, because your brain has to react to keep you safe.

You brain is wired from birth to interpret certain stimuli from the environment as threatening such as pungent smells, or loud and sudden noises, but you brain also used past experiences as a basis for knowing how to interpret situations. Like if you’ve been hurt in a relationship time and time again, you will become more cautious and suspicious of new relationships. However, sometimes those experiences are not a great standard for reality.

But what your brain does is takes past experiences, and uses to create pathways by which is can use to quickly interpret the environment and motivate quick, automatic responses.

The problem is that because those responses don’t always coincide with reality, you may find yourself at odds.

Like a former client of mine who always felt neglected by her grandparent. She believed that  her cousins were favoured by her grandparents, and she was for the most part ignored. As an adult, marrying into a new family, she found herself expecting to be undervalued and neglected by her in laws because her brain registered her painful past experiences as a standard for all relationships with parent figures. And that’s why it’s so important to bring your awareness to your emotional experience; so you can objectively determine the accuracy of your brain’s interpretations.

Why is emotional awareness so important?

Here’s an example: When I’m stressed it’s often because I feel scared about something that is not in my control, say, my income or my health or someone else’s opinion of me. I become edgy and snappy. The fear can totally take over. But when I identify the fear, determine it’s origin and why I respond to it the way that I do, then I am better able to actually redirect my brains activity, become more conscious in my responses and overall, feel calmer, and in more control.

Wait there’s more.

So you can get a sense that emotional awareness matters, but let me break it down for you and detail just how important it is that you are able to identify your emotional experience and how they affect your thoughts and behaviours.

When you develop your emotional awareness you are better able to:

Calm down – when you are able to name your emotion you are able to almost automatically tame it.

Control your behaviour- which means that you don’t over react in a situation. And that’s a big deal, because how often do you find yourself reacting to situations and then later wondering why.

Respond with kindness and compassion-  by developing your emotional awareness you’re not only able to stop yourself from reacting, but you’re able to activate your brain’s ability to recognize the emotional experience and needs of others, like your partner, your kids and anyone else you encounter. So instead of reacting automatically you are better equipped to respond with kindness and compassion.

Raise kids who are emotionally aware- the final benefit, and arguably the most valuable if you are a parent, is that by interacting with your kids from a stance of emotional awareness, you will raise kids who themselves are more emotionally aware. How does that happen? By enhancing your emotional awareness you will feel more calm, be less reactive and more sensitive and responsive to your kids emotional needs. And by recognising and meeting your kids’ emotional needs, you will be nurturing and priming their brains for emotional awareness.

When you develop your emotional awareness and begin to have intentional interactions with your kids, interactions where you are present in the moment, then you can begin to recognise and respond to your kids emotional needs. These responsive interactions that you will have with your kids will over time be wired in to their brain’s map of how they understand themselves, relationships and their place in the world. Meaning, they will be more in touch with themselves, accepting of themselves and others, and generally better equipped to lead a happy and resilient live.

Now, despite all the benefits to emotional awareness, when it comes to naming our feelings, most of us will come up short, and here’s why.

What are the common barriers to emotional awareness?

The first barrier to awareness of emotions is that they’re intangible and difficult to define. You learned that a flower is a flower because it was pointed out to you and you could experience it through your senses. Emotions are more elusive and, unless your emotions were actually pointed out, named and validated, it will be hard to pinpoint them.

If in your primary relationships, the ones that shape your perceptions, your emotions were invalidated or discounted, like you were told to stop crying or it’s no big deal, or your emotions were named but they weren’t validated, or you weren’t given the comfort you needed, or maybe, with good intention, when you expressed your uncomfortable emotions, your caregivers offered solutions to help you get rid of your feelings instead of helping you understand and accept them, then you likely learned one or more of three things: First, that your feelings aren’t important. Second, that you are not the best judge of your emotions, that is, you can’t trust yourself and therefor the world, or anyone in it. And third, that you should repress them instead of just being with them.

The third reason why you may find it difficult to identify and tolerate your emotions is because you lack an adequate vocabulary to describe them. Sometimes, what you’re feeling is beyond words, I’ll give you that, but for those times that you can define your experience, it can help to have the names for your feelings because so often when you can put a name to something, things seem to make more sense. Like when you bump into someone who you haven’t seen for years, and you can’t remember their name. As soon as you remember their name, there is a reestablished sense of connection.

Finally, the last reason so many of us have a tough time getting in touch with our emotional experience is because we so often confuse our thoughts with emotions a to protect ourselves from awareness and the discomfort of our emotions. Emotions are definitely connected to our thoughts but they are not the same thing. For example, “I feel like a failure” is a thought just the same as “I feel like eating pizza”. There are definitely feelings that come up when we have these thoughts, but thoughts are not the same as feelings. So if you tell me that you “feel like a failure”, I’ll ask you, “What feelings come for you when you think that you’re a failure?”and then some really valuable work begins.  as a to protect ourselves from awareness of the emotion. 

So what can I do to enhance my emotional awareness? 

Well there are a few things you can do to enhance your emotional awareness which will help you feel calmer and more in control.

  1. Learn the names of emotions.
  2. Take time to notice your emotional experience (being careful not to confuse your thoughts for emotions).
  3. Take time to understand your emotional experience.
  4. Learn to understand what triggers your emotional reaction and determine how well your automatic reactions reflect reality reflect reality.

Of course it’s not always easy to identify or understand your emotional experience because they can be very deeply rooted in long standing patterns of interpreting yourself, others and the world around you.

So sitting with a trained and experienced therapist is by far the best way to exercise your emotional awareness and gain perspective on yourself and your day to day experiences and challenges in life.