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The Importance of Emotion


Experiential dynamic therapies assume that many of the concerns that bring people to therapy stem from what Harvard psychologist Leigh McCullough called “affect phobia,” a fear of feeling. Specifically, problems arise when we have learned, unconsciously, that some or all of our active, vitalizing emotions are not OK. These include emotions such as healthy anger, joy, sexual energy, and active sadness (as opposed to depressed sadness).


When we believe on some deep level that these feelings are not acceptable, we unintentionally try to stifle or avoid them. The ways we try not to feel can be significant barriers to living our lives fully.


For example, if we deny our healthy anger, we may have trouble asserting ourselves and setting appropriate limits with others. If we shove down our hurt, we risk closing our hearts and losing out on the joys of close relationships. If we numb all of our emotions, we end up empty and deadened inside.


Alternatively, if we are uncomfortable with the feelings associated with failure or success, we might hold back from pursing our goals and dreams. This can lead to procrastination and other forms of self-sabotage. Similarly, if we are uncomfortable with the feelings associated with rejection or being loved, we might avoid intimacy and attachment, and even push people away. Many of us try to avoid being hurt by acting like we think others want us to, being who we’re supposed to be instead of being true to ourselves. When this happens, we lose touch with who we really are, and this can leave us feeling lost, disconnected, and alone.


Coping strategies such as these don’t just cause problems; they never completely work. When emotions are in the background but not acknowledged, we may be anxious and distracted without knowing why. When emotions flare up suddenly, we may experience anxiety attacks. And even stifled emotions still leak out. Anger may come out as passive aggression, get displaced onto others, or get turned on ourselves. When this happens, we second guess ourselves, become our own worst critics, and tear ourselves down.


Some of us notice the price we pay every day. Others get along well most of time, but then hardship strikes and our usual ways of defending no longer work. Loss, illness, and other major life changes can be terrifying, incredibly painful, and infuriating. These reactions are natural and human. But to the extent that we are then uncomfortable with our emotions, the fear of feeling adds to our suffering and can make it harder to cope and recover.


We can reclaim our ability to feel by facing our fears. Ideally, we do this in the presence of people who can understand and totally accept our inner experience. When we allow our feelings to just be, we realize that they are completely OK. Indeed, they are incredibly important. Our emotions give meaning to life, make us care about things, and are the passion and energy we use to engage the world. By attending to what we feel inside, we stop living in fear and avoidance. We become more able to relax and to live in the moment. We become more able to love and accept ourselves, and to relate authentically with others. We also become more able to apply ourselves fully to the things that are important to us, and to let go of the hurtful strategies we used in the past to avoid feeling.

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