From the ” Emotions?” post series.
First some anecdotes
I overhear a mother on a playground responding to her son, “But if you don’t tell me how you feel, I can’t help you.”
How I wished that I could respond like a tennis umpire, “Off!”
My daughter, aged 16, went off to boarding school. She was a weekly boarder, meaning that she spent weekends at home. In the first six weeks of her stay, she would complain bitterly in the car on the way home. On one such Friday, after listening to her, I replied, “If you are really unhappy, we can make a plan.”
“But I am not unhappy!”
“Then why do you complain so much?”
“I can’t help it, you listen so well.”
The roots of an emphasis on emotions in Psychology
A very brief overview.
Carl Rogers (1902-1987), an American humanist, is the father of modern psychotherapy after Sigmund Freud and C.G. Jung. His emphasis on empathic listening as the central tool in therapy is still valid. After all, research shows that the experience, “My therapist understands exactly how I feel”, remains the best indicator of successful therapy.
In 1982 a book arrived on the scene, How to listen so kids will talk, and how to talk so kids will listen. It was a bestseller.
The authors gave the following advice: 1. Firstly, name the emotion that the child is experiencing in an accepting way: “I can see that you are upset/angry/sad/shocked/frustrated…
The best part about this advice is that it helps you to focus on the child before you focus on the behaviour. You can apply this advice to yourself: When you are experiencing a strong emotion, take a moment and ask yourself, “What exactly are my feelings?”
Do not accept the first thought that comes to mind. You may be surprised. Once you hit the right emotion, you will recognise it, AND you should experience some movement. Be careful of stereotypical labels:
“I am depressed.”
Yes, but what does that mean?”
“OK. I am sad.”
Sad about what?
“I am furious”
Why are you furious? is there another feeling below your anger? Shame? Humiliation maybe? Bewilderment? Unworthiness?
Feelings are always linked to thoughts about yourself and about the world.
A depressed person typically thinks, “there is nothing that I can do about it. I am trapped.” An angry person can think, ” If I do not fight, I will be annihilated. I need to hurt this person otherwise I have no power and that is dangerous. ”
Identifying the correct emotion is helpful to a therapist because it helps them to understand how you think about yourself and how you understand ‘life’.
This matters, because the correct naming of the emotion, helps with the correct action that has to follow if you want to feel any better. If you think that “life is just like that, there is not much that you can do” or you view other people as generally untrustworthy and/or dangerous, then you need to work on that.
Most vitally, you need to ask yourself: OK, so what can I do about it? There is always something that you can do – talk about it, look for its origins, write about it, change your mind about it, etc.
This book by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish (still in print), was hugely popular and paved the way for a more cooperative form of parenting. Much of the advice remains useful. Like all new developments, it carried within it seeds of a new set of problems. (An over-emphasis on emotions, the idea of a forced choice has limited potential, and my pet-gripe: another brick on the wall of artificial parenting).
A short cartoon on youtube provides an effective summary of the book: