Why do counsellors ask about emotions, or how they “feel in your body”?
If you’ve ever been to therapy or counselling, there is a good chance you have been asked “how did you feel about that?” Moreover, to a response to answers such as “sad,” “angry,” or “anxious,” you might have been asked “where and how did you feel that in your body”?
These questions might seem a bit odd because we might not even be used to thinking about what we are feeling, let alone talk about it. In most day-to-day interactions people care about what we do or say, not necessarily how we feel about it. They care about whether we showed up to work, gave a good presentation or picked up the kids from school.
Even in fights between intimate partners, it is more common to focus on what happened—what exactly did you say? How many minutes late were you? How long were you on your phone? How much did something cost? —rather than how those details made them feel.
This begs the question, what are emotions and why do they matter?
What exactly are emotions?
Emotions are notoriously hard to define. While we give names like “anger,” “joy,” and “sadness,” to our feelings, in reality, these are not easily observable events, but crude representations for very complex processes. There is no “sadness” circuit in the brain, and even experiences such as fear, often associated with the amygdala, can be created by other regions or multiple sets of neurons.
Scientists know we feel things, but what exactly these “things” are and how exactly these “things” function remains a bit of a mystery. It is still hotly debated whether human emotions are more or less universal or vary across culture and environment. Even facial expressions, such as smiling or frowning, have proven unreliable indicators of internal states, because they are often ambiguous and vary across history and culture.
While the fact that feelings and emotions cannot be observed “objectively” proves to be a significant obstacle for scientific study, it highlights the importance of talking about these experiences. Luckily, as counsellors, we are not concerned with studying emotional responses in large populations, we only want to understand how you feel. If you feel sad, joy, or anger, we want to know what, exactly, does sadness, joy, and anger feel like to you. What stories or experiences are attached to it? What other emotions does it come with? Do you feel a certain age when experiencing that emotion? How do you feel it in your body? Do you feel it in your stomach, your chest, or your face? Does it burn, tingle, twist and churn or wash over you in a wave?
Why do emotions matter?
Becoming aware of our inner feelings and emotions can feel a little strange, especially if we lived in an environment where it may have been beneficial to ignore or suppress these sensations. So why do it?
- Emotions are designed to move and shape us
Despite sharp disagreements with what—exactly—emotions are, there is a consensus across scientific and mental health fields that our feelings have an immense impact on our behaviour.
You can think of emotions as part of your primary navigational system that evolved to help you rapidly interpret the world around you. Emotions want to move us, tell us what to do, and how we should do it. It is common to think about emotions in opposition to logic and reason, however, emotions play an important role in cognition. As information enters our mind and body, it is already being (partially) encoded, processed, and interpreted by our feelings and emotions.
As Dr. Lisa Feldman Barret puts it, emotions are one way in which our brains make predictions about our environments. Learning from past experiences, our nervous system encodes information as safe, desirable, disgusting, dangerous, and so on.
When we are babies, this information is encoded simply, as either agitation (when we need something) or calm (when our needs are met). As we develop, and are subjected to more experiences, our feelings give more nuanced meaning and texture to incoming information: they “tell” us what people, places, situations, or events we should embrace or avoid. Emotions are thus crucial in guiding decisions and behaviours, and can motivate us to deepen particular social bonds, embark on adventures, protect loved ones, or even, sometimes, act in ways that we later regret.
- We have feelings about our feelings
While we all have emotions, and often use the same words to describe them (sad, angry, etc.), no one will experience these feelings in the same way. Emotional intensity, duration, location, and effect vary greatly depending on the specific individual within particular circumstances.
Additionally, because we have different life experiences, we have different meanings and stories attached to these feelings. That is, not only do we have feelings, but we have feelings about our feelings.
Emotions make instantaneous judgements and interpretations about the world, but the story does not stop there. Once we experience this emotional reaction, we will, once again, interpret and judge this feeling.
If this seems confusing, just think about the last time you had to speak in public. The typical response when asked to perform in front of an audience is for our nervous system to react with a fear-cocktail of hormones, thoughts, and sensations to alert us to the fact that something is wrong, and we are in grave danger. If you resonate with that sentence, your nervous system has coded the audience as a threat. However, a second coding soon follows: as our heart beats faster, our palms turn sweaty, our mouth becomes dry, and our minds go blank, we will also interpret and judge this experience.
In this secondary response, one individual may affirm our pounding heart and pumping adrenaline with a narrative of certain failure, shame, and embarrassment. As the mind and body come to an agreement on the facts of the situation (yes, it is dangerous!), perhaps this will lead to running off stage, hiding in the dressing room, or just feeling anxious about feeling anxious. For another individual, this initial anxious feeling may be accompanied by feelings of anger towards the self, as they interpret this sensation as further evidence of their perceived “weakness.” Still another person may witness these sensations, acknowledge their vulnerability, and respond with words of self-understanding and self-encouragement. Regardless of which action we take, we cannot help but react to our reactions, interpret our interpretations, or have feelings about our feelings.
How we react in these moments has a lot to do with how our primary caregivers, friends, and environment felt about our feelings. A particular family, community, or society may validate and attend to a particular emotional experience while another may neglect, or even punish, the exact same experience.
One of the ways we adapt to our environment is by mirroring external responses internally. As children, we have little choice in how our needs are met, including our emotional needs. As has been long observed, from Sigmund Freud to Gabor Maté, children will go to great lengths to remain attached to their caregivers, including ignoring, invalidating, or punishing their emotions, when necessary. Because children are dependent and vulnerable, their “safest” choice is often to fit in by internalizing external judgements towards their feelings. Depending on their circumstances, this could mean invalidating a vast range of internal desires, hopes, and fears.
As we get older and become more independent, we have the opportunity to validate and attend to our emotional experiences in different ways. This process, however, requires that we first become aware of this complex ecosystem of primary and secondary reactions, which are often automatic, habitual, and, in many cases, echo the environment in which we grew up.
Awareness, therefore, can free us from old patterns of thinking and reacting, providing us with a chance to embark on a new relationship with ourselves, others, and our communities. We can explore or reconnect with parts of ourselves, attend to emotional experiences, and better understand our fears, desires, and dreams.
A nuanced emotional vocabulary can help us create a map of our inner world. This map can aid us in both recognizing what we are feeling, but also give us time and space to decide how we want to respond to this feeling. Do we want to replace feelings of guilt with self-compassion, or feelings of shame with anger? Whatever we decide, this self-understanding can afford us the opportunity to validate our feelings and relate to ourselves in ways we find supportive.
- We can accept or recode our feelings
For many, unpacking the complexity of their inner world means dealing with painful feelings and unprocessed emotions. As uncomfortable as this can be, mindfully attending to both our feelings and our feelings about these feelings can help us alleviate and cope with this emotional burden.
For survivors of traumatic experiences or environments, the nervous system may react (quite understandably), by encoding otherwise benign sounds, smells, sights, or behaviours as unsafe because they have some association with events that were, in fact, dangerous. Similarly, for individuals who grew up in an environment where their inner desires were dramatically at odds with their external demands (family pressure, social norms, etc.) emotions such as joy, pride, or love, can be coded with feelings of shame, fear, or disgust.
As these examples suggest, not all encoded predictions are optimal or congruent with our long-term plans or evolving sense of self. Struggles with past trauma, anxiety, or fears of loss and abandonment can prevent us from establishing intimate relationships or achieving our goals. Mapping these feelings and reactions can be a powerful tool to both tolerate and re-calibrate painful emotions.
In situations where distress is present or inevitable, bringing awareness to both the uncomfortable sensations as well as our “automatic” judgements and reactions, can be extremely helpful in containing and alleviating painful feelings. Instead of “becoming the feeling,” we can become aware that it is just a feeling, and is temporary, even if uncomfortable.
One of the reasons panic attacks can feel so uncomfortable, especially when experienced for the first time, is because we get anxious about feeling anxious. In this situation, not only does the individual feel the acute distress of a highly engaged sympathetic nervous system (which can include symptoms such as an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, tingling, racing thoughts, and feelings of impending doom), but then these feelings are re-interpreted (again, quite reasonably) as signs that something is terribly wrong—so we may “double down” by creating a story that we are dying or losing control, which, in turn, only fuels this spiral of anxiety.
If, by contrast, we can observe and describe the physical sensations of our anxiety, while, at the same time, paying attention to our attempts to interpret these feelings, we can intervene with self-understanding, reassurance, and support. We can remind ourselves that these thoughts and feelings are temporary and fleeting, while acknowledging that we may feel uncomfortable and scared. By bringing awareness to the physical experience and supplementing the initial reactions of fear and judgment with sentiments of curiosity, compassion, and understanding, we can vastly reduce our acute suffering.
Similarly, if we find that our behaviours in a particular domain of life are driven by a strong fear of abandonment or loss, we can observe these feelings, examine where they show up, what they feel like, what emotions accompany them, and what they are seeking. This enables us to slow down and intervene in a new way. If we can tolerate these feelings and soothe these parts, we can buy some time to better discern how we want to respond or communicate. We may decide that, before reacting, we may want to calm our sympathetic nervous system, introduce new thoughts, or give ourselves more time to think about it.
In sum, turning our attention towards our feelings and emotions can deepen our understanding of who we are, why we do what we do, and who we want to become. In accompanying you on this journey your counsellor may introduce various techniques along the way—some focus on thoughts, narratives, and behaviours, while others are aimed at calming the nervous system—but, regardless of style, modality, or intervention, the fact remains the same: you are utterly unique and there is no way to know you, or grasp your inner world, except by asking and listening.
– Written by Robert Froese, MSW, RSW
Barrett, L. F. (2017). How emotions are made: The secret life of the brain. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Beck, J. (2015, February 24). “Hard feelings: Science’s struggle to define emotions.” The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com
Freud, S. (2014). Civilization and its discontents. Penguin Classics.
Linehan, M., M., (2014). DBT Training Manual. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Mate, G. (2008). In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. Toronto: Vintage Canada.
Webb, J., & Christine, M. (2013). Running on empty: Overcome your childhood emotional neglect. New York, NY: Morgan James Publishing.