Emotional work – an emotion-focused approach

In applying this integrated approach, we try to reach an understanding which influences our thinking as well as our body. To understand a situation without including the body is like trying to understand a theory outside its context. When we feel something with our body it becomes tangible, making it then possible for us to relate to it.

We cannot exclude the body when expressing emotions – emotions can only be expressed through the body. Due to rules set by our society and by our families in our childhood, we have learned over the years to suppress certain emotions that are unacceptable to our society. There are for example, people who have not cried for decades or who never become angry with someone or something. But are such people never sad or angry?

Expressing with the body has a biological function. For example, we need to mourn and weep in order to accept and let go of our loss. We also need anger in order to set and to defend our boundaries.

Emotional work involves and depends on the body. Movement, deliberately perceiving emotions and giving these feelings a name as well as an awareness of breathing and the use of sounds and words to express these feelings, form the basis of this work.

By expressing ourselves in a safe environment, we allow ourselves to remember circumstances which may have been forgotten and in experiencing these ‘past’ situations in a new way, we are able to direct healing to where it is needed.

Through using our body we are taken back to situations which had been painful or traumatic, in order to experience these situation again consciously. However, this time the experience takes place within a protected setting with the help of a therapist and our adult capabilities. Traumatic experiences very often occur in our childhood. However, as a child we may never or seldom have had the opportunity to deal with such situations. If we experience these emotions once more in a therapeutic setting and “feel” them, we can achieve a more profound change than if we only “speak about” them.

It is very important to express ourselves and to express those emotions which we were unable to express when they first occurred. We might say “no”, scream, cry or give way to other feelings that need to be expressed. Through expressing ourselves, the blocked energies can start to flow again. This can put an end to old patterns of responding and instead retain the new experience.

We do not set out to explore these painful emotions and experiences in order to preserve them; on the contrary, the aim is to let them go. Emotions help us to remember those memories which are otherwise difficult to access. They allow us to access our wounds and needs – even those, which we tend to hide from ourselves. These feelings show us where our emotional blocks are and also what we need in order to heal our wounds.

A very important aspect of this work is to integrate the emotions that have been expressed. Without this integration, the old wounds could open up even further and lead to repeat traumata. The support of an experienced and responsible therapist is essential for this work.

The power of emotions

There are many different emotions that influence our life in one way or another. Emotions can suppress some of our most powerful survival urges such as taking food, sex or the will to live. When a person is disgusted by the only food available, they might still eat it reluctantly but it might also be the case that they would rather die than eat this food. Emotions also have an impact on our sex drive. In case of feeling fear or revulsion, people make no attempt to instigate sexual contact. In some cases, despair might undermine the will to survive and prompt some to take their own life. As these examples illustrate, emotions can be very powerful, to the extent that they can even overrule our most vital survival instincts.

Some emotions which occur often in therapeutic settings and which are important to understand and to process are anger, grief and fear. Of course, these are not the only emotions. However, these emotions occur regularly, at least in our culture, and are often suppressed. Suppression causes these feelings to continue to exist for many years and so limit our zest for life to a great extent.