My wife and I are lying on a blanket in the park, reading quietly. A loud voice shatters the silence. We sit up to see a man gesticulating wildly to a woman and another couple, as he shouts, “ENOUGH ABOUT YOUR DAMN FEELINGS. I AM SO TIRED OF HEARING ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS. IT’S TIME TO BE RATIONAL. LET’S JUST FORGET ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS AND USE REASON!”
Something about the tone of his voice, so frantic and high pitched, reverberating with frustration and pent-up anger, sent waves of charged emotion racing through my previously relaxed body – and this the result of listening to a complete stranger. Ironically, though, this man believed he was utterly dispassionate about it all. If someone were to tell him how full of emotion he was throughout his tirade, he almost certainly would have denied it and continued to vehemently argue for “reason.”
Though he probably was unaware of it, this man was promoting one side of an argument that has been around since ancient times. It involves the place of emotion in our lives. To show how far back the argument goes: Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) argued that people must learn from their emotions. He said that to lead a good and beautiful life a person must develop his character to be sufficiently in charge of his emotions. A few years later Zeno of Citium (333 BC – 264 BC) was probably the first to present the Stoic philosophy about emotion. He argued, essentially, that there is nothing useful or positive about human emotion. The Stoic conclusion and advice was to become disconnected from bodily and emotional experience.
The two camps haven’t changed much in the intervening 2,000 plus years. The question of the place of emotion in our lives is not an invention of psychotherapy. Philosophers had been tackling the issue for centuries, and for a good reason. The very nature and experience of emotion requires that we make sense of it.
For me, however, the reality of life makes at least this much perfectly clear: Your emotional life is where the action is. This is especially true in relationships — your connection is emotional experience. All self-expression, including your brightest ideas, are carried in the currents of your emotional life. We are not always in touch with it, but emotional experience is ever-present. We are not always aware of it, but we always convey emotion and we always receive emotion. It’s like breathing, an aspect of our life’s vitality that is always there, even when we are not paying any attention to it.
Emotion is more than the basic feelings to which we can (sometimes) easily give names (i.e. happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust). The word ‘emotion’ comes from the Latin, emovere, meaning “to move” and that’s what emotion is about. The nature of emotional experience is that it is in constant flux. It is made of moving and “shifting internal states of arousal” and energy. (see note)
No wonder, then, that no one is perfectly in touch with the subtleties and nuances of their emotional experience. In fact, the nature of becoming in touch emotionally includes a struggle to sense what is happening inside. No one is perfectly able to speak of his or her emotional experience. In fact, every attempt to use language to describe the experience of emotion includes a struggle to find the right words.
Our emotional lives are beautifully complex. The experience of our feelings is happening in the present, but our whole history of emotional experience (including a history of learning not to be aware of feelings) can be woven into any present moment. Further complicating things is our tendency to become emotionally reactive against the deeper (more vulnerable) feelings from which most of us tend to protect ourselves. It’s a tremendous challenge for us to know what is moving us at any particular moment. This challenge becomes even more intricate within a relationship, where we are called to make sense of how we are moving and moved by our partner.
Couple therapy, like individual therapy, helps you develop a better, more elaborate, more refined relationship with your emotional life. It helps you learn pathways to sense and share your feelings. Couple therapy helps slow the action down so that you have a chance to develop a relationship with your own and one another’s feelings. You discover how to develop a better relationship with the emotional life of your partner. A consistent and significant goal of couple therapy is to help your connection become more emotionally warm, safe, rich and satisfying.
As I see it, it’s your couple therapist’s responsibility to take an active and involved role in helping you with your relationship to your own and your partner’s emotional life. Couples who take a stance of interest and curiosity toward their own and their partner’s emotional experience make the quickest and best use of therapy.
Thanks for reading,
Robert Ogner, May 20, 2008
Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. The Developing Mind; Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience, The Guilford Press, 1999. Dr. Siegel, referring to primary emotion writes, “Primary emotions are dynamic processes of change; again, they are not packets of something, but rather are fluctuations in the energy and informational flow of the mind.” Later, he refers to the “sea of emotion” we experience when “being bombarded by a flood of stimuli from emotional processes, which fill us with an overwhelming feeling. These sensations may reflect primary emotions (such as internal shifts in states of arousal) or categorical emotions (such as anger, fear, sadness, excitement, or joy). Emotions are what create meaning in our lives, however, whether we are aware of them or not.” Dr. Siegel’s chapter on emotion gives a neurobiological understanding of emotion.