Cultivating Emotional Mindfulness: What, Why, and How…
The ability to mindfully experience, regulate, and respond to one’s feelings is essential to mental health and well-being. Yet problems managing emotion abound and play a central role in most psychiatric disorders. Regardless of diagnosis, many people seeking treatment have some degree of difficulty being present with and making good use of their emotional experience.
For many, the underlying problem is fear. We’re afraid of our own feelings.
Our feelings are what make us feel alive and vital, energize us to meet and deal with life’s challenges, and point us in the best direction to get what we really want. Our feelings are what bridge the gap between ourselves and others, enliven our relationships, and help us feel close. And it is what I call a “Feelings Phobia”—a fear of and discomfort with feelings and the inability to share them with others—that keeps many of us detached from the wisdom and power inside us, and at a distance from others.
Most of the people I see for therapy experience some degree of discomfort with their feelings. They’re afraid to feel the full extent of their emotions and afraid of being emotionally alive and present with others. They’re afraid of being vulnerable, of drawing attention to themselves, of looking foolish. They’re afraid of being overwhelmed, of losing control, of getting out of hand. They’re afraid of being seen for who they really are.
And what happens? They do every thing they can to avoid their feelings, suppress them, and keep them hidden. They’ve developed defenses, many of which they’re not aware of, that effectively dampen or shut down their emotional experience and, as a result, cause suffering, keep them from moving forward in their lives and in their relationships, and pose a challenge for therapy.
As with any phobia, the more we avoid something, the less opportunity we have to overcome our fear. In short, we stay afraid. Learning to approach and be present to our emotional experience is essential for real change to occur. But, it can be hard especially when we’re dealing with fear. So, how can we best help clients find the courage to face what’s scary, open up to a fuller experience of their emotions, and heal? It’s this very question that has been at the center of my clinical work, teaching, and writing.
“Emotional Mindfulness” provides a conceptual framework through which we can better identify and understand the skills we need to help our clients develop. Fundamentally based in Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP), a relational, healing-oriented model of therapy, the work of emotional mindfulness involves: 1) Increasing awareness (of emotions and our defenses against them), 2) Reducing anxiety and fear, 3) Developing emotional competence, and 4) Expanding one’s capacity for expression and reception.
In this blog, we’ll look at how our emotional development goes awry, but how, through clinical interventions in which emotions are experienced as positive and free from fear, we can help clients develop essential capacities, stimulate and strengthen new neural pathways, and restore vitality and well-being. It’s my hope that this can be a place where we can talk about the work of therapy, where you can ask questions, share some of your struggles and, thus, can find assistance in helping your clients overcome fear, open up to a richer emotional experience, and realize a broader range of personal and relational possibilities.
In my next installment, we’ll take a look at how a feelings phobia comes to be.
Fear image available from Shutterstock.