It’s OK To Say: St Albans counsellor explores the importance of learning about our feelings
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As part of the ongoing It’s OK To Say campaign, which aims to encourage people to discuss issues surrounding mental health, therapist Jon Wilson Cooper explores why it’s important to take time to understand our emotions.
I’m not happy. Therefore do I have a disorder? Am I suffering from a mental health problem? Do I need medication?
When we experience physical pain, it is worth spending some time to explore what the sensation is telling us before rushing to stop it; when we experience emotional pain, the same principle applies.
Feelings and emotions are information about what is going on in our inner world and, much like any of our senses, we would be significantly impaired if we block them.
Although it can be tempting to get rid of uncomfortable feelings like sadness by using chemicals, distracting ourselves with being busy or comfort-eating, the sensations themselves tell us something useful that needs our attention.
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If we have a headache, simply taking a pain killer is much like treating the sensation itself as the problem rather than exploring the sensation more to find the root cause - we could be stressed, dehydrated, have an injury, be experiencing problems with our teeth or eyes.
Unless we allow the feelings for a while, we may never get to the root cause.
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With emotions it can take a while to discover their meaning. However, in the vast majority of cases, the meaning makes perfect sense when we know more about our emotional world and our relational needs; we feel sad when our need to love and be loved is frustrated, for example when we are separated either temporarily or permanently from those we hold dear.
Sadness tells us that people matter to us. Likewise, fear is a highly necessary response to the world that tells us that there may be a potential threat to our wellbeing or that of others we care about.
Without fear the human race would not have survived this long as a species.
If we learn enough about our feelings, we can learn to use the information they provide us to navigate the world more skilfully. The skill lies not in getting rid of the feelings but in learning to tolerate them and work with them.
Although emotions seem to be a universal component of being human (except in very rare cases), how to identify them and how to work with them needs to be learnt.
Much like the sensation of hunger is a universal experience, knowing what to do to get nourishment has to be learnt.
We rely on our caregivers and teachers in the early years of our lives to guide us on this journey of exploration and discovery; however, they may also not know how to navigate the emotional waters of our existence as emotional, relational beings especially when painful or out of the ordinary experiences occur.
We need to first of all discover what are reasonable responses for us as a species as well as for us as individuals to the situation at hand given our nature.
Emotions, as with all aspects of our organismic functioning, have evolved over thousands of years and have aided in our survival.
Dulling our senses can at best reduce our understanding of ourselves and the world around us and at worst disable us from finding solutions to the issues we face.
Much of what goes on in counselling and psychotherapy involves learning to work out the meanings of our experiences and then learning to use our feelings once identified to steer ourselves forward, much like a potholer might have to feel their way out of the caves if their light failed.
When we have been badly hurt by life events and extreme emotional experiences occur, we may need some professional help to rehabilitate us and bring ourselves back to full capacity again, much as someone who has been in an accident might require the help of a physiotherapist to enable their body to function again.
Jon Wilson Cooper is director of Mosaic Counselling Services (a low-cost counselling service in St Albans) and director of The Albany Centre, a counselling and training institute in the city.