“Why do I have to talk about my past when I’m dealing with a present problem that is causing me so much pain and suffering?” “Can’t you just give me tools to help me get rid of these feelings so I can feel better?”
These are all very typical and common questions we hear as psychologists when we first meet with our clients. Without an understanding of why we are doing what we are doing it’s difficult to want to unpack the past. This is especially the case when we are feeling such pain and emotional suffering in the present moment. So that leaves us with the question- why do we talk about our past in the context of making sense of our present emotional experiences?
Let’s start with the basics.
What are Emotions and what is the Function of our Emotional Experiences?
Emotions give us important information to help us survive. They provide us with an efficient and automatic way of responding rapidly to different situations. They are present to tell us what our needs are. That information then allows us to take action in order to get those needs met. The basic emotions we have are shame, fear, sadness, disgust, happiness, surprise and interest.
Example: I may feel angry towards my friend who always asks me to do favors without thanking me or doing anything in return. This anger guides me by first telling me that a boundary has been crossed. This then allows me to adjust my behavior accordingly (e.g., Be more assertive with him or her or take a step back from this person to protect myself from getting hurt).
Where do we Learn our Emotional Reactions?
This is all good and well when our emotions are “calibrated” in a sense. In other words, when our emotions fit the situation and we then respond accordingly to get our needs met. However, this isn’t always the case. Specifically, when the “real” emotion we felt as a child did not lead us to getting our needs met (either because we grew up in an environment where it was not safe to express these emotions or because our emotions were never validated, (For more info on validation visit my colleague Candace Kensley’s post) then we learn different ways of adapting to the environment in order to survive.
Example: If I was often punished or neglected for expressing an emotion such as anger, then I would have learned that the most adaptive way to survive would be to close down in order to never get hurt or feel alone again.
However, this does not allow us to get our needs met. It’s important to understand that this way of adapting that was learned in the past worked and was actually helped us survive. However, it may no longer be as adaptive in the environment we are in today and can in fact cause us to suffer even more. This is because it does not allow us to get our needs met and we therefore remain stuck.
Importance of going back to the past in order to heal the present
So then, why go back to our past to help us heal our present suffering? Without going back and making sense of these patterns we are just left with symptoms and painful emotions that remain stuck. Although tools can be extremely helpful in managing these symptoms, without going back and finding the root cause of our symptoms we risk re-experiencing the same pain and suffering over and over again in new contexts of our life that remind us of our past experience. As my supervisor once put it: “We can keep putting a bandage on our broken leg to keep it in place. It will help us get through the day temporarily, however the pain may be reactivated in a new environment. It is therefore necessary to do surgery and heal the root cause in order for our leg to heal properly.”
How do we do that
This is why therapy is a good place to start healing these symptoms. It provides a safe space to start opening up and expressing these painful feelings that for so long, given our past experiences, we learned to cover up. It is only from there that we can then learn to deal with them.
Example: We may have learned to cover up the anger we may have felt with shame and guilt because in the past, anger led to punishment or neglect. Feeling shame instead of anger was protective against neglect or punishment and allowed us to maintain relationships with our caregivers.
Below are the steps taken to start unpacking these experiences:
1) Attending to our emotions and getting curious and patient with them.
- Talking about our emotions and seeing if these emotions fit the present situation or if these are emotions that are used to cover up other emotions which would have been “dangerous” to express in the past.
- Accepting these emotions in order to get our needs met.
- Change emotions with emotions (e.g., change shame with assertive anger and self-compassion).
For more info on emotions check out my colleagues Lisa Linardatos’s post.
Through this process we learn to trust our “fresh new” emotions instead of our “old stuck” emotions in order to get our needs met and live a happier and fuller life.