NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Discovering the Unconscious Emotions at the Root of Your Current Problems

As Sigmund Freud once said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."  For clients in therapy this can mean that the presenting problem isn't overly complicated by unconscious factors that would get in the way of working through the problem.   But it's often the case that there are unconscious factors that are at the root of the current problem, making it difficult for clients in therapy to overcome their presenting problem.  When the client is ready, a skilled psychotherapist, who knows how to help clients to discover these unconscious issues can help clients to get to the root of the problem so it can be worked through and resolved (see my article: Making the Unconscious Conscious).

Discovering the Unconscious Emotions at the Root of Your Current Problems

Psychological Defense Mechanisms Are Unconscious
As I've discussed in other articles, psychological defense mechanisms, which are unconscious, often serve to protect clients from feeling overwhelmed by emotions that they're not ready to handle.

Defense mechanisms often help clients to cope with overwhelming emotion and trauma.  They can be useful in helping clients during a certain period in their life to temporarily get through a rough time.

But unconscious psychological defenses that were once useful (for instance, helping a client deal with overwhelming emotion as a child) often get in the way later on in life.  What was once useful is now a problem.

So, for instance, a child, who dissociates when she is experiencing verbal abuse from a rageful parent, protects herself emotionally by distancing herself from feeling the full impact of the parent's rage.  But this defensive strategy, which was useful as a child to keep the child from being overwhelmed, becomes a problem when, as an adult, this individual dissociates with an angry spouse.

Recognizing that psychological defense mechanisms serve a purpose for clients, most skilled psychotherapists work in a way that is respectful and empathetic when helping clients to discover these underlying unconscious aspects.

Rather than trying to uncover these unconscious aspects prematurely, most psychotherapists will assess a client's strengths to determine whether s/he can do psychological discovery work and, if not, work with a client to develop the internal resources necessary to do the work.

Psychological Methods to Discover Unconscious Emotions
Sometimes, clients come to therapy knowing that there are underlying issues that are driving their current problems.  Maybe they've been in therapy before and they've gained some insight into this but, despite their insight, nothing has changed.

In other cases, clients who are psychologically minded, can intuit that unresolved childhood trauma might be triggering them in their adult life (see my article: Psychotherapy to Overcome Your Past Childhood Trauma).

Discovering the Unconscious Emotions at the Root of Your Current Problems
Psychological Methods to Discover Unconscious Emotions

Often, clients come to therapy with no idea that there are any underlying issues, so it's up to the therapist to help them to uncover these issues and work through them.

Psychotherapists, who are trained to help clients with this problem, have many different ways of working to help discover these latent issues.

All of these psychotherapeutic methods can be used alone or in combination with each other.

Affect Bridge from Clinical Hypnosis and EMDR
I've discussed the use of the affect bridge in a prior article using clinical hypnosis, also known as hypnotherapy (see my article: Bridging Back to Heal Old Emotional Wounds).  In EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) the same method is called the Float Back technique.

In both clinical hypnosis and in EMDR, the idea is the same:  The client uses the emotions that she feels in the current situation as well as where she feels those emotions in her body.   Then, in a relaxed hypnotic state, allows her mind to wander back to the earliest time that she felt that way.

Clients are often surprised with their discoveries, especially when they discover latent thoughts and feelings that are, seemingly, unrelated to the current situation.

The idea isn't necessarily to discover earlier events that are the same as the current problem (although they could be the same).  The idea is to use the emotions and sensations in the body to tap into the unconscious emotions that have been stored in the body as memories to the earliest time when the same emotions and body sensations were present.

In other words, the emotions and body sensations will be the same, but the type of problem from the past might be different.

Overt Statements:  A Gestalt and Coherence Therapy Technique
This method is used in Gestalt therapy and Coherence therapy, and it usually involves doing imaginal work.

The client, who is already in touch with the emotions involved in the current situation, imagines that he is speaking with a significant person in the situation.

For instance, if the client is upset with his father, he could imagine that his father is sitting in a chair near him.  Then, the therapist encourages the client to tell "his father" what's on his mind.  This can be done either out loud or in the client's mind.

Some clients feel a little awkward at first, but most clients settle into the imaginal work and feel as if the father is there.  They often express emotions that have been unexpressed and pent up for many years.

This often leads to the discovery that there are other underlying emotions that the client was unaware of before doing this work.

For instance, the client might start out being angry with his father and then discover that, underneath the anger, there's a lot of sadness.  Or, if he tells his father that he knows he has been a disappointment to the father, he might suddenly realize that this is just a projection:  His father isn't really disappointed with him--the client is disappointed in himself and he has projected his own feelings onto the father.

Imagining Yourself Without the Problem: Symptom Deprivation from Coherence Therapy
Symptom deprivation is another technique used in Coherence Therapy where the therapist asks the client to imagine her situation without the symptoms (e.g., emotions, thoughts, body sensations, etc) that are part of the problem now, and then asks the client how she experiences this.

Discovering the Unconscious Emotions at the Root of Your Current Problems
Imaginal Work: Coherence Therapy

For instance, if a client is feeling guilty about a particular situation, the therapist would ask the client to imagine the situation without feeling guilty.  If the client is able to do this, she will usually discover that underneath the guilt there are other thoughts and emotions.  At that point, the client might also discover that another emotion, like fear, and that she has been holding onto the guilt in order not to feel a subjectively "worse" emotion, fear.

In Coherence Therapy, which is a nonpathologizing therapy, the therapist helps the client to understand that holding onto the guilt has served a purpose, namely, to keep the emotion of fear at bay.

So, when the client realizes that she has been maintaining the guilt to avoid feeling fear, she feels a sense of empowerment and agency:  If she is the one who is maintaining it, then she can let it go with help from a psychotherapist.

Free Association/Sentence Completion from Psychoanalysis and Coherence Therapy
Another way to tap into the unconscious is through a form of free association involving sentence completion.  This is a method is often used in both psychoanalysis and Coherence Therapy.

Discovering the Unconscious Emotions at the Root of Your Current Problems
Sentence Completion and Free Association

A therapist provides the stem of a sentence to the client.  For instance, if the client is having a problem with procrastination with regard to completing a dissertation, the therapist might provide the following stem of a sentence for the client to free associate to:

"If I complete my dissertation ________________________."

The client completes the sentence by saying the first thing that comes to her mind without thinking about it.  So, the first thing that might come to her mind might be, "If I complete my dissertation, then my professors will realize that I don't know anything and I'm a fraud."

The therapist will then ask the client to keep free associating with that same stem to see what else comes up.

Often, what comes from the unconscious mind will be surprising to the client.  So, in the example I just gave, before coming to therapy, the client might have thought she wasn't completing her dissertation because she was "lazy."

After she free associates and discovers the unconscious reasons for not completing the dissertation, she will have a better understanding and be able to work on the underlying issues in therapy.

Parts Work From Ego States Therapy, Gestalt and Internal Family Systems
I wrote about parts work (also known as ego states work or as a method in Gestalt therapy and Internal Family Systems therapy, IFS) in a prior article).

Parts work is also nonpathologizing.  It's especially useful when a client is feeling ambivalent about a problem, which is common.

Discovering the Unconscious Emotions at the Root of Your Current Problems:
Parts Work, Ego States Therapy, Gestalt Therapy and IFS

So, with the example that I gave above about the client who is procrastinating about completing her dissertation, the therapist can help the client to get in touch with her ambivalence about completing the work.

This would often involve tapping into the part that is procrastinating as well as other parts, including a part that feels competent and knows that she can do it.

Until the client learns to differentiate between the many aspects of herself that are involved in this problem, she might only be aware of the part of herself that doesn't want to do it or fears that she can't do it.  After she does parts work, she will be aware that this part is only one part and that there are other parts of herself that can be helpful.

By having a dialog with that part, she can also discover what that part of her needs so that, once that part's needs are met, it won't become activated in a negative way.

In my next article, I'll provide a scenario to demonstrate how these methods work.

The methods that I've outlined are some of the different psychotherapeutic methods that a psychotherapist can use to help clients to discover the unconscious emotions that are at the root of their problems.

Discovering these latent issues helps the client to realize that there is more to the problem than what initially meets the eye.  It also helps her to be more compassionate towards herself rather than blaming herself and, often, to recognize she has strengths that she wasn't aware of before doing this work.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you've been struggling with a personal problem and you've been unable to work it out on your own, you could benefit from seeing a licensed mental health professional.

Discovering the Unconscious Emotions at the Root of Your Current Problems
Getting Help in Therapy

You might discover that you've been unable to resolve your problem because of underlying issues.

Working with skilled psychotherapist who knows how to help you to discover the unconscious emotions at the root of your problems can be life changing.

Aside from helping you to discover the root of the problem, she can also help you to discover your strengths, and help you to resolve your problems so you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.