NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Experiential Psychotherapy: Learning to Experience and Communicate Your More Vulnerable Emotions

Allowing yourself to experience your primary emotions, which are your most immediate, innermost vulnerable emotions, helps you to understand yourself on a much deeper level.  Experiencing these emotions and communicating with your spouse or partner about it also helps you to have a more genuine connection in your relationship.

Experiential Psychotherapy: Learning to Experience and Communicate Your Most Vulnerable Emotions

In this article, I'll be using the terms "primary emotions," "innermost emotions" and "more vulnerable emotions" interchangeably because these terms all refer to the same emotions.

The challenge for most people is that they're often afraid to feel their innermost emotions because they feel too vulnerable.  Often, people who are fearful of experiencing their more vulnerable emotions mask these emotions with secondary emotions to avoid feeling vulnerable.

So, for instance, if the primary emotion is hurt or sadness, they might unconsciously mask these emotions with secondary emotions of anger or frustration because these secondary emotions help them defend against feeling so vulnerable. 

Learning to Experience Your More Vulnerable Emotions
As I've discussed in prior articles, couples who communicate with each other based on secondary emotions often remain stuck in a negative pattern.  In order to make changes to improve their relationship, they need to have access to their primary emotions so they can communicate to their partner from an authentic place within themselves.

Even for people who see the value in experiencing their primary emotions, accessing these emotions can be a challenge, especially if they have been masking them for a long time with secondary emotions.  So they need to learn how to access primary emotions.

Most of the experiential therapies, like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, Somatic Experiencing, AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy), and EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) For Couples, place a strong emphasis on primary emotions because accessing these emotions is what allows for positive change.

The experiential therapies also emphasize the connection between the mind and the body (the mind-body connection) and that primary emotions can be accessed through the body because the body is the container for these emotions (see my article: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

Fictional Clinical Vignette:  Experiential Psychotherapy: Learning to Experience the More Vulnerable Emotions 
The following fictional clinical vignette illustrates how a client can access her more vulnerable emotions by using her body:

Meg and Tom began Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples because they were growing apart.

Even though they both wanted to be closer to one another, they didn't know how to overcome the emotional distance that was taking over their relationship after five years of being together.  

Tom explained to their EFT couple therapist that he realized that when he and Meg argued, he would become frightened that Meg was going to leave him.  In EFT language, Tom was the ""pursuer"" in the relationship.  When there was tension between Tom and Meg, he felt desperate to try to repair things between them as quickly as possible.

He wanted, in his words "to leave no stone unturned" to "get to the bottom" of their problems.  By his own admission, he could be relentless in terms of wanting to discuss their relationship in order to improve things between them.  

Since he had been in a lot of individual experiential therapy before, Tom understood that when they argued, his fears of abandonment, which were rooted in his childhood, would sometimes overtake him.  At those times, he would be even more insistent that he and Meg talk about what was going on between them.

But Meg, who, in EFT language, was a ""distancer"," tended to shut down emotionally and cognitively whenever Tom insisted that they talk.  She felt emotionally overwhelmed at those times and, if she couldn't deflect the conversation, she would physically leave by walking out of their apartment or going for a drive.  She didn't know why she felt so frightened about having a discussion about the relationship and especially about her emotions.  She only knew that it was too difficult for her.  She also didn't understand what might be getting triggered in her during those times.

Their EFT couple therapist began working with Meg and Tom by asking Meg to recall a recent argument where she felt the need to distance herself from Tom.

At first, Meg couldn't think of anything, but then she remembered that she and Tom had an argument a few days before where she was ready to leave the apartment if he continued to insist on talking about their relationship and her emotions, "I don't know what comes over me.  I just feel like I need to escape as quickly as possible.  Fortunately, Tom let the matter drop, but I knew that it would be just a matter of time before this subject came up again."

The EFT couple therapist encouraged Meg to go back into her experience of the argument and to remember what she was feeling at the time.  She encouraged Meg to take a moment to get back into the same feeling state that she had been in when the argument occurred.

After a few seconds of trying, Meg turned to the therapist and said, "I really don't see how this will be  helpful.  I felt overwhelmed at the time and now you're asking me to go back into that feeling state.  I'm afraid I will feel overwhelmed again."

The EFT couple therapist told Meg that, as opposed to when the argument occurred and when uncomfortable emotions overtook her, Meg was only remembering what happened, which is usually less intense.  She also assured Meg that if it was too uncomfortable for her, Meg could stop because she was in control of the process.

The therapist also explained the rationale for revisiting this memory, which was to try to help Meg to access her emotions, including her primary emotions, because this is part of what would help Meg and Tom to make positive changes in their relationship.

With these assurances, Meg tried again.  She remembered that the argument was about how she tended to distance herself from Tom after they made love.  She recalled that Tom complained that Meg tended to move away from him.  Instead of cuddling with him, she would turn over to go to sleep shortly after they made love.

She also remembered that this was an ongoing issue between them, and whenever Tom brought it up, she felt very uncomfortable and wanted him to stop talking about it (see my article: Are You Too Uncomfortable Talking to Your Spouse About Sex?).

Allowing herself to remember what she felt at the time, Meg remembered feeling angry and frustrated that Tom was, once again, bringing this up when he knew that she was too uncomfortable to talk about it.  

The therapist remained empathically attuned to Meg and encouraged her to continue to delve beneath her secondary emotions of anger and frustration to see what was underneath these emotions.  She explained to Meg that secondary emotions, like anger and frustration, mask the more vulnerable primary emotions, and accessing and communicating about her primary emotions was key to working on her relationship with Tom.

Meg agreed that she wanted more than anything for her relationship with Tom to work out so, even though it was somewhat frightening for her to delve beyond her more surface emotions, she was willing to try it.

The couple therapist helped Meg by suggesting that she become conscious of where she felt her emotions in her body.  She explained that the body is a container for conscious and unconscious emotions and it allows access more easily than trying to access emotions by thinking about them.

Meg placed herself back in the memory of that argument.  She remembered having her back to Tom and how the anger and frustration were building up inside her.  As she recalled how she felt, she realized that she felt these emotions in her chest and in her gut.  The therapist encouraged Meg to stay with it and see what would come up next.  

Meg remained with the experience for another minute or so and then told the therapist that she was beginning to feel a little queasy and a tightening in her chest.  She could feel the anger and frustration, but she sensed that there was something more going on for her underneath these emotions.

Focusing on the queasiness in her stomach and the tightening in her chest, Meg felt a wave of sadness come over her.  At that point, she told the therapist that she would like to stop because it felt too overwhelming for her.

During the next EFT couple therapy session, Meg went back into the same argument to see if she could get beyond her secondary emotions.  Even though she was still somewhat uncomfortable doing this, she wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as she had been the first time she tried it the week before.

Once again, Meg felt the wave of sadness underneath the anger and frustration.  She mostly felt it in her chest.  But this time, she was able to stay with it to see what else might come up because the feeling was manageable for her, especially since the therapist remained empathically attuned to Meg and Meg sensed her presence and emotional support.

Meg told the therapist that she still wanted to run from the sadness, but it felt bearable this time.  Then, she sensed into the tightness in her chest and sensed fear as another underlying emotion. 

Her therapist asked Meg to see if any words, images or other memories came to her from the sensations and emotions in her chest and gut.  As Meg stayed with those sensations and emotions, the words that came to her were, "You're unlovable and Tom will probably leave you" (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

Afterwards, Meg told the therapist and Tom that, after she accessed her primary emotions, she had no idea that she had been feeling this way.  Now she understood why she felt so vulnerable, especially after she and Tom were sexually intimate.  She realized that she was protecting herself against what she felt was inevitable--that Tom would discover that she was unlovable and leave her (see my article: Overcoming the Fear That People Wouldn't Like You If They Knew the "Real You").

The other thing that really surprised Meg was that, once she verbalized her primary emotions, they weren't nearly as scary as she would have thought.  She experienced the emotions like a wave that had a build up, a peak and then a release, and she was somewhat relieved.  

The EFT couple therapist asked Tom if he had any idea, before Meg verbalized her fear and sadness that she felt unlovable and feared that he would leave her, that Meg was feeling this way.

In response, Tom said he was shocked, "I never would have guessed this.  The only thing that I ever see after we make love is that Meg shuts down emotionally and turns away from me.  I had no idea that she feels unlovable or that she thinks I would leave her."

Then, Tom turned to Meg, hugged her and reassured her that he was in it for the long haul--come what may--and he wanted to work on their relationship no matter what it took.  

Meg was visibly relieved and told Tom and the therapist that this is the reassurance that she needed, but she never realized it before and never would have known how to ask for it.

In subsequent sessions, the EFT couple therapist continued to work with Meg and Tom to help them understand the negative pattern in their relationship and the roles (pursuer/distancer) that they played.

Since Tom already had access to his primary emotions and could communicate based on those emotions, they continued to work on helping Meg to access her emotions by sensing into her body to get beyond her surface emotions.  With practice, she was getting better at doing this on her own so that when she and Tom argued, she developed an increased capacity to remain present.

Meg also began to understand how these primary emotions were related to feeling rejected by her parents when she was a child (see my article: How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship).

She was beginning to understand that at the moment when she and Tom were most intimate sexually and emotionally, she was getting triggered and shutting down emotionally and physically by masking her primary emotions to protect herself.

In addition, over time, Meg began to learn how to separate her earlier experiences with her parents from her current experiences with Tom (see my article: Working Through Emotional Trauma: Learning to Separate the Past From the Present).

As a result of these experiences in therapy, Meg was able to expand her window of tolerance for these uncomfortable emotions, and she was also able to spend more time being present emotionally with Tom after they made love.

Meg didn't always succeed, especially in the beginning, but she and Tom both understood that progress in therapy isn't linear and setbacks are part of the process (see my articles: Progress in Therapy Isn't Linear and Setbacks in Therapy Are Normal on the Road to Healing).

The fictional vignette above is a relatively simple example, for the sake of brevity, of how an experiential therapy can help a client to access primary emotions.  

In the particular example above, the experiential therapy was Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) For Couples developed by Dr. Sue Johnson.

Similar techniques are used in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy, Somatic Experiencing, clinical hypnosis and AEDP (Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy).

All of these experiential therapies use the mind-body connection to get to primary emotions, the emotions that provide the route to making positive changes.   

In the example above, Tom had access to primary emotions due to his work in his individual experiential therapy while Meg didn't.  However, it's often the case that neither person has access to primary emotions and they will both need to work in therapy on accessing and expressing those emotions to each other.

Getting Help in Experiential Therapy
Whether you're an individual with an unresolved problem or a couple who are trying to salvage their relationship, experiential therapy is much more effective in terms of making positive changes (see my article: Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective Than Talk Therapy).

When you remain on the surface with secondary emotions, you remain stuck in your problems.  Being able to access your innermost emotions and talk about them to your partner offers the best chance for making positive changes.

Rather than remaining stuck, you owe it to yourself to get help from an experiential therapist who can assist you to overcome your problems.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, Somatic Experiencing and Emotionally Focused therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work 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.