Psychological interventions prioritise thought and behaviour as they are easier to track and measure (‘what was going through your mind at the point’? OR ‘what did you do then’) than emotional experience – our feelings and bodily sensations: subjective, complex, fleeting, and often out of our awareness.
This has resulted in a clear preference for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, short term solution-focused work, practical strategies to help create change, and focus on helping us change habitual responses like worrying too much, feeling down when stressed, using alcohol and drugs to cope, and others. Yes, these can be practical and helpful ways to create that longed-for change. However, our own emotional experience needs to be the context in which we discuss all of these, otherwise the value of these approaches is almost certainly lost.
'Subjective experience' relies on our awareness of emotions and sensations in the body. We do not give them the attention they truly need, mostly because we experience them as symptoms (anxiety, worry) or feelings to get away from (guilt, anger, disappointment). With this approach of fixing what we feel we risk dismissing the most important part of who we are: our experience of ourselves in the world. Emotions and sensations are invaluable data that tell us what we are experiencing, and what is really going on for us.
Anger is not just ‘I felt disrespected’ or ‘I yelled something ugly back’, it is also the flush of our skin, the temperature rising in our face, the rising energy in the chest, and the clenching of muscles. While psychology will broadly look at these as signs that we are becoming angry or upset, and it may even acknowledge the appropriateness of that feeling given the situation (someone accusing us of something we didn’t do), the next step is a deliberate turning away from that experience with questions such as “what has worked for you in the past to cope with that feeling” or “what could you do”, or even suggestions to “leave the room” or “count to ten”.
What does this premature approach do? It destroys our full experience, as it asks us to cope, to turn away, to find ways to respond, or find ways to feel better - without first helping us understand who we are in that moment. Existence is embodied, and there is more to discover. If we truly want to understand what matters to us in the world, if we want to know what that moment meant for us, why the anger in the first place, we must allow the emotion to be as important if not MORE important as we seek to change the way we relate to our anger.
Consider anxiety. It is the relentless mind churning, and it is also the swooping sensation in our stomach, the tightening in the chest, shallow breath, a sense of panic, and a desire to make these feelings go away. To think of this as ‘symptoms’ that we need to get rid of is destructive to our full existence. Consider a client named Viv* who recently shared with me her experience of anxiety: losing her train of thought, her mind racing wildly between different stressful parts of her life, sweating, heart racing, and stomach clenching. Rather than checking what she had tried to make the sensations go away, or practicing awareness of body or diaphragm breathing, or pointing her towards helpful meditation resources (all of which came later), the client was invited to think about what this might be about for her and to stay with those sensations for a while. As she allowed herself to stay with that experience of anxiety, she had an insight: she was deeply troubled by her recent work promotion. The promotion meant more money, greater security, and better reputation – all things she had worked towards for the previous five years, and felt she finally achieved. Yet there was something else: the promotion also meant doing different kind of work within her field – work that challenged her personal ethics and values. Viv’s anxiety was telling her that she wanted something and did not want it at the same time.
What is important here is that the experience of anxiety was not very different from how any of us experience it – but staying with the experience reveals the personal meaning it has for us. Our ‘symptoms’ carry a personal message only meant for us. Once we are aware of the meaning of the symptoms, which can only come through staying with the full experience, we can also identify the strategies that will help, and those will be uniquely personal as well. Now that Viv knew what the anxiety was about she could practice coping strategies (breathing, mindfulness, CBT) and she also knew what it was connected to: her work self.
The difficulty in listening is that symptoms sometimes tell us things that are difficult to admit and problematic to know. It is scary to look into our emotional and bodily experience and discover things we wish we did not know. Once we know we can’t go back to not knowing, and what if this knowledge means we now have to act when we’d rather not? It also exposes us to one of the most uncomfortable states known to humans: uncertainty. What is Viv to do now? Her personal values are challenged, yet she also needs the security of the position. There is no easy answer and there is no guarantee that our symptoms will leave us once the insight is there.
Yet, being in the fullness of our true experience is a deeply meaningful act in constructing a meaningful life as there is nothing more painful and isolating than a life in which we are alienated from ourselves and have abandoned ourselves to a life that is not truly our own.
*The name has been changed and the client has given their consent for their story to appear in this post.