In various forms of family and couple therapy, emotional activation is greatly emphasized. Emotional awareness transforms and heals individuals and relationships. It is a powerful change agent. It potentiates any impact insights through traditional psychoanalysis can provide. We are a holistic being with emotional, physical, and intellectual capacities. Emotional activation engages all the aspects of our body, so we are not just generating abstract words as the traditional stereotype of talk therapy might be. A holistic experience during therapy can generate the greatest amount of impact. It takes lots of skills and energy from the therapist, but it can be done.
Emotionally Shut Down?
While I am a big believer and practitioner in emotional healing, I catch myself wondering if emotional activation is always a good thing.
I am not referring to emotional sensitivity on a minute by minute basis. No one wants to be on all the time, whether it is emotionally, physically, or intellectually. It is exhausting. In this case, I am only talking about people who have avoided feeling the pain of past experiences by shutting down their emotional awareness. There are many of us like that, but it was not always like that. As children, we are always aware of emotions. We were not afraid to express them through crying and tantrums. After being told repeatedly we are not being good by acting that way, we learn to control our emotional expressions as we grow in years. Unfortunately, instead of finding healthier and more socially acceptable ways of expressing our emotions, often we learn to simply hide them. We believe emotions are not good, rather than the way we expressed them was not good. This is because we do not have modeling from adults. Our parents have long learned to not show their emotions by the time they started to care for us. They have long internalized the social message that being emotional is weak. So we follow in their footpaths as they followed their parents before them. Over time, many of us will numb out and forget we even had those vulnerable emotions that warn of us of threats for our survival, the kind we cried over as children. It is easier to not face our own fears until we absolutely have to.
Should we always turn it back up?
So is it always good and ethical to ask people to turn on their emotional sensors if they have coped their whole life without them? We are essentially asking them to activate pain sensors. Those sensors are a powerful weapon for feeling empathy for others and being accessible to others’ emotional invitations, however, they can equally generate pain that their host previously tried to avoid. We could argue that turning them on will resolve the relational disconnect or personal impasse that brought them into therapy. That is often true. However, there is also the chance that the same emotional awareness that makes them more open to others will bring in a flood of pain long buried. They can be overwhelmed and unprepared. There is no adequate way we could prepare them for that experience verbally or cognitively. It is like telling Neal to choose the red or blue pill. Curiosity might always direct us to the blue one but do we really know what we are getting ourselves into? Emotionality adds dimensions to life. As a believer, I am intentionally cultivating that into my life. However, I cannot make a value judgment as to whether everyone will enjoy a “better” life by adding that dimension. “Better” is always and only a subjective view. I am afraid I don’t have the “universally right” answer. There really isn’t one, only the right one for each one of us under a specific circumstance.
This decision is slightly easier in the coaching room or clinical setting. When people seek out therapy, there is obvious distress that needs addressing. Then as a therapeutic tool with proven success, it is justifiable to use it to alleviate suffering even if there might be some side effects, as long as clients are fully informed of the risks and decide to take it. There is an immediate need to justify that risk.
What about in everyday life? Do you maintain to a friend or a spouse that does not seem to engage fully on an emotional level that it is to their benefit to do so? Or is it only to our benefit because we have that need in our interaction? And if the answer is no, do you simply give up the relationship because we cannot reap the emotional benefit we are used to in our multidimensional world? Is that materially different than the refusal to engage with someone who doesn’t have access to or interest in new forms of technology, fine dining, latest fashion, or bigger houses? They all enrich life in one way or another? You could argue that relationships are primarily emotional so you can justifiably refuse to engage with people whose emotional activation levels are below your requirement. However, that would still be a value judgment. Many people treat relationships primarily as an economic, physical, or social alliance function. They might not necessarily admit or even be aware of it. Relationships can take on as many flavors as taste buds. It is all a matter of preference. We are all trying to leverage each other’s energy, whether in economic, physical, or emotional formats, for our own survival and comfort. No one can judge another for their choice, as long as they are willing to give back in equal measures and in ways acceptable to the ones they are taking from.
Emotionality as part of the uniquely human conditions
So where does this leave us? In the end, only we can decide how much we want to activate our physical, emotional, intellectual, social, financial, and many other subsets of human needs. It is also up to us to figure out whether we can find those matching interests or supply-demand with our friends, coworkers, partners, love interests, or other forms of companions. Emotionality might be optional for you but vital for another, vice versa. It is also uniquely human, it would be a waste not to fully experience it. Yet human intellectual capacity is also more equipped to making difficult choices that no other species has been found close to. It is your choice to use or squander in the end.
Just be aware that if you walk into the offices of people like me, coaches, therapists, psychologists, we are likely biased toward opening your emotional channel more than you are used to. It is our tool of choice. We will find nails our emotional hammer can fix most days. 🙂