How We Get Stuck in Emotions (Part 1)

by Ryan Berkompas, a Doxa Counselor.

In a previous post, I wrote about three reasons counselors focus on emotions. In that article , I pointed out the positive role that emotions can play in our lives and how counseling can help us pay attention to and use our emotions to benefit us. It’s important to recognize the good aspects of our emotions before turning attention to how our emotions can become difficult or problematic. 

While our emotions have a purpose to help steer us toward our good, we can also get stuck in them. Getting stuck happens when an emotion stops being a helpful guide but becomes unhealthy and unhelpful instead. It can look like engaging in the kind of unhelpful or unhealthy behaviors and thinking that people seek counseling for help with. Below, I’ll lay out two ways that we can get stuck in our emotions identified by Drs. Robert Elliott and Leslie Greenberg in Emotion-Focused Counselling in Action and how counseling can help us get unstuck from our emotions.

We let our emotions get out of balance

Sometimes we get stuck in our emotions when we experience too much or too little emotion. You may recognize times that you have felt too much emotion; whether it was the closed-in feeling of panic, “seeing red” in anger, or another overwhelming feeling. This happens when we are “flooded” with the power of a feeling to the point where it can be hard to think straight or choose how we act. Too much emotion makes it challenging for us to reflect on the feeling and can lead us to behave in ways that we don’t want. 

It can be harder to think of ways that we may have been affected by having too little emotion. We may think that experiencing too much of our feelings is the only way we experience unbalanced emotions. However, having so little emotion that we are not connected to what we are feeling can cause us problems – including feeling alienated from ourselves, not knowing what we want, and lacking motivation. Emotional numbness can be common for people who experience depression or dissociation (disconnecting from oneself). 

For people who experience too much emotion, counseling can help tremendously. In counseling, you can learn how to feel safer, calm yourself, relax, and use emotion regulation skills to keep your emotions at a helpful, healthy level. You may learn how to deep breathe to calm your overactive bodily response and reflect on your feelings to determine if they fit the situation or need to be soothed before you act. 

In the case of having too little emotion, counseling can help you become more attuned to the signals that your emotions send you in order to heighten your awareness of your feelings. This awareness may involve learning how to pay closer attention to the sensations your body is sending you and gaining insight into your patterns of feeling and thinking. These tools help many people learn about themselves – their likes and dislikes, needs, and values. Deepening our awareness of our emotions can also help us tell our life stories in a more complete and meaningful way. 

We use other emotions to cover up the most useful emotions

Sometimes, the most obvious emotion we are feeling can cover up the most important emotion. This can cause us to get stuck in patterns of uncomfortable emotions that don’t aid us in taking helpful actions. Maybe you have gotten angry after feeling hurt by something someone said to you. In this case, it may be more helpful to share your hurt with the other person than it would be to get angry with them. 

Emotions that cover up or happen in response to other emotions are called secondary emotions. These feelings are often not at the core of how we are responding to a situation but happen after our first (primary) emotion. Counselors are skilled at helping people identify what feelings are at the core of their experience rather than simply sticking with the ones “on top.” Counseling can teach you to reflect more deeply on your experiences and feelings in order to arrive at your most primary, helpful emotions. This reflection can help us move out of stuck emotions by shifting focus away from feeling stuck and toward the emotion that needs our attention. 

Learning how to manage emotions and become unstuck is a complex and worthwhile journey, and it can be helpful to have a guide who is familiar with the terrain. If you’d like to learn more about your emotions and how they impact your life, call Ryan Berkompas or contact him using the form below for an appointment.

Be on the lookout for a future post about two more ways we can get stuck in emotions.

For more on balancing our emotions, check out Adam Young’s podcast episode on Affect Regulation.

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