Three Reasons Counselors Focus on Emotion

by Ryan Berkompas, a Doxa counselor

In my five years of working as a counselor, I have observed that just about every person I get to work with has at least one thing in common: they want something to change. They may differ in their beliefs about what needs to change, how they think change happens, or the lengths they’ll go to make changes, but they almost all agree that something isn’t right in their lives. 

Because of this, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how people change and have concluded that emotions play a central role in experiencing change. This conclusion is based on my study of emotion theory, experience in helping people manage and transform their emotions, and my experience as a card-carrying emotional person. 

We are all emotional people.

Let’s start by talking about the term “emotional person.” Many people who read that phrase may recognize its use as a negative term, used to describe temperamental people or people who lack self-control. However, being an “emotional person” means that I am simply a member of the human race, because every human is always feeling an emotion, whether or not they’re aware of it.

We may vary in our emotional awareness and expression, but we always have some emotion coloring our present experience. According to Dr. Dan Siegel, this is because emotion is our first, gut-level response to what is going on in our lives, giving us our first sense of how we are impacted by events before we have even begun to think about what’s happening. Without emotions, we simply would not get out of bed or brush our teeth.

Because our emotions are such ever-present companions, I want to share three reasons for focusing on them in counseling, based on Drs. Robert Elliott and Leslie Greenberg’s Emotion-Focused Counselling in Action.

Emotions tell us what is important to us. 

Our emotions are somewhat like check-engine lights on cars as they (politely or impolitely) point out to us the things that are going on in our lives that are important to us. We can intuitively and quickly identify what is important to us based primarily on whether or not it elicits any sense of emotion in us. Ignoring and “pushing down” our emotions can cause us to miss things that matter, just like ignoring a check-engine light on a car.

Emotions tell us what we need or want, which helps us figure out what to do. 

Each emotion we feel is connected to a need or want and prepares us to try to get it met. We feel angry, sad, afraid about things related to what we need or want. Our emotions are responses to whether things are going well for us or a threat to our needs and wants. By paying attention to our emotions, we can “trace the call” back to the need or want and decide whether or not to take any action. 

Emotions give us a sense of consistency and wholeness. 

When our emotions are generally undisturbed, we don’t notice how they help us have a sense of consistency. However, people seeking help with overwhelming or “stuck” emotions often explain that they don’t feel as though they recognize themselves. This is because our emotions help ground our sense of self. When we understand the types of things that make us feel sadness or anger, our sense of self feels consistent over time. When our emotions become problematic or “stuck,” we often feel fractured and fragmented.

Being able to put words to your emotions is a critical step in the process of change. 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.

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