An Invitation to Presence
Focusing Helps Clients Embrace Their Most Feared Emotions
by Ann Weiser Cornell
When Susan came to my door for her first session, she looked like a time bomb waiting to explode--her breathing was rapid, her jaw was clenched. Tears began to spill down her face as soon as we got settled in our chairs. She told me that, in the past month, she'd experienced more and more overwhelming fear.
"My main symptom for the past couple weeks has been to wake up with a sick dread, terror, and doom. This is something really huge, and I feel I'm making it worse by resisting it." I asked if she was aware of something that had triggered this reaction. She told me that she'd attended a workshop in a well-known method for processing trauma a month earlier. "I tried to manipulate the images of my grandfather molesting me when I was 4, but they just got stronger." n "That sounds like it's really painful for you," I said. n "It's like there's a heavy stone sitting on my chest. I can hardly breathe. I don't want to have these feelings! I know I need to go into them and get through them, but I feel like I'm going to die if I do."
We've all had clients like this. People don't seek therapy when they're calm, collected, and steady. In fact, they often arrive flooded by the emotions that drove them to call us in the first place.
In my early days as a therapist, when something like this happened, I'd get close to panic myself. Will I be able to help this person? I'd wonder. Do I have enough tools and techniques? What can I do with my own fear of being as overwhelmed by emotion as my client is by her emotions?
Now when I see a client who's in the grip of emotional panic, I have a different experience. I've learned that there's something that I can do that will not only help the client calm down, but enable the therapeutic work to begin almost immediately. It's a relatively simple intervention that shifts the client's relationship with even the most intense emotions without controlling them, distracting from them, or repressing them in any way.
When clients come to us in the grip of fear and desperation, it's tempting to use methods that seek to contain or manipulate the overwhelming experience (e.g., "See if you can shrink that anger down to a size you can handle, and then set it farther away from you"). But the problem with this type of intervention is that it reinforces clients' identification with the part of themselves that's feeling overwhelmed.
A number of modalities today approach this type of client with gradual desensitization, perhaps teaching relaxation techniques and then looking for triggering thoughts and feelings that the client can dispute or counter with relaxation. Again, the assumption is that the client needs to contain, handle, or manipulate emotions, and the therapist conveys the not-so-subtle message "I agree that these emotions are dangerous and need to be contained."
In contrast, another kind of approach joins the other side of the war, urging the client to cry, pound a pillow, and express the feared emotions. The difficulty here is that the client's own inner safety boundaries are disregarded, and he may be left with even less ability to contain his own emotional responses, triggering even more experiences of flooding in inappropriate situations.
So what can a clinician do besides reinforcing the need to manipulate the emotional experience, control it, or break down the boundaries and let it all out? It might seem that we need an intervention that's as "strong" as the emotions, but, in fact, with very subtle shifts in language, we can facilitate enduring changes in clients' relationship with their emotions. From these subtle and seemingly small changes in perception, clients discover that they don't have to be their emotions, but can be with them in an attitude of empathic curiosity. And that opens the door for profound and lasting change. …