Mary Gale Gurnsey
The Minimization of Emotions in Therapy and Society
Over the course of my ten years as a Licensed Therapist I have been able to recognize certain patterns in people and relationships which have become normalized in today’s society. As I sat pondering the relationship between healthy attachments and emotions, I thought “emotions are the key to having the desired relationships we yearn for.” We can all feel emotions and yet we struggle precipitously to define the emotion we are actually feeling.
We are taught from an early age how to suppress our emotions. The first thing anyone says to you as a child after you fall and get hurt is, “don’t cry.”
Emotions occupy a large evolutionary role across species on our planet. We can postulate that without emotions a species will inevitably become extinct. That, without fear a species will make mistake after mistake until they reach complete extinction. Likewise, without the need for each other, attachment and emotional bonds, we would be living in a society built for machines.
Imagine if a baby never cried; your partner never told you how they feel; or your community had no emotional necessity to share. It is easy to imagine a different trajectory for humans given these statements. Even so, ideas about being an individual and not needing others have been praised and people are becoming more and more disconnected as a way to achieve success.
Next, in a flash we take behaviors we personally feel unbecoming of an individual and minimize them. We use terms such as “co-dependent”, “neurotic” and “sensitive” to downplay the validity of these behaviors. (when I say “we” I speak of everyone including those with degrees in psychology considered experts in the field). It is easy to get caught up with articles online and new “research” presented in the news everyday giving this kind of advice.
In the most prosperous time in our existence we pathologize people with strong feelings; train them to ignore or control their feelings and essentially isolate them from society. Then we encourage them to hide their feelings which sacrifices their ability to create emotional bonds with other individuals.
We need to re-examine our mission for ourselves and our families; the children of the future. Are we here to help people by teaching them to compartmentalize their emotions and bury them down into conformity?
Maybe, we should consider a pivot in our approach; as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist I was drawn to attachment theory, that our emotions are direct indicators of our needs. They are not to be ignored or suppressed, they are the most primal indicators of success in relationships and they are meant to guide us. Even emotions that are perceived as unjustified are produced within for a specific reason and as a clinician it is my duty to my clients to explore those feelings to learn the logic behind them.
A large majority of my experience has focused on highly traumatic events suffered by young adults and children who were unable to process their emotions. These individuals and families are left with feelings they are unable to identify with words. I found that the greatest indicator to a successful rehabilitation is through the validation and normalization of emotions - not minimization.