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Why Talk About Emotions in Psychotherapy and Counseling?

Showing love is an outcome of good therapy and counseling

In my view, some therapists miss the boat and talk about emotions because (to simplify): “it’s good for you to vent”. That is just a sliver of the reason. Also, while bottling up emotions is unhealthy, pure venting (especially Anger / Hatred) is not all that helpful–see

Good therapists talk about emotions because it helps them understand people and their conflicts, not just for venting. Empathy plus a touch of ‘objectivity’ soothes the hurt while also allowing for understanding and problem-solving.

My Link to the Topic

My first interests in psychology came from a desire to know unknowns–and beyond. However, I was confused when taking courses in psychological interventions. How to use depth approaches to produce effective psychotherapy, anchored in science, as promoted by my school at the time? I will omit some unnecessary history, but one thing that helped me bridge a gap was a book by John Phillip Smith, Mammalian Behavior: The Theory and the Science (Bench Mark Books, 1990;  It seems few cite this book. Among other things, the author provides a summary of emotions and their purposes.

Why Emotions are Important

Purpose of physical or mental behavior is extremely important in psychotherapy. This is because psychotherapy usually involves helping people with conflicts. The conflicts are between attempts (aware or not) to control circumstances. Circumstances can be past, present, present but unknown, or anticipated.

The more complex the animal, the greater its attempts at control. Humans even want controls that are impossible. This is partly because our imagination and ability to make concepts is bigger than our actual capacities and our length of life. Because we can think of a past, the unknown, and a future, we develop conflicts.

Emotions are hard-wired, body-mind responses. They are mostly unconscious at the time they occur. Only with effort and planning ahead can they be partially suppressed. They are what we might call ‘survival shorthand’ because they save us valuable time and energy. Sometimes they save our skins. They are active after perceptions of urgency: they are motivators to take quick action and obtain or maintain desired circumstances.

The Emotions Outline

Smith’s outline may not precisely match hard research in emotions, but it is extremely useful for psychotherapy. I have paraphrased based upon my reading and use of the outline.

Desire / Love: 

Love pushes for action, it is not a thing in therapy

Desire / Love

Desire is the shorthand for someone or something to which we want to attach or remain attached, ‘now’. Love deals with this idea mentally / in imagination, sometimes at a time or place other than now. That is, it is conceptual and keeps our loved ones in mind, maintains the attachment, and more.

Fear / Anxiety: 

Fearful and anxious scene

Fear / Anxiety

Fear is the shorthand for someone or something from which we want to retreat. Anxiety is the same, but is about a threat that is not current or actual. Also, anxiety is, for psychotherapy, a special emotion that deserves special attention…

Anger / Hate: 

Angry, hateful face shows need for self-exploration

Anger / Hate

Anger is shorthand for someone or something we want to forcibly drive away or destroy. Hate is the imaginal version.

What? Joy and Despair (including sadness and happiness) are missing? Smith calls them Feelings.

Person jumping for joy after self-discovery and self-compassion

Joy (Mental Pleasure)

Man experiencing despair and disappointment

Despair (Mental Pain)

Feelings can be about real or ‘constructed’ (mental) things. Feelings are the perception of urgency and need.

To relate the two, Emotions are attempts to get us in or keep us in Joy, or get out of / stay out of Pain.

Too simple?

There are ways to think about other emotional experiences, too. For example, Envy is a mix of Love and Hate. Also, some emotional experiences are a combination of an emotion and a feeling. For example, Love + Joy is different in flavor than Love + Pain. The distinction between Jealousy (Love + Anxiety to avoid Pain of loss) and Envy (Love + Hate to derive a twisted Joy or masking of Pain) is a good example, too.

In the next week, pay attention to a particularly joyful or painful episode. What emotion occurred just previous, urging you to get, maintain, avoid, or stay out of joy or pain? If you do not remember the emotion, how do your emotions respond now when you recall what was just before the joy or pain? The emotion could also be directed at…yourself.

What if the only conclusion you can reach is pain just seems to ‘keep going’? Makes no survival sense? Well, that is where anxiety and control come into play, which are major aspects I address in therapy.

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