How can you have feelings without the feelings having you?
Generally, one of the main difficulties that can be encountered in the work of an analytical psychotherapist is related to the above question. How can a person have feelings without the feelings having them?
At first glance, it may sound an odd question to ask. However, from my experience, it is one of the key questions to ask. The reason being is that when a person enters into psychotherapy, they are often having great difficulty in understanding their feelings. The strength of feelings which get activated often overwhelms them, leading to a variety of negative outcomes. Triggers for the activation of this emotional rollercoaster can vary from person to person. For one individual, it might be the prospect of going out for a meal with friends. For another individual it might be relationship tensions, and for another it might be unexplainable. Generally, whatever the trigger, the key difficulty is that the person becomes overwhelmed with feelings, and they then lose the ability to free themselves from this state of mind. In this state of mind, the individual is held captive and feels helpless. As a consequence, this can lead to a variety of negative outcomes, where the individual is at the mercy of powerful and intense feelings.
Theoretically, we might try to understand the above difficulty with managing feelings and the consequences of this as being related to an individual's ego strength. Our ego is that part of ourselves that is similar to a sat nav in a car. The sat nav helps an individual get from A to B - it gives us directions. Correspondingly, our ego operates in the same way, in that it helps us to navigate and orientate ourselves in life. However, for some individuals, their egos are fragile and susceptible to fracture when faced with challenging experiences. We might say they lose contact with their internal sat nav.
Another example to illustrate this internal dynamic further is if we imagine an individual's ego as representing a classroom teacher. When an individual is overwhelmed by powerful feelings, we might compare it with the teacher/ego being overrun with its pupils/feelings; an unruly class of feelings! There is no separation of the teacher ego and the class' feelings. It’s as if they become one big mass, with the teacher and pupils all merged into one another with no order or difference. The ideal scenario is for the teacher/ego to be able to tolerate the outbursts of the pupils/feelings, which is normal, without losing full control.
So, how can individuals build their ego strength to cope better with their internal class of feelings? Although the answer is multifaceted, the three key elements that I want to extrapolate are insight, emotional expression, and agency. I find that just as we need protein to build muscle growth, we need insight, emotional expression and agency to build ego strength.
When we think of good teachers, an attribute which can be considered relates to them being regarded as knowledgable and insightful about their subject matter. Equally, it can be considered that it is also important for a teacher to have good knowledge of the pupil's ability, personality, and behaviour. They knew that David was best not to sit next to Selina, or that work needed to be set at a different level for Ben. Also, they knew when to challenge and when to have fun. The point I am trying to make with this comparison is that we need to try and transfer these same principles to how we try to order and manage our internal feelings/class. If we can have better knowledge and understanding of our internal feelings/class, there is less risk that we will be overwhelmed or overrun by unruly and troublesome elements within ourselves.
Also, if we can observe how we are feeling at any given moment, there is more possibility that these feelings can be named and then converted into thoughts (for further explanation please refer to my previous article 'Anger management: How do you transform a raging lion into a purring cat?'). Once this process occurs, thoughts can be understood, insight grows, and this creates what I call 'internal breathing space', which can facilitate internal freedom of choice. Whereas, without this type of insight, the breathing space collapses, which can lead to being overrun with unruly feelings, as well as the evaporation of freedom of choice.
A young adolescent patient summed up the importance of insight beautifully, when he recently told me how it reminded him of advanced maths. I enquired hesitantly, as my maths is pretty poor! He explained in a recent advanced maths lesson he was given an equation which he had to solve. He described how the working out was detailed and long, but was important in answering the equation. He said that it reminded him of the analytical work needed to understand his personal equation!
Emotional expression is another key element in developing ego strength, as it transforms and integrates feelings that are being diverted elsewhere. Depression is a good example of illustrating the manifestation of this internal state of affairs. For example, the emotional energy that has not been expressed and understood stays locked internally, which then depletes the ego and contributes to the person feeling lethargic and demotivated.
Once these feelings are released, named, and understood, they become integrated. This provides nourishment for the ego. The biggest challenge for some people is being able to surrender to this internal process. One reason being is that, for a very long time, some people have coped by protecting themselves from their feelings. Unfortunately, early on in their psychological development, this way of coping may have helped, but ultimately it comes with a psychological cost, i.e. a malnourished ego.
A good illustration of this can be seen in working with professional sports people. What I have come to recognise with this client group is a pattern of coping which has developed, unconsciously, where they use their bodies/sports as a way of containing very raw feelings that could not be tolerated early on in the development. These painful feelings are usually old, in that they are rooted in the very earliest of experiences, i.e. childhood. Put simply, we might say that the person has been using their body/sport instead of their mind to deal with very raw feelings. The problem arises when they can no longer use their body/sport, either through injury or retirement. It can feel like a crutch has been removed, which then leaves the person feeling deeply exposed.
Agency is the most important element, because it acts as the catalyst for change, which, without, the work of insight and emotional expression could not happen. The main reason being is that a person's agency is what brings them into accessing therapy in the first place. When a person engages in personal therapy, there has to be a good dose of agency. In the words of a young patient, a person must want to work out their personal equation. Over a period of time, I have found that when a person's agency develops, an internal awakening occurs, where the individual becomes proactive in trying to understand themselves. Previously, this only occurred in response to an external crisis. When there is an improved relationship with their agency, a curiosity emerges that leads to a willingness to address and explore issues in a proactive manner. As a result, when an external crisis does happen, a person’s ego is more robust in dealing with the crisis.
However, a major challenge for some individuals who engage in personal therapy is overcoming a presumption that the therapeutic enterprise will be doomed to fail. These individuals are riddled with fear, paranoia, self-doubts, distrust, and scepticism. If this is not talked about and explored, the person's relationship with their own agency and therapist will suffer greatly. As a consequence, a self-fulfilling prophecy comes true, which could be stated as 'reality/therapy is depleting rather than enriching'. This belief is rooted in their very earliest experiences.
The combination of insight, emotional expression and agency provides fertile ground for the malnourished ego to thrive and grow. The outcome of this new found strength is the development of an internal breathing space, which fosters freedom of choice and control. Freud, in describing the battle between ego and instincts, depicted it with a rider (ego) and horse (instincts, feelings, emotions). For some people, at various times in their lives, they are being dragged by their horse, with their rider ego being left behind, crippled on the ground. I have set out three important elements that, together, increases the possibility of the rider ego being able to not just stay on the horse, but more importantly provide the rider with a bridle so some control can be exercised.
However, as already stated, the key element is agency. Ultimately, a person must want to change to enter therapy. This is paramount in facilitating the therapeutic enterprise with the therapist, because both patient and therapist working together as a creative team sets in motion the process for insight and emotional expression to occur. The major obstacle that needs to be traversed for some people is a core presumption that this will deplete rather than enrich them. If this can be talked about and interpreted, then it increases the possibility of change occurring. The outcome is then a stronger ego and a stronger sense of their own agency.