Why your feelings really do matter

It’s become almost a cliché: the therapist who keeps asking ‘how do you feel?’ But there’s a reason why this question is so important, and why we all ought to be asking ourselves how we feel more of the time: because feelings are really the ‘engine’ of the psyche. (Coughlin Della Selva, 1996, p.7.)

All the way back in 1872, Charles Darwin published his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man & Animals, in which he told us that all animals have evolved to experience emotional reactions, and that our emotions physically activate us and drive our behaviours. Our feelings give us vital information about what’s going on and mobilise us to deal with situations adaptively; in effect, they serve us as ‘an internal-guidance system.’ (Coughlin Della Selva, 2006, p.52.)

Let’s take a couple of examples. If somebody does something to hurt me, I will feel emotional pain that tells me this person’s behaviour is not good for me. I will also probably feel a reactive anger that is telling me to defend myself, or in some way set a healthy boundary with this person so they can’t hurt me again. Alternatively, if someone treats me with kindness and care I will probably feel a warm feeling of love or affection towards them, and this feeling might motivate me to get closer to them.

Being emotionally aware and accepting of our feelings allows us to act on our feelings in ways that are healthy and constructive, and we end up dealing more effectively with life. Sadly, a lot of us learned early on in life to bury or detach from our feelings, or else to act them out in impulsive, unhelpful ways. These learned behaviours probably made a lot of sense at the time, constituting the best we could do in the situation we found ourselves in - but then they became automatic, behaviours that are habits long after they stop being helpful. (Again, Darwin was writing about these unhelpful, emotion-driven habits back in 1872.) We may not realise it at the time, but it is usually these automatic, emotion-driven habits that are creating our problems and bringing us into the therapy office.

This is why it’s so vital to understand what you are feeling. Your therapist will invite you to explore your feelings so you can get to the engine of your problems and really understand what’s driving them. Then those feelings can be thoroughly worked through, the unhelpful automatic patterns can be undone, and you can regain healthy access to your feelings as the ‘essential guides’ (Goleman 1995) you were born with.

In the words of the late Leigh McCullough, a talented clinician, teacher and researcher of psychotherapy:

‘The more one can laugh when happy, cry when sad, use anger to set firm limits, make love passionately, and give and receive tenderness fully and openly, the further one is from suffering. And the fuller one is with the joy of existence, the more generous one can be with others.’ (McCullough Vaillant, 1997)


Coughlin Della Selva, 1996. Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy: Theory & Technique. London: Karnac.

Coughlin Della Selva, 2006. Lives Transformed: A Revolutionary Method of Dynamic Psychotherapy. London: Karnac.

Darwin, 1872. The Expression of the Emotions in Man & Animals. London: John Murray.

Goleman, 1995. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than I.Q. New York: Bantam.

McCullough Vaillant, 1997. Changing Character. New York: Basic.

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