written by: Kosjenka Muk
Every method of personal development that requires clients’ cooperation and emotional involvement, assumes that the clients will have adequate awareness of their emotions for the work to be successful. It’s unusual to find books or workshops that include a different possibility. In practice, however, this ideal is not always achievable.
About 20 percent of people I work with (most people who come to me are self-motivated, so I suspect that the percentage is higher in general population) are very disconnected from their emotions and do not normally explore them deeper than the most superficial level. This is manifested in several ways:
-they cannot separate personal feelings from the external situation and examine them independently (i.e. explore the other possible causes)
– they cannot describe deeper and subtler levels of emotions besides the most obvious or most intense ones
– they cannot recognize the beliefs at the root of those emotions.
Generally, such people are unable to notice and thoroughly explore different levels of their emotions, so they often limit themselves to rational analysis. Rational analysis is great for objective, measurable external events; our emotional lives do not follow the same rules.
I find this to be the key obstacle to successful coaching or therapy. Quite often, the clients are aware of this, but in spite of all their effort, they might feel that their emotional awareness persistently slips away, to the point that they start to doubt their capability to feel their emotions.
Since emotions are more instinctive than thoughts, I believe that a person without emotions does not exist (except maybe for those with rare neurological issues). To say that someone cannot feel is like saying that they cannot think or breathe. Emotions are the basis of our self-awareness and an important source of information about our environment and ourselves. Just as we cannot stop thinking for an extended time, it is even less possible not to feel. If we neglect this natural ability and avoid being aware, it can become weaker or less available, but with practice we can make it grow stronger again.
Not only do we all continually experience emotions, but also each of us, at any moment, could access rich, complex emotional states. Some emotions last longer, are more subtle and feel like the foundation of our personality, while emotions on other levels are more intense but shorter lasting. Some emotions are extremely gentle and subtle, they appear for just a moment, yet can open doors to unusual thoughts and perceptions, to creativity and intuition.
Intimacy with our emotions opens us to a deep sense of identity – a strong inner core, which is not accessible through our rational minds only. People who are not in touch with it, might live their whole lives in an almost robotic way, putting bureaucracy and trivial everyday details above their own and others’ humanity; or they might feel chronically “scattered” and lost.
Causes and consequences
The origins of emotional dissociation are often hidden behind decades of avoidance and suppression. This usually starts when a child’s emotions are humiliated, punished or ignored by parents and teachers. Other causes include trauma and relationship disappointments that were too painful and intense for a child to deal with. There are no short-term solutions for this. To people who face this problem, I usually advise at least a few months of practicing becoming more aware of their emotions, before we can continue with sessions.
Sometimes, through Integrative Systemic Coaching, we can explore what was the cause of dissociation – but, as Integrative Systemic Coaching is based on emotional experience, this must be explored on an emotional level too. Without the client having some awareness of what they feel, it is very difficult to explore their subconscious.
In individual coaching or therapy, dissociation can manifest as:
rational analysis of a situation (usually of its external details) without emotional awareness and insight
lack of useful answers to questions about emotions; the client often offers different rational theories, memories or ideas instead (or very often answers “I don’t know”)
difficulties in verbalizing emotions or maintaining awareness of an emotion
a person cannot distinguish mature from immature emotions, i.e., appropriate ones from those that are inappropriate for a specific situation
a person cannot recognize or verbalize suppressed memories. Sometimes clients reject the idea that the root of the problem might be in a situation or circumstances that they cannot consciously remember. For example, one client told me: “Why do you ask me about my childhood? My childhood has nothing to do with how I feel! I am under stress because of how other people around me behave.“. This seems obvious to people who are not aware of their unconscious processes. When we learn to explore beneath the surface of our experiences, we can find the reasons why people react so differently to similar circumstances.
unawareness, or active rejection, of responsibility for one’s own emotions, as a result of lack of consciousness of their underlying causes
such people usually expect instant solutions, often hoping that others and/or external circumstances would change.
Sometimes it is easier to work with such clients through metaphors – symbolic images. However, this kind of work still requires them to, to some extent, give up conscious control and allow spontaneous associations, so difficulties can also occur.
If you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions, my primary recommendation is long-term work on building awareness of your body and emotions. Practice daily observation and detailed exploration of your emotions. You can find additional help in other approaches that intensify bodily consciousness, like meditation, dance, aromatherapy, massage, and bathing – activities that combine working on your physical body with a relaxed consciousness.