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.
Our emotional experience exists on several levels, similarly as our personalities include various subpersonalities. Various parts of our personality might experience the same situation differently, so we might have conflicting emotions. Also, sometimes certain emotions might try to hide or mask others; anger, for example, often covers shame, fear or feeling of inadequacy, while sadness might hide anger in a person who was conditioned not to express anger. We might feel the need to blame others to avoid our own self-blame. And so on.
If we are dissociated from our own feelings, we might only be able to recognize the strongest, most obvious emotions, not noticing all the other layers. Then our perspective of the situation will be very limited, which might motivate unconstructive behaviour with unpleasant consequences. As we all know, it’s easy to notice when somebody else has “tunnel vision”, but not so easy when it’s our turn.
Many people learn to suppress some emotions even before they can become conscious. Even when we try to become more aware, such automated suppressing can make it feel like hunting for soap in water: we might become aware of a certain emotion for just a moment, but it easily slips away from consciousness because some defense mechanism quickly activates. The earlier in life we learned to suppress an emotion, the more difficult it will be to change that habit; the habits on which we built our sense of self and our character are more difficult to question than those we experience only rarely or later in life.
Children younger than 3 years (at least – and probably more) don’t have enough rational brain development to process experience intellectually. At that age, experience is processed on a more instinctive, emotional level, and resulting imprints are stored on that level, too. Such early emotional imprints can not be solved through the rational mind, which is the reason why reading an insightful book or becoming rationally aware of the causes of our problems rarely helps enough. We need to reach the emotional parts of the subconscious mind. But if someone is blocking themselves from even being aware of their emotions, they might not be able to reach that deep.
Often, people who seem more insecure, weak or even neurotic might be closer to actually solving their problems than people who don’t show any weakness. People who are aware of their fears, shame, and other insecurities have already gone through the process of acknowledging them, which is the first step in healing. People who hide their insecurities behind masks of rationality or absolute self-confidence might have a longer way to go.
How to explore your emotions
Choose something about yourself you find difficult to accept, something you dislike and would prefer to get rid of. Take some time and do your best to accept and acknowledge this feeling. You might also become aware of some other parts of you which are fighting that feeling, trying to suppress it and deny it. If you notice the feeling you are working on slipping away from your focus, you can “refresh” it by remembering a situation which triggered it.
Ask this part of you what does it truly want and need, and what stops it from fulfilling those needs in healthy ways? Check how old does this part of you feel – does it feel like an emotion of a child, an adult, or maybe a teenager? Give as much love and adult perspective to that part of you as you can. Even if facing such emotions might be unpleasant in the beginning, you might notice that the more you accept them, the milder they become (but make sure to accept them without drowning in them or believing what they say). This way you can develop much more love and compassion not only for yourself, but others, too.
To fully resolve such emotions, you might need to resolve trauma and/or relationship bonds, which is more complex. But acceptance and compassion for your own feelings are an important step and can bring great relief.