Of course, all such behaviour is an invaluable source of information to the therapist about someone’s way of being in the world. And hopefully the therapy client will learn that the therapeutic space is safe enough to express all kinds of emotions. But even when someone has relaxed into being able to express whatever emotion is present, it remains a challenge to help them realise that the key to healing is not learning to control emotions, but to allow the emotion to simply be deeply and viscerally felt, and to learn to use the information from the mind and the body which an emotion is trying to convey.
The greatest obstacle to allowing an emotion simply to be felt, is that we judge some emotions to be bad. In fact, any emotion which causes physiological discomfort seems to be labelled “bad”. This may be a moralistic issue: harmful behaviour fuelled by certain emotions may be judged harshly by families and societies and religious dogma, and so the emotion itself becomes labelled as bad or good. Anger is a good example of this: despite it being a very important and strength giving emotion, it gets confused with aggressive behaviour, and is often unwanted and feared.
It is true that emotions like fear, sadness and anger are uncomfortable and cause central nervous arousal which is felt in our bodies as unpleasant, and protracted experiencing of these states can be stressful. The impulse to want to control and therefore minimise these are understandable, but the simple reality that no emotion is “bad” can already be a powerful intervention.
Learning to simply become aware of the emotion, to become curious about why it is there, to let it find its natural expression in the visceral experience as it arises in our body and awareness, is the beginning of healing.
This is at the center of a more mindful approach to working with emotions: in fact, distress tolerance is a key skill which is taught in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, developed for treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder.
Controlling emotions does not work as a long term strategy. Knowing that an emotion is a temporary state which can be tolerated, understood and expressed effectively, and learning to simply sit with an emotion with curiosity, openness, and mindful awareness is in itself a worthy therapeutic goal.