Gestalt-oriented psychotherapy has brought about many achievements. One of the most celebrated is to give emotions their worthy status within the functioning of human beings, (intelligent human beings!), far from that moldy and paternalistic stigma that used women and children as the only accepted receptacle to channel global emotions. Our culture of covering up, avoiding, denying, distorting or manipulating emotions is the result considering reason as the supreme antenna that captures the true wisdom capable of leading us through life in the right way. And, because of this, most emotional people have been thrown into the category of ‘crazy’, ‘dramatic’, ‘exaggerated’ or downright ‘ridiculous’.
However, humanism in general, and Gestalt in particular, look at emotions as just a part of any human being, and states that, removing them from the equation only causes structural damage to the system that makes up the whole person. That is why the essentials of Gestalt Therapy rest upon unearthing emotions, dusting them off, naming them, and deem them as important as the body or the mind.
Why are emotions so important? Because they determine how we feel. And how we feel determines how we act. Body and mind can suffer, and Gestalt also works on both. But, although what we think determines what kind of emotions we experience, we only realize what is happenning to us when emotions manifest in the body, and that is why we work with them, in order to bring to awareness to what happens to us when any emotion shows up.
However, sometimes we go to the opposite end of the spectrum where it seems that the temperature marked by the ’emotion thermometer’ is the only reliable information, and it becomes our only reference in life, no matter what the temperature is. ‘But this is what I feel’ becomes the mantra used in every situation where we have to justify (inwardly or outwardly) a behavior, decision, reaction, preference or feeling. Therefore it seems that emotions are set in stone.
If I feel this, it must be true. Period.
It is true that, on early stages of therapy, Gestalt therapists validate this, because there is a period in which unearthing, facing, and dignifying what we feel, is key in order to begin to trust ourselves. It is indeed a learning process, in which we learn to get rid of the burdens brought by denying what we feel and, therefore, who we are.
But, unfortunately, emotions are not always set in stone. Certainly, only because we feel something doesn’t mean it’s true, it just means we are feeling it. And the reasons for feeling something can be multiple, many of them neurotic. In fact, emotions can deceive us as much as the mind can. Rather than emotions deceiving us, what really happens is that how we interpret them, and what they cause on us, is erroneous. And, by misreading our emotions, we give rise to a bunch of actions and reactions that have little (or nothing) to do, in reality, with what is REALLY happening to us at that specific moment.
A very simple example could be when you are driving and you are in a hurry because you are late for work. You get agitated, you swear at every red light, you call names when someone cuts you off, and your patience is really tried if you get caught in a traffic jam. What causes these emotions? If you answer automatically, you will probably say that they are caused by the number of traffic lights that the city council has placed on that road; or the uncivic people who cuts you off with no regard, or the shitty traffic jams you have to put up with daily in this city. However, if we stop for a moment, we see that, rather, it’s the thoughts “I’m going to be late for the presentation”; “I’m going to be told off”; “this is the fourth time I’ve been late this month”, or “I’m going to get fired” that cause those bodily sensations that we call emotions. But, instead of paying attention to what is REALLY happening to us, to the worry, the fear, the guilt, that being late rises in us, we make an alternate reading of what is going on, and we place all the focus on a totally different spot.
Another example could be when you are dealing with your children or grandchildren, trying to get them to finish dinner, do their homework, or take a shower. They are slacking off, ignoring you, or outright defying you and refusing to do what you tell them to do. Right there, you feel a number of things on your body, which can be summarized as ‘pissed off as hell’. The thoughts that sustain this emotional state are of the type ‘he is a disobedient child’, ‘this child is constantly defying me’, ‘as usual, she just wants to annoy me’, or ‘I can’t wait until he leaves home’.
However, if we stop to observe what is REALLY happening to us, we can see that, the fact that our child is not listening to us awakens in us fears, memories, complexes, hurts and frustrations, which have nothing to do with them, or with the present situation, but rather with situations from our own remote history that are very present in our reactions and emotions.
One more example (very real personal one). My 82-year-old mother asks me to sleep over at her house. She is afraid to sleep alone, because she finds it difficult to breathe and gets dizzy when walking to the bathroom by herself. She has anxiety, and increased physical deterioration. She smokes a lot, in spite of having pulmonary emphysema and a recently developed lung tumor. I have been battling with her for months, feeling very angry, because she complains about her condition and about not getting better, but she won’t stop doing those things that make her symptoms worse. I get very upset, and I keep thinking she is very selfish, always has been, and doesn’t give a damn about anyone but herself.
When one day, after trying to apply my own lectures, I managed to stop and examine these emotions, I realized that, deep down, they are nothing more (or less) than the thermometer that marks the anguish of a daughter, who only wants her mother to be well in her last years, to improve her health, to be happy, to enjoy herself. Anguish, helplessness and sadness caused by the sudden realization that the improvement of her mother’s condition is probably not going to happen. And her stubbornness will probably remain intact no matter how much I huff and puff. Realizing this helps me to accept it, and to stop fighting against the wall of my own stubbornness.
In spite of all the above, and even remembering that emotions are not set in stone, they do inform us of important things. Learning to read those important things is crucial to understand what is REALLY going on, and what we can (or can’t) do about it. If you want to know more, you can read this related article.
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