For many people in this era, some form of anxiety is a constant companion. Depending on the intensity of anxiety it can have a disturbing effect on an individual’s emotions ranging from volatile anger to suicidal tendencies. Many Americans value the idea of keeping all pleasurable feelings around while removing any unpleasant ones as soon as possible. So we repress these “negative” emotions in the hope that they will go away, but that frequently only has the opposite effect.
A goal of therapy is to encourage the client to express the entire range of their emotions and by acknowledging them, learn to work with them. Positive emotions are glorious but we cannot stay in that “happy” place all the time. It is unrealistic. Many of my clients feel extreme shame and guilt when they admit to their negative emotions that are plaguing them. But accepting grief, anger, sadness and fear as a normal part of a human life is crucial to maintaining our mental health.
“Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being,” says psychologist Jonathan M. Adler of the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.
When we allow our negative emotions freedom to visit they are often signals about where we are out of balance in our lives. They give us the clues which show us that there are issues with our careers, relationships or health – they constantly allow us to interrogate and evaluate our life experiences. Sometimes, by just recognizing the presence of the negative emotion, you can help alleviate the anxiety associated with it.
Emotional avoidance only leads to major psychological problems. When you avoid emotions, you can end up avoiding many other aspects of your life and can suddenly find yourself with narrow horizons and less life force. You also don’t want to get stuck in the role of gatekeeper of your emotions, expending energy trying to keep certain emotions from entering your psyche. Avoiding emotion can also be viewed as blocking out the truth rising up inside of you.
Emboldened by Embodiment
One key way of understanding how emotions impact a person is to see it through the lens of embodiment. This insight reveals that our behavior in the world is not determined purely by an isolated, thinking brain. Our behavior is part of a broader system that includes our nervous system that involves perception and action. The brain is not just accumulating knowledge in order to give the ‘body’ a series of commands. Our physical experiences influence our cognition. Philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, and John Dewey provided the intellectuals roots for the concept of embodiment as recently as the early 20th century. They moved away from Descartes' dualist conception of the mind/body split and posited that the brain wasn’t some super computer, but was intrinsically linked to the body in a way that influenced cognition.
Natural Embodiment of All Emotions
With embodiment, we have the very foundation for understanding healthy emotions. First developed by Yalom and then taken further by the likes of Myrtle Heery and James F. T. Bugental, embodiment suggests that all human beings will naturally embody their emotions. According to Nietzsche, we shouldn't resist anything that comes naturally. Although this doesn’t mean we should follow these emotions blindly, it does mean we can utilize our emotions in a more positive way. If we use anger as an example, this can be channeled in a way that deals with a real issue in society or in life.
With this in mind, embodiment explores the idea of experiencing all emotions then seeing them as tools that can be used to better one’s position. To do this, we must become more aware of all emotions - consciously considering the utilization of such emotions. Since there’s no right or wrong way to use emotions, this is a unique process and one that requires time to consider our own values and character.
Learning to “Be” in the World – Existentialist Psychology
The existentialist psychologist or therapist aims to reduce mental illness or other psychological problems by addressing how the client defines a “meaningful” life. The philosophical questions around what it means to be a human and one’s purpose in life affects peoples’ behaviors and how they end up living their lives. The existentialist psychologist seeks to reduce the symptoms by helping people find their life paths even while unhappiness is present. They aim to assist their clients with finding a path to self-fulfillment. Many people are living with societal conventions and ideologies that make them feel that they have absolutely no control over their own lives as the rigid cultural norms and attitudes can seem like a prison sentence. In existential psychology, clients are reminded that they are the sole authors of their lives and must not deny their struggles but should embrace the “pains” of existence in order to truly live. The existentialist psychologist’s approach centers around the belief that “anxiety” is a normal part of the human condition. Life is constantly changing and so people should naturally re-create themselves in rhythm with this process. Each person has a unique identity that is only revealed through interaction and relationship with others. The focus of a session will be on you the person not your symptoms in order to help you towards self-determination and the fulfillment of your maximum potential.
Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche birthed the existentialist philosophy in the 19th Century that centered around freedom of choice combined with personal responsibility. They believed every man and women had the right to explore their own version of what brings passion to their lives. The “self” gets developed through the creation and conviction of personal beliefs. Each person would then have to own the outcomes of their choices they made for their lives. They would be responsible for their actions. In the 20th Century, Rollo May became one of the founders of existential psychology and defined the goal of psychotherapy as setting people free.
“If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself.” Rollo May
He was certainly not referring to religious or political freedom but rather free will. Existential psychology has expanded to become part of humanistic psychology within the depth psychology framework. The latter investigates both conscious and unconscious elements of beliefs and behaviors.
Soren Kierkegaard wrote about anxiety in 1844 and the title can be translated to ‘The Concept of Anxiety/Dread’, and Rollo May, used anxiety as the topic for his doctoral dissertation; ‘The Meaning of Anxiety’ (1950).
Twenty years later, May was frequently discussing anxiety and its role as a positive force. Over the years, many experts have attempted to come at the issue from several angles, and part of this reinterpretation led to the discovery of neurotic anxiety and existential anxiety. While existential anxiety is just another normal feature of human life and something we all experience, May concluded that neurotic anxiety was something entirely different and could be a result of an intra-psychic conflict (or repression).
While knowing the difference between these two types of anxiety is important, there’s no reason to suggest both can’t be used in a productive manner. As opposed to the experience itself, it’s the resistance to anxiety that makes it pathological and the very appearance of anxiety allows an insight into oneself, relationships, and any problems that may exist. It may not be productive to instantly alleviate anxiety. It could actually be destructive since it removes the “guide” that is alerting you to the dis-ease in the psyche.
Nowadays, many people who start taking psychotropic medications quickly drop out of therapy. In this short time, there’s no way that they have magically resolved the issue but instead, they’ve lost the internal “anxiety” guide and the useful unpleasant feelings. Now, we would never discourage medication or suggest that all medications are bad but we do need to understand medication in a broader context.
If we look from an existential point of view, the important factor is to spend time with anxiety and listen to it. Although this isn't easy and it takes time, it allows anxiety to move from something we fear to something we embrace to learn and grow. Essentially, the focus is on transforming it to a usable experience rather than removing the feeling and preventing it from ever showing again.
At this stage, we should point out this won’t be for everybody because many just want to lose the negative experience as soon as possible. Ultimately, the individual will always decide, but society today seems to present the controlling of anxiety as the only healthy solution. This, from an existential point of view, removes the freedom to choose. Even from an ethical standpoint, people should be made aware of all the choices including medication, existential approaches (or any other depth approaches), and solution-focused approaches to reduce anxiety.
Anxiety and Other Emotions
If we use this idea of anxiety, we can start to build a broader understanding of all other emotions too. With all other unpleasant emotions, the same theoretical basis can be applied as long as the unique features are appreciated; each emotion can have a different, unique meaning but could also differ from one person to the next.
If we use depression as an example, this is a ‘lack of feeling’ as opposed to a ‘sad’ feeling. With some who suffer from depression, they’ll discuss hurting themselves just to feel again or they try to bring pain another way since this is the only way to break through the numbness.
With depression, this often comes about because the individual suppresses their own feelings and emotions. For those suffering from the problem, learning to feel again is one of the biggest challenges. As soon as this door opens, they might feel the totality of their repressed pain which can be worked through in order to find joy.
Emotions have meaning and therefore a story to tell. When repressed, these feelings don’t magically disappear; instead, they find expression elsewhere. For existential theory, living in the moment is very important and this is exactly why when somebody is being fully present, they can process and rearrange experiences as they take place.
The Experiential Solution
With existential theories basing their work on embracing emotions, existential therapy is an experiential solution. At all times, we urge you to experience your life and this includes all areas such as your relationships. As you experience them more deeply, you might feel a little vulnerable at first and the process might seem difficult. However, it could be one of the most freeing journeys that you could experience and it gets the ball rolling for your continual progress.
Sure, not everybody is going to have the same aim when it comes to therapy which is why you need to double-check everything we’ve said today and make sure you’re comfortable before getting started. Although the existential approach isn't for everybody, it certainly helps millions of people around the world and will continue to do so long into the future!
“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.” Rollo May