What is the place of our feelings in our lives?  That might seem a strange question for a counsellor to be asking, but it’s one that is less straightforward than it might seem at first sight.  Even within the world of counselling and psychotherapy, there are different views about the place of feelings.  Some therapists strongly encourage the expression of feelings and believe that our feelings are always a reflection of our truth.  Others believe that our feelings are the result of our thinking processes, and that therapy should focus much more on our thoughts than on our feelings.

People often come to counselling/ psychotherapy when they’re feeling overwhelmed by difficult or painful feelings.  Perhaps you’ve experienced a life event such as a bereavement, relationship break-up, or work problems, and are finding it difficult to get back on your feet again.  Other people in your life might be telling you that it’s time to ‘get over it’ or ‘move on’, but that just seems impossible.  Counselling can provide a safe space where feelings can be expressed which might seem too intense, embarrassing, distressing, or even distasteful to share with your usual network of family or friends.  Having permission to cry, sob, rage, express whatever you feel, in a confidential setting with someone who will not tell you that your feelings are excessive, unacceptable, or too uncomfortable to hear, can itself be a powerful healing experience.  That might be all you need: Once you’ve allowed yourself to ‘let off steam’ in a safe space, you might find that you feel much better able to deal with the challenges facing you in life.

But sometimes it’s a bit more complicated than that.  Sometimes we find that there are layers and layers of feelings which we need not only to express, but also to think about and understand in a calmer, more reflective way.   And as we sort out one feeling, another one emerges.  So, for example, you might start off expressing anger towards someone in your life, and then as your anger begins to fade a little, you discover that you also feel fearful about the possibility of losing this person from your life. 

In fact, sometimes we don’t understand our own feelings until we’ve had the chance to look at them and think about them for a while.  You might notice that you often feel irritated with a particular person in your life, but it’s only after giving it some thought, and maybe talking it through with a counsellor, that you realise that you also feel quite jealous of this person’s success.  Or maybe your response to someone in your present life is being affected by a previous experience of a relationship with someone else.  In a sense, your feelings are misleading you about the present situation, so that you’re looking at it as if through a distorting mirror.  In this case, continuing to express these feelings without reflecting on them might not help you deal with the situation. 

So counselling/ psychotherapy is not only about expressing your feelings, important as that is.  It’s also about having a space to think about them, to question yourself about their meanings.  Once you can clarify what your feelings are, in their different layers, disguises, and subtleties, then you can begin to discover what these feelings might be telling you about yourself, your relationships, your aspirations and values in life.  The existential psychotherapist and writer Emmy van Deurzen describes emotions as a compass which aids us in finding our direction in life, by showing us what matters to us, what we value, what we are drawn towards. 

It’s the balance of feeling and thinking that’s important in therapy: Having space to express our feelings, messy and inconvenient as they might be for other people, and also having time to think about what we are learning about ourselves. If we can allow ourselves to feel, express and understand the many layers and complexities of our emotional lives, then we enrich our experience of the world and enhance our capacity for living in fulfilling ways.