Can therapy cast light on our emotions?

Tears are OK too

The answer seems obvious, does it not?

Emotions are often at the centre of therapy. Indeed, when I was much younger it was the ‘thing’ to do – to leave your brain at the door!  Consider Arthur Yanov’s Primal Scream, for a starter! That pre-occupation with emotion has changed now, but the question remains: what is it about emotions that can be an issue?

Dan Newby’s contribution

Dan Newby has written a book called The Unopened Gift. The title infers that we’ve been given the gift of our emotions, and yet so often we fail to open the box. It is as though we assume we have it sussed already; it’s an unwanted gift or there is little more we can do with it. 

In his book, Dan has useful things to tell us about emotions and how therapy, coaching and small, safe experiments can make a difference. Indeed, as early as page 4, he raises the value of “doing something different”. Where have you heard something similar to that before?!

He has identified some features of emotions that can be usefully explored. His view is consistent with the ‘thrust’ of this website, and many other therapies placing value on the ‘experiment’ of ‘just noticing‘ what is happening.

The Body Scan helps me to be aware of my sensations and find the words – in the English language, in my case – that label those experiences. Those labels become the sign-post I can follow, and the Subjective Unit of Discomfort (SUD) helps me ‘measure’ the ups and downs of my high emotions. Consider this view of a SUD’s scale:

Green=1/2 and Red 9/10 on a SUD’s Scale

Any changes in our SUD scores can be subtle process – unless the emotions are high. For that reason,  the results of a body scan may need to be recorded carefully.

Some myths about our emotions

Dan goes on to identify a number of myths that can be explored by us as part of the process of change we choose to follow. Here are those myths, alongside my own comment about each one.

1. Emotions can be avoided. As you will know from this website,  avoidance seems to be the first port of call when we want to step around inconvenient feelings and impulses.

2. They can’t be changed. True, there is a neurological basis behind the rise and fall of our emotions, but the intensity of an emotion,  and the ‘favourite’ feeling we drift toward, is unique to us. There is an entire area of psychology called ‘affect regulation‘ explaining how feeling and emotions can be held differently.

3. They are a sign of weakness: we make both explicit and implicit judgements about feelings. The end-result is, as said,  that we develop ‘favourites’ – familiar feelings – some OK, and others that are a distinct ‘no-no’. Such choices often emerge in childhood and those choices are rarely made evident. Therapy helps raise our awareness of the choices we do make.

4. Emotions are random or capricious: it is easy to see how that comes about. If you use SUDS, you will find there are just micro-seconds between a 6/7 and a 9/10. Our sensitivity is such that – often – we do not notice the more subtle 1/2’s. Therapy can help us be more sensitive, and become more able to use the extra time that then comes available. That’s the only way to ‘listen’ to what those emotions are telling us!

5. They cannot be trusted: it is not difficult to be ‘caught short’ by our feelings. Anyone who has experienced high anxiety, or fallen in love,  will know this. It is not difficult to feel we have no control over the waves of high emotion that arise. BUT IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE LIKE THAT!! It is possible to make our emotions into allies; ones that tell us things we need to know.

6. Emotions are inherently positive or negative: Dan and I share a concern about this myth. It’s a label, and a bit black-and-white for starters. Consider this as well: who says this feeling is positive, and that feeling is negative?  A view of my header illustration relating to compassion focused therapy (CFT) might have something to say about that. True, some people might vote for happy as ‘good’ and anxiety as ‘bad’.  The Amygdala, the part of our older and not so smart sibling, processing high emotion does not make that judgement, or any judgement. It just responds very rapidly to defend us. The exercise on this web page helps to demonstrate how we’ve learned to value different thoughts and feelings – in an often very personal way.

7. They exist just to bother us: when our feelings appear to be out of control, it is easy to consider them a nuisance. That is a problem that seems to have emerged as humankind has become more sophisticated.  We appear to be increasingly obsessed with the control of our environment and our own behaviour (as well as the behaviour of others). Note that the impala does not have this problem. It dies or it survives.

8. They must be controlled: If the recent public health crisis has demonstrated anything – it is our pre-occupation with ‘control’. In actual practice, we show arrogance with our drive to control events, and overlook the important messages that emotions are sending, such as:  beware, don’t do it, move on, find energy, you’ve just lost something etc.

Four ways to meeting our high emotions

When designing small, safe experiments, Dan Newby recommends four steps to consider. He advises we need to:

Navigate:  learn to anticipate and select emotions. One way to do this is through approach offered by Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT) as well as Compassion focused therapy (CFT).

Shift emotions and moods; be choiceful and, indeed, playful. Safe experiments designed around the ‘acting’ therapies such as Gestalt, Psychodrama and Sensori-motor ‘schools’ all have something to offer.

Just notice:  your feelings and sensations in your body, alongside your thoughts and how to listen for them.

Naming: alone, can help. In a species well used to language, naming anything helps establish an understanding or insight into or our own Script, or life plan. Why? It helps us to know things about our life story, and how it might be altered. Little in life has to stay the same, but we may have a tendency to want that (see the bottom of the page I am highlighting here). It appears we have a built-in ‘negative bias’.

One small, safe experiment I would recommend is simply stating how you feel, as a fact, at the time you feel it.  In my experience, often other folk simply need to know. Keep in mind that only you know how you feel – no-one else can. True, they may discourage you from it – even deny its existence – but then it’s best to be assertive and/or simply repeat the ‘fact’ of how you feel.

More on Dan Newby can be found at his school of emotions or, more directly, via:, or

Further leads to consider

What is a nudge

How to design a small, safe experiment

The illustrated path to change