Working with Emotions in Psychotherapy

  • Jul 26, 2021
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Working with Emotions in Psychotherapy

We all know the importance it has for the personal, social and professional development of the people, the incorporation of new knowledge, permanent training and growth intellectual. But many times we make mistakes when setting priorities, because we forget something fundamental: education for emotional life. The simple and complex fact of living involves learning, and for improve our quality of life, we must learn to observe, analyze, inquire, reflect and properly use the "everyday knowledge" that we incorporate day by day.

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  1. Paradigm of health psychology
  2. Empathy and relational dialogue
  3. Making the way while walking: therapeutic change and emotional control
  4. In search of poetic reason: intelligence vs. emotional intelligence
  5. Creative Intelligence. Spontaneity and creativity
  6. Spontaneity and creativity: role of play in psychotherapy

Paradigm of health psychology.

But to find our inner balance, act responsibly and aspire to full development (to the extent of our possibilities), we also have to learn to distinguish, understand and control our emotions and feelings. This means knowing how to contextualize them, prioritize them, interpret them, become aware of them and their consequences, in ourselves and those around us. Because any of our reflections or actions at a certain moment can be affected by our mood and, from that way, they can interfere negatively in the resolution of a conflict, in a decision making, or in our interaction with the half.

Taking this into account, we see that today, our clinical practice faces great challenges and strong transformations. The work of today's psychologist cannot be limited to the treatment of classical psychopathological structures, nor to the use of the traditional psychoanalytic method. Many of us, located in the Paradigm of Health Psychology, we have been forced to propose to our patients new work devices with new settings, in which we emphasize the consolidation of the therapeutic bond and the deployment of the spontaneity, the play and the creativity.

Only in this way is it possible for us to focus the problem and achieve a certain level of effectiveness in solving the problem. itself, without getting lost in the complicated labyrinths of free association and interpretation in a psychoanalytic sense strict. The current psychopathology It demands from us a working modality that exceeds the classical operation of the psychoanalytic setting. The clinic has changed, and this is something that we cannot ignore. Psychotherapists, committed to a social reality from the beginning of the century and the millennium, marked by changes of undeniable historical singularity, we face to new problems that can lead us to the limit of discouragement, or to the deepening of our knowledge and the expansion of our modalities of intervention. We cannot be discouraged.

Therefore (as one of my teachers always says) our purpose must be to have good clear what we are doing, and why we do what we do, in order to try to do it every time best. Our professional work could resemble a kind of "surf" (metaphorically speaking), similar to the one proposed by J. TO. Marina in "Ethics for castaways":

"Sailing, says Marina, is a great metaphor for smart living"; "It is a victory of the will over determinism." But at the same time, the aforementioned author writes a book for shipwrecked people, and not for sailors, because he considers that "we do not sail in the same boat but we arm in the same river." The topics she talks about in this book are: how to stay afloat; how to build a boat and steer it; how to choose a good course and get to your destination. I think that we, as psychotherapists who every day receive “castaways” in our offices, have to think about how we are going to accompany them in their passage through the survive, overcome and overcome, which Marina is talking about, and what strategies are we going to implement to help them build their projects and achieve them, overcoming the discomfort and generating welfare. We have to be very clear about what our objectives are and how we intend to achieve them.

Working with Emotions in Psychotherapy - Paradigm of Health Psychology

Empathy and relational dialogue.

From the Dynamic Resolutive Model we consider that an essential point of the frame is to privilege the construction of the therapeutic bond, giving rise to the different modes of communication that may arise (whether verbal or non-verbal), and to the empathic relationship.

What do we understand by empathy? "Empathy means agreement, or approximations to agreement around qualities of experiences, intensities, rhythms, modes of loading and unloading, communication and reservations at the communication". The empathic bond is built between the consultant and the therapist. The space of the empathic relationship is a bonding space that is subject to constant exploration and that is only possible from a constructive experience. So, talking about an attitude of the therapist willing to empathic relationship It does not mean assuming an affectionate or sympathetic attitude, but an open and active attitude, oriented towards detect the facilitating conditions that for each link configure empathy, responding appropriately to they. One of the conditions for creating the link area is to take into account that the acted relational dialogue It can only be truthful and collaborative to the extent that it maintains some connection to coherent forms of parent-child dialogue. The parent-baby dyad, or later parent-child, provides a valid analogy for the therapeutic dyad.

"The study of the process of parent-child communication it provides a laboratory from which to observe how different organizations of dialogue affect the stages of development. Longitudinal studies on attachment provide some insights regarding the types of parenting dialogue - child that pertain to child development of acted out, coherent and flexible procedural patterns, to process relations. The parent-child dialogues that are collaborative and flexible have been called open communication, but this term is liable to be misinterpreted. A coherent or "open" dialogue is not characterized by a supposed "parental openness" in the sense that the parents manifest uncontrollably uninhibited with the child, but rather by the "parental openness" to the child's mental states, including the entire breadth of the child's communications, so that their particular affective states and their motivations (anger, passion, discomfort) are not excluded from a regulated intersubjectivity and shared ".

In cases where the dialogue between parents and children is incoherent, schematic and inflexible, tendencies for action are likely to arise. maladaptive and defensive, because the interpersonal interactions that take place in the first year of life are completely unbalanced. They generate negative affects and dysfunctional modes of exchange that will be excluded from being properly negotiated, articulated and integrated. Sometimes, the subject's defenses can operate as necessary and healthy mechanisms and, therefore, cannot be considered as something that hinders access to the unconscious, but rather as a creative energy potential to live in a world hard. The most recent research on attachment "indicates that implicit two-person processes they must be incorporated into any theory of defense development. However, most of the theorizing has remained intrapsychic in orientation. Attachment theorists propose that defensive processes be understood as resulting from the distortion, exclusion or insufficient integration of the information and emotional experience, and place particular emphasis on the genesis and persistence of multiple models of relational experience that are inconsistent ".

Karlen Lyons - Ruth proposes a correlation between the early constitutive of the subject and what is reissued in the relationship with the therapist. He argues that "much of our relational experience is represented in an implicit or acted procedural form that is unconscious in nature." Therefore, "I consider the concept of dialogic tonality, according to which each subject would establish a dialogue with his original environment (paleoenvironment), which is timeless and it is tonally impregnated with its existential actuality, according to the dystonia or attunement with that basic tonality preponderant. In other words, there would be two "simultaneous" conversations, in the life of each one of us: one is established with that palaeoenvironment and operates as a background; the other is generated in the here and now, and operates as a figure ".

Making the way while walking: therapeutic change and emotional control.

David Liberman argues that the psychotherapist must first establish a relationship of trust and dialogue with his patient, in order to consolidate a solid base that later makes possible the emergence of a "game" of construction and permanent creativity. We could define therapy, then, as a playful instance constituted by an interplay between background and figure, in where the therapist oscillates between his containment function (consolidating the empathic bond) and his intervention function and interpretation; as a figure that stands out against the background of the frame, alternating both functions according to the needs of the patient.

The constant re-organization of this relationship and the permanent opening of the intersubjective space, allows both participants to become active agents with spontaneous interpersonal initiatives and actions, which will lead them to the construction of new and different ways of meeting.

Greenberg and Paivio, in their book "Working with emotions in psychotherapy" mention some of the most important aspects of the psychotherapeutic work with emotions in the processes of change:

  • It is a gradual and progressive process that takes place in stages. It is not linear nor is it possible to approach it through a fixed sequence.
  • The therapist must provide the client with security, support and containment: until he feel safe and able to control your own emotional experience, it will not be possible to start the process of change. Therapist and patient must establish an alliance of participation and joint action.
  • The different reactions of the consultants to feelings of discomfort cannot be addressed in the same way. In cases where the self-deception (a form of denial), the main thing will be that the patient can break with the avoidance processes of her emotions, and then access them, experiencing and accepting them. On the other hand, when the extreme emotional reactions, the important thing will be to help the subject to "self-calm" and "self-calm", focusing attention on the regulation of breathing and muscle relaxation. This process will provide you with training on ways to control and modify your maladaptive action tendencies. In both cases there would be a second moment of intervention, which will be that of symbolization and reflection. The symbolization of the "what" of the experience provides the sensation of grasping the feelings and transforming them, facilitating the creation of new meanings. Realizing the "how" of emotional experience, and knowing the internal processes that lead to it, is much more important in producing change than understanding the "why."
  • What makes “experiencing” and becoming aware of emotions therapeutic is accessing needs, goals and interests alternative emotional emotions, putting into practice internal resources that help coping, and allow its regulation and restructuring. In this way, the client will be able to exchange his negative or dysfunctional feelings for others that will provide an alternative to his maladaptive central schemes.

The therapeutic change process it implies a movement that goes from avoidance, negative evaluation or excessive emotional reactions, to an attitude of reflection, acceptance and transformation. "When anger or vulnerability are recognized, they become information and internal resources. Acts of approaching, attending and accepting true, or positively evaluating feelings lead to their transformation. " In the case of self-deception, the re-incorporation of the previously dissociated emotional experience promotes its assimilation and fully activates the emotional memory, better organizing said experience in the conscious, where it can be symbolized in awareness, becoming more understandable.

From this it also follows that the fundamental thing is not the process of making the unconscious conscious, but the possibility of reappropriation of the dissociated experience, which is what allows the strengthening of the self same. On the other hand, when feelings of discomfort produce extreme emotional reactions that are overwhelming, the psychotherapeutic work will have to be oriented to the control of the intensity of the emotions and to the reduction of the high reactions of rapid internal escalation. This in turn leads to contacting the primary feelings in a more regulated way, reorganizing cognitive-affective sequences, and better managing secondary emotions that had been overflowing. "For many people, developing capacities for affective self-regulation in areas of distress is at the heart of change processes. Being able to regulate anxiety and affective activation developing the ability to calm fears, helps the person to feel safe and secure, as well as to maintain a sense of self-consistency and competence. Failure to develop this skill results in many emotional disturbances. "

How could they be carried out emotional change processes of this type? What is the role of the psychotherapist in these processes? How should he intervene? According to Greenberg and Paivio, the main thing is to provide the patient with a safe and supportive environment, in which a supportive relationship and an empathic bond are consolidated. The therapist must focus, with the help of the client, the emotional conflicts of the same, in order to recognize, understand and validate his painful feelings, strengthening the alliance therapy. This will be the only way to access the affective component of the problematic experience. "Psychotherapy follows the sequence of evoking feelings of discomfort, exploring these feelings and their determinants, accessing primary emotions or the maladaptive core emotional schemas and use the new resources that have been accessed to facilitate the reorganization of these schemas central.

The sequence ends with the affirmation and validation of the emerging sense of self, and the consolidation of change in a new identity narrative. " Therefore, therapeutic change relies more on implicit acted representations and consultant-therapist transactions, than on symbolized knowledge and interpretation.

Working with Emotions in Psychotherapy - Making the way while walking: therapeutic change and emotional control

In search of poetic reason: intelligence vs. emotional intelligence.

José Antonio Marina in his book "Theory of Creative Intelligence" departs from the classic concept of intelligence and defines it as “the ability to receive information, prepare it and produce effective responses. It is the ability to organize behaviors, discover values, invent projects, free oneself from the determinism of the situation, pose problems and solve them. Intelligence is knowing how to think, but also having the will or courage to do it ”.

For several years now, in the business world they began to realize that the mathematical calculation and numerical skills are not enough to work efficiently and be successful on the plane labor. This is so because the key to success and increased sales are not linked to administrative or mathematical calculation, but to the ability of workers to know and control your emotions, developing empathy with your customers, factors that cannot be measured with any intelligence test. It was the companies that detected this, the ones that promoted the research on Emotional Intelligence, a concept that has been gaining more and more force in recent years.

The definitions of Emotional Intelligence that have been elaborated by the different authors who delved into this topic are the following:

  • It allows knowing and managing one's own emotions, motivating oneself, recognizing emotions in others and managing relationships ”Daniel Goleman (1995).
  • It is the set of capacities, competences and non-cognitive abilities that influence the ability of succeeding in meeting the demands and pressures of the environment "Bar - On (quoted in Mayer, 2001)
  • It refers to the ability to recognize the meaning of emotions and their relationships, and to reason and solve problems based on it. It also involves the ability to use emotions to perform cognitive activities ”Mayer et al. (2001).

In a series of studies conducted by Schutte et al. focused on finding a connection between levels of emotional intelligence, self-esteem and positive mood, establishing a relationship between the concept of Intelligence Emotional and both variables: people with a high development in their emotional intelligence, feel emotional well-being, do not suffer from depressive symptoms and are able to have a better perspective of life. Daniel Goleman establishes which are the main components of Emotional Intelligence:

Emotional self-awareness (or self-awareness): refers to the knowledge of our own emotions and how they affect us. It is very important to understand what happens to us on an emotional level, integrate it into our thinking and be aware of the complexity of our emotional changes. Know how our mood influences our behavior and what are our strengths and weaknesses, allows us to better relate to the environment, understanding our limitations.

Emotional self-control (or self-regulation): it is the ability to direct and manage emotions effectively, giving rise to emotional homeostasis and avoiding inappropriate responses in situations of anger, provocation or afraid. It also involves perceiving our affective state without being overwhelmed by it, so that it does not hinder our way of reasoning and allows us to make decisions in accordance with our values, social norms and cultural We may feel angry or angry, but if we allow ourselves to be carried away by the discomfort of the moment and act accordingly, surely our actions will be dysfunctional or maladaptive.

Self-motivation: consists of directing our actions towards a goal, without losing enthusiasm and focusing our attention on the goals rather than on the obstacles. It involves a certain amount of optimism and initiative that should lead to positive action in the face of setbacks.

Recognition of other people's emotions (or empathy): involves knowing how to interpret the signals or gestures that others emit in an unconscious and unexplained way. Recognizing the emotions of others, what others feel and that is manifested in the expression of the face, in the look or in the way of answering, it can help us to establish more real and lasting ties with the people of our environment. Not surprisingly, recognizing the emotions of others is the first step to understand those people and relate to them.

Interpersonal relationships (or social skills): means having the ability to establish successful relationships and build bonds with: friends, superiors, family, clients, co-workers, people of the opposite sex, etc., proceeding with social responsibility, respecting norms and fulfilling a productive and trustworthy.

The Emotional Self-regulation It is the cornerstone of the concept, since it is useless to recognize our emotions if we cannot handle them adaptively. Emotional self-regulation would be encompassed within the general process of psychological self-regulation: the mechanism of the human beings, through which we keep our psychological balance constant through a feedback system (feedback).

In this sense, Vallés and Vallés point out that emotions have three levels of expression: behavioral, cognitive and psychophysiological, therefore the regulation of emotional behavior will affect these three response systems. This implies that emotional self-regulation functions as a control system, responsible for carrying out and supervise the adjustments that have to be made between the emotional experience and the reference goals that each have.

Creative Intelligence. Spontaneity and creativity.

Creative Intelligence. Spontaneity and creativity are concepts that are related to motivation, will, decision making, ability to act, impulse control, etc. Next, I will make a brief review of the most important characteristics of some of them:


According to the Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy, to motivate means: to give someone a reason or incentive to do something; explain the reason or motive for doing a thing; mentally stimulate with a view to achieving a goal. Daniel Goleman defines motivation as the strength, drive and energy that move us to strive for a goal with enthusiasm and persistence, until we achieve it. Therefore, the action of motivating is related to moving people to do something; initiate momentum, push, direct, and encourage another to take action. Motivation presupposes orientation, direction, decision to sustain the task, and perseverance. The result must be beneficial to both the one who motivates and the one who is motivated, who must feel motivation as a positive support that allows you to increase your achievements and achieve greater satisfaction. To start the action it is necessary to be clear about the objective to be achieved, and to feed the motivation and sustaining the task over time it is important to see the positive results and the small achievements. Motivation needs reinforcement. The decision to initiate action is driven and sustained through impulses and the generation of positive expectations regarding what you want to achieve: Regarding impulses, we can only facilitate the habit of wanting to do the things. Regarding expectations, we can generate them in an organized way through the clarity of the benefits and expected results, which give essence and meaning to the arguments we need to undertake the action. Only those that result from an adequate evaluation of reality will work as good arguments.


It is the ability to act and make determinations, without external pressures or factors that influence said decision. Will is related to intentionality: intention operates on the level of consciousness and intentionality on the unconscious ”. Rollo May poses a conflict between intention and intentionality: contradiction between the statement about wanting to perform an action (intention) and the basic will (intentionality). Example: Conscious intention: “I cannot overcome my deficit, but I want to do something to be able to”. Intentionality: “it is not convenient for me to overcome my deficit because that would imply facing the world and my painful reality again”. Self-knowledge and reflection can expand our field of consciousness, leading to the will comes into play not as a denial of desire, but as the incorporation of desire at a higher level of conscience. This is how decision, commitment, and responsibility emerge. Responsibility means being responsible and responding. Just as consciousness is the distinctly human form of knowledge, so decision and responsibility, are the distinctive forms of consciousness in the human being that moves towards integration and maturity ”.

Decision making

It is the “answer to a problem, and it has its origin in the inconsistency between what things are and how they should be.

This difference is what opens the space for decision-making ”. It can take an active or passive form: I decide to do something to reduce the gap between what is and what should be. I decide not to do anything to reduce that differential. It presupposes a capacity for action and discernment of what is priority, which differs from what is not. “Making decisions is the result of a complex inner game, in which mainly reasoning and intuition are going to intervene to reach determination. In the best case, there will be a chain of security - security until the result is reached. In less fortunate cases, a series of doubts will arise along with security that will complicate the final choice ”. "Decisions activate organizational mechanisms through which an attempt is made to reach a desired state." Once the desired state is established, we must ensure that the decisions made are put into practice with good control of emotions, since otherwise the process may be hampered. The emotions that arise when making decisions are not always adaptive or easy to control. Lack of control generates uncertainty, fear and discomfort, which can lead to abandonment of the decision. Emotions can facilitate or hinder the decision-making process: Emotions facilitating or adaptive: Feeling of discomfort in the current situation (“I feel bad, what I have not enough ”). Desire to change ("I don't want to continue like this, I would like to feel better"). Esperanza ("I feel like I can do it"). Hindering or maladaptive emotions: Fear of change ("I'd better stay the way I am"). Uncertainty about the potential effects of the change. Unsafety. Endurance.

Spontaneity and creativity: role of play in psychotherapy.

Finally, I will return to the concepts of spontaneity and creativity, in order to mark the place they occupy in the psychotherapeutic process. Let's go back to a classic: Donald Winnicott. This author affirms: "Psychotherapy is carried out in the superposition of two areas of play, the patient and the analyst. It is related to two people playing together. The corollary of this is that when play is not possible, the therapist's work is oriented towards taking the patient from a state in which he cannot play to one in which he can do so. " "The reason that the game is so essential is that in it the patient is creative." "When a patient cannot play, the therapist must wait for this important symptom before interpreting fragments of behavior."

Psychotherapy is consolidated based on playing. "The game is by itself a therapy". Therefore, the therapeutic process it must offer opportunities for the creative impulses that are the essence of play to unfold. The psychotherapist, together with the client, has to recover the playfulness of the game, making it possible to move towards functionality, and maintaining a double tension characteristic of the human condition: that of the historical of each subjectivity, and of that subjectivity with its familiar, social and cultural. How do we get this playful space to be established, while achieving effectiveness in meeting our objectives? What do we understand by spontaneity and creativity, and how do we introduce them into the therapeutic field? "The subject is going to maintain his autonomy within a complex network of meanings and relationships. Their ability to act will depend on intimate beliefs and social states of opinion, their own experiences and the experiences of others, and between this crossing of experiences, he will have to claim that it is his action or, on the contrary, surrender to an anonymous flow of conduct". Albert Bandura: "Freedom is not conceived in a negative way as the absence of influences or simply the lack of external limitations, but is positively defined as an exercise in self influence". According to Marina, what needs to be produced within the field of psychology is a movement of recovery of will. ". Frese and Sabini acknowledge that current theories leave three steps unexplained that become insurmountable chasms:

  1. the passage from the outside world to cognition
  2. the passage from wishes to intention
  3. the step from intention to action.

"Many cultural influences have linked the Will with unpleasant aspects of human behavior: discipline, rules, rigidity, tyranny. We were surprised to see that today's society values ​​freedom above all else, but freedom without will. " This freedom without will, does not serve us, because in reality, according to this author, when we speak of will we are referring to a type of causality, and what we need is to enable the passage from external to internal causality, from deterministic causality to free and spontaneous causality.

The word spontaneity It is an adaptation of the Latin term "sponte", which meant "voluntarily". However, at present it has been mainly related to the terms "automatic", "instinctive" and "thoughtless", and this has led to a characterization of the spontaneous act as "automatic spasm" or "freedom unmotivated ". Following Marina, I consider that it is essential to recover the concept of will, understanding that voluntary behavior has to be related many times with the effort. "The pathological inability to decide, to control the response or to maintain the purpose, indicates to us that in the behavior that we call "normal" there are a series of regulatory systems that can break. The action is a long process and if the will is in charge of directing and controlling the action, it is not only a faculty of the moment, but also of perseverance ".

What relationship can we establish between creativity and spontaneity? What do we understand by creativity? I go on to cite different definitions:

  • "It is a process that develops over time and is characterized by originality, adaptability and its possibilities of concrete realization".
  • "It is the ability to produce, elaborate or build new and valuable things."
  • "It is open and divergent thinking, always ready to imagine and solve questions in an original way and with a great variety of alternatives."

We can also carry out an etymological analysis of the term "creativity": it is derived from the Latin 'creare' and is related to the Latin word 'grows', which means to grow.

Creativity would then, etymologically, "create from nothing" or "make it grow." Creativity is the ability to create and produce new and valuable things; It is a tool that human beings have to draw conclusions and solve problems in an original way. Creative activity must be intentional and aim for a certain goal. In its materialization, it can adopt, among others, an artistic, literary or scientific form, although it is not exclusive to any particular area. Creativity is the basic principle for the improvement of personal intelligence and the progress of society and it is also one of the fundamental strategies of natural evolution. It is a process that develops over time and is characterized by originality, adaptability and its possibilities of concrete realization. We are all born with a creative capacity that can then be stimulated or not. Like all human capacities, creativity can be developed and improved, but this will only be possible to the extent that the subject is willing to do so and spontaneously lends itself to the development of the process creative.

This article is merely informative, in Psychology-Online we do not have the power to make a diagnosis or recommend a treatment. We invite you to go to a psychologist to treat your particular case.

If you want to read more articles similar to Working with Emotions in Psychotherapy, we recommend that you enter our category of Emotions.


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