We know that it is helpful for a person seeking therapy to express his or her emotions, including negative ones. How does the logotherapist relate to the client’s expression of emotions? What role do emotions play in the process of meaning-seeking?
Emotions are indicators of values
Emotions are important to the logotherapeutic process because like anything in life they give us messages about meaning. Anger is particularly strong as an indicator of meanings and values. If truth is what is most important to me I will get angry when someone lies or distorts the truth. If I hate conceit, a display of it will get me aroused.
Once we identify emotions we can identify values. Knowing what I value and care about makes me aware of something essential about myself. In logotherapeutic terms it signals my will to meaning.
As a friend once said to her child when the babysitter was leaving, “Right you’re sad when Rachel goes away? Right you love Rachel?” “Sad” is the emotion. “Love” is the value. He was sad that she was leaving because he loves her. The mother helped her child to put words to both the emotion and the value underlying the emotion. When something has words it is made real. We need to help clients become aware of their emotions and aware of the values that are activating their emotions because this is who they are.
Emotions are cues to meaning
Thus if someone displays a strong or even not so strong emotion we want to understand what it means. Let’s say someone is showing incongruity between his words and his body language. We need to check out what’s going on.
We may ask: If logotherapy as a rule is focused on the positive, does this mean we should not question incongruities but rather stick to being positive?
For example if someone’s smile and manner are very positive while it is equally clear that the person is in a great deal of physical and emotional pain, should we not question it?
No. Experiencing the person in the here-and-now in his or her wholeness, at times we may wonder: Could the smile perhaps be hiding something, perhaps serving to defend the person from his or her suffering? Could it perhaps be serving some other purpose?
When in doubt we can ask: “If your smile could talk, what would it say?” or “How would your smile describe itself?”
However, we should never give a negative suggestion or interpretation to something we see. Behind every negativity there might be a thwarted, frustrated or suppressed will to meaning, and the will to meaning is always positive.
We don’t want to focus on the negative and reinforce a distorted wrong perceptions about life. This would serve to promote the person’s false perception that he or she is a victim or that life is unfair and thus meaningless. We want people to find their will to meaning, their passion, their zest for life and bring it to life. We want to help them find their voice.
Thus the expression of emotions can lead in one of two directions: a) Clarification of emotions and values which gives the person hope and leads to stronger self-awareness and awareness of one’s special task and ability to make changes and b) feeling a victim
Emotional life of the perennial victim (bold)
For the person who sees himself as a victim the outpouring of emotion is not a healing process as it usually is but rather becomes a rut the person gets stuck in. They are very interested in expressing their feelings to us but it seems as though our listening is not doing anything for them, and it’s not because we are poor listeners.
There is a difference between someone who has a need to get in touch with what he or she is feeling on one hand and a person who is obsessively churning over how he is feeling on the other. How can we recognize the difference?
Someone who sees himself as a victim is capable of expressing negative feelings endlessly without ever resolving anything as a result of it. The difference between a healing expression of emotions and an obsessive outpouring of complaint is like the difference between turning a bolt around in its socket until there is closure and turning a bolt with worn threads so that no matter how much it turns on itself no real movement is taking place.
Everyone indulges in self-pity sometimes. People who are grieving need to set aside time to grieve. A victim is something different. A victim is someone who just can’t let go of what is beyond his control even after a reasonable amount of time has passed. Maybe he can’t let go of a blow of fate. Maybe he can’t let go of something someone did to him once. He feels inside, through and through that he is a victim. When you see yourself a victim you will be a victim. And it will be apparent to everyone in earshot that you are a victim.
In The Logotherapy Textbook Elisabeth Lukas writes: “A person’s hardened attitude can only be shifted to a more flexible attitude of acceptance when he exchanges his perspective of being personally disadvantaged to a perspective of value perception.”
Until you get to a place of acceptance of what is and surrender to what is beyond your control, you cannot move forward.
What comes first? Does acceptance come first or does value-perception come first? There are probably no hard and fast rules.
But knowing this means that listening to a victim requires much more than reflecting the person’s feelings because if that is all you are doing they won’t get beyond it. It requires waiting to hear some hint of something important to them that you can bring back to greater awareness.
We can compare this to the use of meditation for pain regulation. People have successfully used meditation to have an operation without an anesthetic. They report that they are aware of what is happening around them but it’s just not that interesting.
Similarly when a person learns to focus on something they really care about their mind’s attention shifts to what is more important to them. The emotional pain is still there but it is not worth attending to as much as it was before.