Feelings are important in growing consciousness – Existential and Mindfulness Based Emotional Reflection Therapy


Accepting your emotional reality and holding an awareness of those feelings helps us to be conscious of how we are currently being influenced … understanding this influence opens up the possibility to use reflection to guide your actions towards your best interests and towards the most ideal interaction patterns.

There is a huge amount of research coming out about the benefits in fostering relationships with emotional availability, vulnerability and authenticity. Such relationships promote healthy attachments which assist such things as: felt security/self-confidence, hope, stress reduction, physical health, a sense of meaning or purpose, and relational satisfaction. EFT (Emotionally focused Family therapy) is a couple’s intervention based on creating more secure attachments and AFFT (Attachment Focused Family Therapy) is the intervention to do the same within the whole family system.

I am suggesting an additional theory – emotion focused therapies are also increasing the ability for people to reflect = the ability to hold a stimulus (observation, sensation, thought or emotion) in your consciousness without automatically engaging in a reaction (behavior, thought, or emotion).

I therefore commonly use emotions for attachment objectives, and I also love using emotions as a means of increasing consciousness and one’s reflective ability (and therefor reducing automaticity).

Ask yourself this question – “Do you believe that your mood affects the way that you interact with people?”

And, “do you believe that your different moods influence the different ways in which you interact with people?”

Are there moods which are more associated with defensiveness and moods which are more accommodating for openness?

Most people will surely say of course… If I am pissed I am more likely to be defensive…

Though people generally understand this concept intellectually is relatively rare for a person to reflect on their mood and how their mood might affect their interaction with another person.

It is even more difficult for a person to be able to hold an open-minded consciousness about the thoughts or beliefs that were projected onto a stimulus which influenced the person’s current emotional state.

When I help to bring people into an awareness of their emotional state while in therapy I am often helping the person to have a deeper awareness of a specific or deconstructed emotion… While holding a safe and therapeutic space I will collaborate with the client in creating room for the client to reflect with curious acceptance about the various ways in which a specific emotion influences them… and perhaps where that emotion is coming from (what beliefs do you have about the stimulus and how are those beliefs encouraging you to feel?)…

Enactment set up to reproduce a baseline interaction pattern:

I often start with an Enactment in which I will instruct the clients to have a conversation in front of me that has historically not been very effective (misunderstandings, lack of empathy and support, and inability to reach a solution or to move forward).

Sex, Money, Parenting, rules, chores, alcohol etc. are common topics

I tell the clients that I will be stopping them … and for me to best help them they really need to stop when I assess that the emotional spiral has started.

I generally stop people very soon into the process – I have no interest in having people fall into a stress cycle where they are operating from their amygdala.

Humor, paradoxes, or/and gratitude are used to comfortably pull the clients into a place of reflection.

With a smile I enthusiastically say something like, “Great this is exactly what I wanted … is this how it is when you all at home?”

The paradox is that people expect a person to match their mood or to show nervous concern in the face of an argument. Compassionate humor with hope and encouragement often confuses the client and naturally brings them into a place of reflection.

The therapist’s emotional state encourages the client to question if they need to be reacting to the situation the way that they are… this curios questioning necessitates reflection.

It is always important for the therapist to walk the talk… During therapy I always engage in meditative breath and reflection (mindfulness) = breathing deeply into my abdomen while allowing my consciousness to reflect on my current present state at various moments throughout the session (I then offer compassionate acceptance to whatever emotion I may be holding)… please note that the academic side of our field often talks about ‘neutrality’… the method to achieve this state often sounds like emotional avoidance or resistance – this actually reduces a therapists presence or consciousness = I would be very careful with the topic of neutrality, especially when compassionate acceptance is not part of the conversation. (Neutrality requires that one has no ego… how many of us fit into that category? – I don’t.)

Within my own reflective state I attune more deeply to a client and will ask in different ways the following type of questions. (note: I am often intentionally ambiguous or different in asking questions – I have noticed that because therapists are displayed a certain way by Hollywood, clients will often disengage or become defensive if you ask ‘cliché’’ Hollywood-therapist’ type questions such as “how are you feeling.”

I start with – “please face your partner and tell them the answer to these questions.” I use non-verbal directions such as awkwardly looking away if the partners begin to focus on me instead of each other. At times I will gently smile and point to the partner.

Then I turn to the listener and state, “your job is to be as present as possible… I want you to put most of your attention on what your partner is experiencing in the moment… pay attention to your partners non-verbals and emotional language – the plot is not particularly important right now. If defensiveness arises – notice it and know that right now we are just trying to understand your partner’s subjective experience.” (Of course I use the right language for the given client and sometimes I am more specific with what not to do – such as” don’t correct the plot line or interrupt.”

What is going on for you right now?

What are you experiencing in your body?

What is the emotional impact that this interaction is having on you in this therapy office?… exactly now in this moment?

What beliefs do you notice coming up as you engage with this topic?

Do you know what kind of emotions you feel related to those beliefs?

I then turn to the listener and ask

“What did you come to understand … what do you notice your partner experiencing in this therapy office as he/she spoke to you?”

Again, I ask the person to speak to their partner and not to me. (If they ask why, either verbally or non-verbally, I will let them know that we are creating a new habit and you have do something (even if it feels contrived) to begin a new habit… then time and practice will be necessary.

I will gently redirect if the response is defensive or not related to their partners experience.

I then will have the listener switch roles with the speaker and go through the process again.

This concludes this intervention – I will often go into a solution oriented intervention surrounding articulating the partners’ needs and getting those needs met after the above intervention.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

Why Feeling Questions? – Emotional Expression Enhances Bonding


Quick summary: Exciting new research done by therapists such as Dr. Sue Johnson (the pioneer of emotionally focused therapy) have added efficacy to therapeutic interventions which help clients to express emotions. By sharing your most intimate feelings to your partner you can increase the overall intimacy and relational strength of your union. This makes common sense if you think about it – when you decide to trust someone and to confide in him or her – most believe that this makes you closer or more bonded to that person.

Couples therapy can offer a safe place for partners to finally release the emotions that they have been holding; the therapist is available to help the couples to sit with and to support the expressed feelings. – In this way there does not need to be anything ‘wrong’ in the relationship for people to seek couples counseling; If a person chooses to heal with their partner present they will gain in two ways – they will overcome their difficulty and they will strengthen their relationship.

Need the scientific answer? – new research is finding that emotional intimacy (which can be arrived at by sharing emotions with your partner) can increase Oxytocin levels – (there is too much information about this for this blog) – in short Oxytocin is the hormone/neurotransmitter that is released during birth which elicits the love and bonding feelings. Oxytocin is also thought to be responsible for that “crazy – can’t sleep at night – miss the partner after minutes” type of love found typical in the beginning of relationships – this, by the way, goes away naturally (the ‘honeymoon period’ in biologically substantiated – so if after between six months to a year and a half do not fret when your love changes in feeling). So in short, there is a biological explanation for why sharing emotions increases bonding.

The “how do you feel” question has long been the punch line for satires about therapists… In reality some therapists are very interested about the client’s feelings, but they are significantly more tactful in their questions than Hollywood typically portrays.

The goal is for the clients to feel the emotions (both for themselves and empathetically for their partner), the reason that therapists get the reputation for asking lots of feeling questions is that it is very common for people to ‘tell’ about their emotions without allowing themselves to experience the emotions.  Most people have probably witnessed what I am talking about (as we all do it) – we watch people talk in a ‘matter of fact’ way about something incredibly emotional… it is not that these people are cold – they have just learned throughout life that restraining emotions in adaptive. For example -after a job I had in which I had to display and extremely high degree of emotional control I had to re-teach myself to cry… there was nothing to cognitively fix… I just needed the comfort of my wife’s presence and the freedom and safety of our bond to express myself.

Telling about your emotions instead of allowing yourself to feel your emotions has become very important in today’s professional cultures. There are unwritten rules at work which state that you are to restrain from expressing emotions fully (both laughing hysterically and crying tearfully tend to be looked down upon.)

Restraining emotions is also an adaptive way of ‘getting on with life.’ For many it would be hard to function if they were not avoiding, denying, or rationalizing etc. their emotions.

We all do it (or most at least) and I can only begin to tell you how good it feels to have your partner hear and care for the emotions that you express. A therapist can be very helpful as we have a tendency (men and women) to try and ‘fix’ our partner’s ‘problem’.

Emotions can get really bottlenecked… which often leads to stress, anxiety, and irritability.  Sometimes acknowledging an emotion to your partner is the best way to unburden yourself while reaping the benefits of increasing your intimacy. Again, a therapist can help to ensure that your partner does not “pick up” the emotional weight that you are sharing – supporting an emotional does not need to involve taking the emotion.

We can all struggle with blaming, defensiveness, avoidance and denial – so sometimes it is best to let a therapist help you on this journey.

In closing, I had a teacher who used the word dignity in relation to how to empathize with a person expressing emotions that you are supporting.

Allow your partner the dignity to carry his/her own emotions – your partner’s emotions are not for you to carry, but for you to support with your love, hope, compassion and trust.

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.