June 6, 2019
On being revolutionary!
The bravely titled ‘Emotion Revolution: don’t just talk about it’ conference finished just a few hours ago and I am moved to write about the committed actions we could all take towards doing more emotion focused therapeutic work.
Don’t just talk about it - Feel it!
Unsurprisingly, the presenters all emphasised and prioritised emotions over words and cognition. All encouraging, pausing and noticing, showing interest in and valuing the person experiencing their emotions. They often interrupted the content of sessions, when the flow of words were blocking or preventing emotions rising; or people were helped to give words to their internal experience, either way ensuring that emotions could be honoured.
We saw similarities in their focus, but there was expected diversity in the psychotherapeutic artistry shown with a whole range of terminology and techniques - from the use of actual kangaroo toys to imagined sand trays of the mind.
Don’t just talk about it - watch and listen to the body
All presenters shared video of their clinical work, and it brought to life the depth and connection which is essential to this type of work. Working with emotions necessitates an understanding of the body and the way that emotions are communicated physically. The videos of the photographic project that started every session of the event prepared us for the powerful emotional communications from faces. During video presentations, we witnessed the entire range of bodily communication - numb fingertips to tapping toes; and we were introduced to the rhythms of emotional processing via sound wave graphs and by watching without cognitive content via videos being shown in fast forward.
It is possible that almost every clinical case physically grew in height during the work we saw. This emotional work built capacity in body and mind. We saw shifts from fragility to strength - which increased depth of breathing and a more upright posture.
It was a pleasure to see the delight on co-presenters’ faces as they watched the magic unfold before their eyes, and as they witnessed moments when they could comment on an alternative way of seeing the process. Noticing similarities, whilst being respectful about differences was a great strength of the event. Gentle challenge and thoughtful questions enabled alternative viewpoints to be held together, hopefully by all 700 of us!
Don’t just talk about it - separate and integrate
Flexible systems shift from separation to integration, enabling harmony and adaptive capacity. This was an important theme within the therapeutic work shown, as we consistently witnessed changes from confusion or shut down, to clarity and opening up. The encouragement and gentle pressure the presenters often put on their clients to slow down and experience each emotion separately, created poignant ‘ah-ha’ or ‘huh’ moments.
The most powerful moments, however, were integrative. As clients could bare combinations of their strength, anger, guilt, grief and love; as the parts of them that had been kept separate for years connected, with care, love, presence.
This process of separating and integrating takes precision and care, sometimes playfulness and humour. All presenters treated their clients’ emotional truth as precious, gently honouring their pain and celebrating their courage and success.
Don’t just talk about it - connect and attach
All presenters understood the importance of emotions from an evolutionary perspective, recognising emotional capacity as predating cognitive capacity by hundreds of millions of years. There was a striking coincidence of each presenter using an image of mother with baby to represent the power and importance of attachment, and the necessity in understanding attachment to understand emotional needs and experiences.
We saw powerful therapeutic attachment relationships in the clinical work we witnessed and we met presenters who were authentic, passionate human beings. They twinkled as they presented and in their connections with their clients. The latter in a more toned down way, but in their clinical work they were alive and lively, with a loving and non judgemental stance, strongly on their side and by their side.
They also showed their own vulnerability, sometimes revealing their own pain but also by not knowing, and in their willingness to connect, play and learn together in this unknown setting - a mirror of the therapeutic journey on stage.
Don’t just talk about it - emotions saves money
Focussed on sharing the content of therapeutic work more than research, we did get a whistle stop tour of some research findings. Striking statistics indicate that working with clients with ‘medically unexplained symptoms’ using Intensive Short Term Dynamic Psychotherapy leads to huge cost savings, tens of thousands of dollars per client treated in medical costs alone. Large cost savings also found for clients with the ironically named ‘treatment resistant depression’. (References later
Don’t just talk about it - emotions save lives
A stunning moment during the first day which resonated around the room: we learned that a service based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy during the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone had the best outcomes nationally for infection rates. Photographs moved many to tears and an incredible graph burned onto our retinas which indicated hundreds of people lived who, without a community intervention using basic ACT interventions, would have died.
Don’t just talk about it - trust in your capacity, know your limits
The downside of witnessing these powerful practitioners doing poignant work? That the pedestal of the stage can create a sinking inside us, losing confidence in our own capacity. With 700 to 6, this would be a disastrous outcome!
So hold on to your own psychotherapeutic artistry, value your uniqueness and take what you can to add to your capability without diminishing yourself. Notice your limits, we all have them, and practice when you are aware of a limitation so that it doesn’t limit you or your clients as much as possible.
A final lesson from this event, as we build our capacity for working with emotions trust your clients and their capacity to heal - it’s phenomenal.