Focussing on Feelings

Why do people come to see a psychologist?

I ask every new client on the first session: What would you like to get out of therapy? What are your goals? The number one answer to this question is “to feel better”. Emotional change. Less anxiety, less sadness, less anger. More joy, more contentment, more feelings of empathy, warmth, control and confidence.

But despite the fact that the customer is demanding us to focus on feelings, psychologists are trained to believe that the customer is not always right. I was trained to respond to the “feeling better” answer with:

“How would you behave differently if you felt better”?


“How could I see that you felt better from your behaviour”

What I am looking for is an objective measure of how someone is feeling better. Emotions are subjective and so they are hard to measure. Clinical psychologists are trained to set goals which focus on changing the directly observable.

The main reason that clinical psychologists are trained this way is that we are heirs to the science of Behaviourism.

Behaviourism is the study of behaviour. It rigidly refuses to consider the reality of anything that can’t be objectively studied, like thoughts, motivations and emotions. Historically, behaviourism pulled psychology out of the world of speculation, opinion and fruity theories – we should be entirely grateful for this. Behaviourism also contains a number of powerful tools which are frequently used by psychologists (not to mention by teachers, parents and animal trainers). Tools such as exposure, shaping, conditioning and reinforcement.

Following on from Behaviourism, was Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT remains the dominant therapeutic modality in this country. Building on behaviourism, CBT added the Cognitive (thinking) element. People could explain their thoughts and beliefs, and these were opened up as potential targets for change.

But because behaviourists (and cognitive behaviourists) couldn’t measure emotions, the importance of emotions was downplayed.

Direct Focus on Emotions

More recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in emotional change in and of itself. Psychologists such as Leslie Greenberg (the founder of Emotion-Focussed Therapy) and Peter Levine have encouraged us to focus on emotional and bodily feelings.

Schema Therapy, which I have been trained in, also focusses on direct change of emotions. Emotions are directly changed through the therapeutic relationship, the therapy process and through experiential techniques which play-out the emotions.

I’m currently reading The Archelogy of the Mind by the late Dr Jaak Panksepp. This book explores the underlying mammalian origins of emotions. In the coming months I will be writing a series of articles on Dr Panksepp’s theory of neurological systems which underlie our human emotions.

Speak Your Mind


Suite C5
102-106 Boyce Rd
Maroubra Junction, NSW 2035
(02) 8958 2585

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