What is Emotion?

Used under CC licence by Flickr user Tuckett
Used under CC licence by Flickr user Tuckett

What is emotion?

If you’re coming to see me for Emotionally Focused Therapy, this is a fairly important question.

I’ve been listening recently to Dr. Daniel Siegel, a psychiatrist who works to help us understand what the mind is and how it is connected to our experience in relationships. When he began talking about emotion, he pointed out that when people talk about emotion they often explain it by using the word “feeling” – a word that has the same meaning. Our attempts to define emotion often get us chasing our tails in a circle.

Dr. Siegel encourages us to think of emotion as something that helps us to integrate the different parts of our own experiences and something that helps us integrate our experiences with those of another person in relationships.

When he was using this language of integration, it made me think of music. At its core, music is largely about math. The different notes in a music score and their accompanying tones can all be represented mathematically. It’s only when these notes get played by a human being – a creature with emotions – that the notes become art and become the music we love to listen to. Emotion integrates all of the components of music – the notes, the instruments, the people playing and the people listening – into something we know and experience as music.

In the same way, emotion takes separate human beings and allows them to be friends, teams, couples and families. Without emotion we can communicate only very limited bits of information and we cannot create real connection.

In couples, the inability to fully communicate, process and respond to emotion is at the core when there are problems. When emotion isn’t able to perform its integrating role, everything is that much harder. We miss or misunderstand little bits of information that we try to send back and forth between one another. Our minds make assumptions to fill in the blanks in our understanding. And in this, our most intimate of relationships, we eventually fill in our blanks with our greatest fears.

The most rewarding part of my work is helping couples to integrate their individual experiences, through communicating, processing and responding to the emotions in one another. It’s a process that takes some work, but the payoff is immense.

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