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Emotional awareness: Bonding the binaries of our emotions and self in group therapy

My purpose is to shift from the concrete, asocial view of the self (e.g., individualism) into a fluid, collectivistic systems-centered view of the self with compassion, curiosity, and acceptance.
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Dehili, V. M. (2022, March 9). Emotional awareness: Bonding the binaries of our emotions and self in group therapy.

man sitting on top of a mountain looking out

My hope in reading this is you become a little less certain of yourself. My purpose is to shift from the concrete, asocial view of the self (e.g., individualism) into a fluid, collectivistic systems-centered view of the self with compassion, curiosity, and acceptance. Like walking by a wilting rose on a gravel road. We do not blame the rose for not thriving. We hold the goodness and beauty of the rose and ask with relentless curiosity, “What happened to you to make you so wilted and full of thorns? And what are you not getting now in your environment that continues to pull you closer to the earth in hopelessness?” We are a culture which embraces individualism and is emboldened by the idea of a separate self. The concept of the American dream is any individual, with enough grit and determination, can obtain what they seek by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. An aptly named concept since it is, in fact, a dream. We focus on the self as being responsible for more than it can within life. Feigning powerfulness leads to us feeling continuously powerless. We persist with this belief, and the world continues to gently show us a simple truth: Do not blame a flower for the drought which withers it. Yet, we do blame our self and our emotions. This article will attempt to take group therapy a step towards what Greenspan (2017, p. 342) “a new paradigm of emotional ecology in which our most seemingly personal emotions are connected to their larger social and global contexts.”

We are indoctrinated in a world of binaries (e.g., good/bad, self/other, healthy/ill, mind/body, etc.) to discriminate, to be accepted, or to feel “good.” My most prominent objective in group therapy is to bond the binary ways in which we view our emotional states as either “good” or “bad.” In essence, we take the line with two dichotomous ends, and turn them into a circle to view their meaning and interrelation to one another. Binary language is the reductive, and we are imprisoned by it throughout our discourse in psychology. We are a field with a history of labeling and discrimination for the ends of being considered a “hard” (e.g., objective) science: Exploration of eugenics; IQ testing; diagnosing homosexuality as deviation; the colonization and repackaging of eastern practices as modern psychotherapy theories; & the use of torture for political gain. These are but a few examples of the cost we have paid to live in a world of objective binaries rather than opening boundaries towards intersubjective truths.

Highlighting binaries as always being bad paradoxically reinforces another binary. This is a less of a matter of breaking binaries and more of a return to the most ancient of philosophical concepts of yin and yang. This concept describes how binary or opposite forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent as they inter-relate. Thich Naht Hanh describes a similar concept with the word interbeing: “In one you can see the other two.” To do this with emotional experiences is to change the narrative of how we view objects which seem separate. For example, if we treat some emotions as the “good” rose and others as the “bad” garbage then we always throw out the garbage and decide to hold tightly to all the roses we find.

A noble truth of Buddhism is the idea of Sanskrit: anityatā (impermanence), meaning our happiness, our joy, our pleasure no matter how many we grab or how tightly we hold them, will turn into garbage: sadness, fear, and/or anger. But if we begin to look at the “garbage” not as bad, but as holding meaning and purpose, then we can cultivate the garbage into fertilizer, allowing our roses to bloom. The rose turns to garbage, and the garbage, if used correctly, becomes a rose. The problem with emotions appears to come towards the resistance we have in fully experiencing and understanding their meaning. We live in a world which tells us to drive as if in a car towards our goals in life, stating we have full control over our self. I would posit we are much closer to sailing a boat on the ocean, with the winds being our emotional experiences. Without pausing, being present in body & mind, and feeling how emotions guide or push us, we will not be able to reach our goals to connect with others.

Dalal (2016) notes that almost all schools of psychotherapy, individual and group, tend to deify the Self as the goal and focus on independent functioning as a sign of one’s growth. Our socio-cultural context is one that focuses intensely on the concept of individualism to understand and treat suffering. Individualism treats emotions as an inside-out “self”-focused phenomenon rather than an outside-in systems-centered phenomenon. Non-Self in Buddhism is the concept that everything is made up of others. If a rose is made up of non-rose elements (e.g., chlorophyll, water, sunlight, etc.), then let us imagine our self, our mind, our thoughts, our values, are all made up of non-self-elements. Meaning there is no real concrete, disconnected self from our environment. When we feel an emotion, we can picture a string, tugging on us from a system, like a marionette, it pulls us to creatively adjust and guides us to act in a “good” way.

Let us reflect on what people mean with how they code their language of emotions. What emotions do you feel when you say the statement “I feel good or better?” What emotions are you coding when you state, “I feel bad or worse?” Why do we consider these feelings bad? What makes irritation, loneliness, hopelessness, guilt, and fear our enemies? Individualism treats psychological phenomenon as parallel to a medical model. We call depression and anxiety “mental illness,” as if it is a concrete virus or “illness” to be surgically removed or reduced. If we look deeply at what symptoms comprise, Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, what we see are lists of subjective emotional experiences (e.g., irritability, hopelessness, excessive guilt, worry, etc.) and physiological sensations (e.g. lack of energy, back pain, muscle tension, etc.) clustered together to explain a phenomenon. We present case conceptualizations, create treatment plans, and based on reducing these symptoms of these “illnesses.”

By focusing on symptom reduction, we inherently put the onus on the individual as the central person to blame and shame as the creator of their own fate. A person’s suffering is no more their responsibility than a flower’s responsibility as to where it grows. It is irrevocably tied to the systems they are a part of, and the concept of “self” extends beyond the boundaries of flesh to those in the surrounding area. Let us treat our emotions like an inner child, shifting clients away from the “happily ever after” fantasy to a “meaningful ever after” reality. If we feel an emotion, it is meaningful. Our goal in group therapy, is to determine why it was meaningful, what it was tied to, and what needs do we have in the present moment. A flower is always doing its best with the environment it was given to thrive, be it concrete or fertile ground.

Emotions are never just about us, and some theories use the concept of an inner child as a method to have more compassion to this often-vilified experience. When we feel, the inner child points to a system, like a compass, helping me see my unmet needs. Currently, we live in a reality where emotions appear to be judge, jury, and executioner of our self. Feeling worthless means I’m worthless. If worthlessness is a string pulling us down, then our goal can be to hold relentless curiosity towards why it is important for my child to show me this. Is it a reflection of memories in my past? The current condition of the system around me? Or, most importantly, a window into our interconnected soul a perceived other?

Sonia, Michelle (my partner), and I went camping. Not real camping, more like the level zero tutorial camping, where you rent a small house with an air conditioner on the window across from the people actually in tents. After unpacking a week's load of clothes for our weekend stay, Sonia and I sat on the floor playing with a puzzle. A hornet decided to be a third wheel, causing me to grab the back of the puzzle box and smash it emphatically with three strikes. I was out the door to remove the “sleeping” bug from Sonia’s sight. She stayed frozen and vigilant to my every move.

After returning home a few days later, I woke to hearing Sonia screaming in the morning with immense panic. I opened the door asking, “What’s wrong?” With tears streaming down her face, she shook and muffled “There’s a bug on the carpet!” And sure enough, there was the perpetrator of my daughter’s distress, a lovebug. It meandered through the gray carpet threads towards me. Now let’s pause and imagine, in this moment, you and I treat Sonia the same way we often treat our inner emotional experiences. “Why are you so upset!? Just calm down! It’s fine! You’re being irrational! Stop crying! What’s wrong with you? You’re being ridiculous! You’re wasting my time!” Take a moment to listen to the ways each of us treat our emotions, and you would think it is more of a monster to be slayed than a child to be comforted.

Krishnamurti states when we treat are emotions this way, we are trapped in a paradox fighting fire with fire. If we cling to ideas that it is “bad” for me to be angry, then I am essentially holding anger towards my anger. If we are afraid of experiencing fear, hold envy for those who are not envious, or feel disgusted at my disgust, then I can recognize the quicksand of resisting our experiences. The solution to this is to hold compassion and feel what you feel fully. Simple, yet complex. This is to always hold compassion to our self, even when we lack compassion.

I recognized Sonia’s fear, given to her by the bug’s presence, needed to be handled with care, curiosity, and compassion, not fought or squashed.

I smiled, “Oh, I see. Sonia, it’s alright. Here, let’s pick it up in a paper towel and take it outside to be with its family.” We gently picked up the bug, and I held it with her.

I let her see it closely, “Say ‘Hi Bug!’”

I helped her understand it, relate to it, “The bug is just trying to find its mommy.”

We held it together, while I was holding her as we walked downstairs, opened the backdoor, and set it down gently in the yard, watching it disappear into the brush, saying “Bye-bye bug! See you later!”

Let’s treat our emotions like this, be it fear, anger, shame or guilt. Let us notice the emotional strings tugging on us from our systems; hold them together in our hands with slow curiosity, trace the threads pulling us from the past or in our room; recognize the purpose of the feeling; be curious about the needs (e.g., safety) the feeling is pointing to; and continue to hold the fear tenderly, until it naturally becomes set down and shifts away from the foreground of our attention.