Four myths about emotions

SINGAPORE - Some people squirm at being touchy-feely, but our emotions tell us a lot about ourselves- if only we know how to access and interpret them.

A new form of psychotherapy that focuses on emotions is now being practised by psychologists in hospitals and clinics here, as well as counsellors in family service centres.

The developer of emotion-focused therapy, Dr Leslie Greenberg, distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Canada, was in town two weeks ago to conduct a three-day workshop for professionals and a half-day public forum on emotion coaching.

The forum, organised by private counselling and psychology centre Caper Spring, attracted 300 participants at The Grassroots' Club at Ang Mo Kio.

During the forum, Dr Greenberg busted four myths about emotions:

1. Showing emotion is a weakness

Our emotions help us communicate what is important to us. They also provide us an efficient, automatic way of responding rapidly to important situations, such as fleeing from danger. For instance, expressing sadness about a loss prompts others to support us to aid in our recovery.

2. Only one emotion can be felt at a time.

Emotions are not discrete, so it is common for a person to have multiple emotions at the same time. For example, a husband may feel anger towards his wife as their marriage is breaking down, as well as sadness about losing what they have shared.

3. Negative emotions must be avoided.

Emotions carries information, yet when we feel "negative" emotions such as anger and jealousy, we tend to refer to them as being bad.

The truth is, emotions tell us what is not going our way and prompt us to take action. Feeling angry at someone who takes your belongings without your consent will allow you to assert your rights and protect what belongs to you.

4. All emotions are the same

Emotions can be categorised into primary and secondary types.

Primary emotions are the person's most fundamental initial reactions to a situation, such as being sad about a loss. Secondary emotions are responses to one's thoughts or feelings, such as feeling guilty about feeling angry.

There are also maladaptive emotions, which are old, familiar feelings that occur repeatedly and do not change, as they have been formed through traumatic experiences.

Examples include a core sense of loneliness, sadness, abandonment, wretched worthlessness or recurrent feelings of inadequacy.

For example, a soldier who has fought wars in the battlefield may live in chronic fear that he is in danger even when he is not. The sound of a door being slammed may inflict such fear in him that he instinctively ducks behind a furniture for cover.

Therefore, maladaptive emotions need to be replaced or transformed into adaptive emotions that promote problem-solving and growth.

Learn how emotion-focused therapy works and who it can help in the latest issue of Mind Your Body, which comes with The Straits Times every Thursday.