Working constructively with emotions is crucial to success in pastoral counseling because feelings are the energy of personality. They are literally like an artist’s color palette, from which the artist loads his brush to give life, hue, and nuance to a painting. If the artist keeps rinsing the brush between applications, the color will remain vivid and true. But if the artist doesn’t regularly clean the brush, paint from former brush strokes will accrue and turn the new applications muddy and dark.
So it is with feelings. During the course of counseling, from first to last session, you are seeking to offer the counselee ways to experience and express emotions that contribute to healthy living, and keep the heart cleansed from clogged-up feelings that would otherwise contaminate the canvas of perception.
What is the nature of clogged-up emotions? Human emotions are meant to flow through the body much like water down a river. Sometimes there is a lot of emotion and sometimes there is only a trickle, but what’s important here is that emotions are transitory psycho-physiological events involving the mid-brain and lower brain stem, but not the neocortex. In a word, emotions feel but don’t think. They reflect the more instinctual, subjective part of perception, the gut reaction to what’s going on between the environment and the organism in the here and now.
What, then, is the purpose of a feeling? The purpose is to discriminate between liking and disliking, needing and not needing, wanting and not wanting, coping and not coping. Feelings tell people about their own spontaneous interests, preferences, needs, and desires. Once a feeling has served its purpose, it recedes into the background of awareness.
Compass Therapy utilizes the catchall word “Heart” to point toward those inner states that most people experience as emanating from the area of the heart, stomach, and bowels. The Old Testament is full of anthropomorphic references to internal body organs that offer metaphors for how both God and people experience emotion.
Counselees understand immediately when you talk about matters of the heart. When you ask what a counselee is feeling, the person understands that you are inquiring about the most subjective, emotionally colored, and private part of their perception, a part oftentimes so private they can’t find words to express it or even know they are feeling it.
Now here’s the secret of facilitating the awareness and discrimination of emotions in counselees. Don’t judge them! Remember that feelings are transitory physiological processes that need recognition and integration into the personality, not repression and exile to the unconscious.
Thus when a six-year-old boy says he feels like killing his older sister when she twists his wrist, he is experiencing anger and trying to express it so that the feeling will pass through him and dissipate. You don’t forbid him to ever speak this way again, but rather seek to expand his metaphors until he comes up with a more diplomatic expression of anger.
Your purpose entails expanding inner emotional states, so that counselees can become more comfortable with emotions in general, and more interested in understanding and defining them.
Feeling and thinking can interact rhythmically here, the feeling providing the raw material of direct experience, the thinking providing an analysis of explanatory causes and effects that pertain to the feeling. By repeatedly helping counselees to slow down their communication enough to feel an emotion cleanly, label it accurately, and consider how best to express it, you are healing their emotions and knitting their personalities together.
This principle is so important that if you primarily listen to people’s feelings and help to clarify and transform them into meaningful expressions, you will heal a good many people.
For case studies that connect emotional healing with treatment plans, see: