Sunday, December 23, 2012

Modulating Feelings: The Core of Pastoral Counseling

When it comes to feelings, there are three types of counselees you’ll likely meet. 

  1. The more cognitive and emotionally guarded person holds back feelings, like a squirrel stuffing its pouches with acorns. 
  2. The opposite occurs with the histrionic counselee who wears the heart on the sleeve, blurting out so many feelings that you can hardly keep up with them. 
  3. Persons who have already struck a healthy balance between thinking and feeling will use your help to clarify emotions, but then articulate them in their own words.

Here’s a key principle in applying Compass Therapy to pastoral counseling: keep it simple. Follow the psychology of the obvious. Help counselees name, understand, and utilize their emotions so that they are well served by them. 


For the cognitive-oriented counselee, you place less emphasis on an exchange of ideas or verbal discussions that bypass personal feelings. This counselee will at first tend to defend against displaying emotion through a mechanism called intellectualization. What you want to do is slow down the process of this person’s communication so that the inner palette of emotional nuance is discovered and gradually actualized.

You can say at some point: “You know, it strikes me that some of the deeper things inside you hold clues about what you really want and need. Might I have your permission now and then to reflect what seems like a feeling, to bring into our dialogue some of the emotional undertones of what you’re saying?”

Or, to someone who masks the flow of inner emotion through the habitual use of indiscriminate phrases like, “I feel weird,” “It doesn’t really matter,” and “That doesn’t really bother me,” you might say, “How about we try to flesh out more clearly some of what’s going on inside you, so that you can use these inner feelings as part of your decision-making process?”

You don’t need to overdo this by stereotypically asking, “How do you feel about that?” It’s more that, among other things, you know the value of raising the counselee’s emotional IQ, encouraging them to trust, discern, and integrate the emotions they experience.

For counselees who ooze feelings but are not in the habit of examining and sorting them out, you take the opposite tack. You intervene in the cascading waves of emotion by asking thoughtful questions or making summary statements. You literally play the role of a cognitive neocortex for them until they learn to think about their own feelings.


A man strings together a flood of negative feelings about his ex-wife. You summarize: “So from your view, Ellen had nothing going for her except her constant demands for emotional intimacy from you.” 

This in itself is provocative, for it causes the man to shift into a cognitive mindset from which he says, “Well, it’s not like she didn’t contribute anything. She did raise our three kids because I was traveling so much. And she took care of the monthly budget, since that isn’t my forte.” 

Now you’ve got him integrating thinking and feeling, and though it may take some doing before he can cultivate this new habit, at least he is gaining experience in slowing down his emotional flow enough to think about what he is experiencing.

To another such counselee you periodically say things like: “Let’s slow down a moment and see which one of your feelings is the most important right now.” “Can you elaborate on that for a moment?” Or, “What is your theory about why you always get so mad when you are dealing with a salesperson?”


By helping your counselees learn how to understand and modulate their feelings, you are giving them the versatility a pianist shows when integrating the loud, soft, and mute pedals in playing a piece of music. 



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