Emotions: why they’re all useful, and the cycle of problems when emotions are blocked

The key task of counselling or psychotherapy is to raise a person’s awareness of their own processes, to help them become attentive to their habitual patterns of thoughts and emotions. Of the four basic emotions – happiness, sadness, fear and anger – it is often the case that a person has learned that one emotion is ‘bad’, that they aren’t allowed it, that they should resist feeling it.  

This article outlines the purpose of emotions; why some are blocked or ‘banned’ in some families; how an ‘approved’ emotion is used as a substitute; how the banning of an emotion can lead to a repeated cycle of unresolved feelings; and how psychotherapy can help.

The purpose of emotions

The four basic emotions are happiness, sadness, fear and anger. In the English language we have a great many more words for emotions, of course, but all others can be placed within the basic four on a graded scale according to strength of feeling.

Happiness

The scale of happiness includes being content, pleased, cheerful, happy, thrilled, excited, and elated.

Happiness is important because it gives us positive sensations emotionally and physically; it releases endorphins in the nervous system, biochemicals which maximise pleasure and minimise stress and pain. Happiness enables us to process feelings of well-being, to know we have what we need emotionally; to connect us positively with others.

Sadness

Sadness may be put on a scale from disappointed, sad, down, upset, to distraught.

Sadness is important because it slows us down emotionally and physically, enabling us to process loss and grief. Sadness can connect us with others for positive support, or we can also it as a reason to isolate from others if that helps us process.

Fear

The fear scale includes being apprehensive, anxious, fearful, terrified, and petrified.

Fear is important because it alerts us to danger and, in this way, it is protective. An unattended young child who puts her hands too near the flame of a cooker will be afraid to do so again; and the passenger in a car with a dangerous driver is unlikely to go on a second journey, with good reason.

Fear releases biochemicals – the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol – to temporarily shut down the immune system, so all energy is invested in the biological defence of fight, flight or freeze. This enables us to escape danger physically or, where that is not possible, escape emotionally by mentally shutting down or becoming distant. We see this in nature films, when a crocodile has a gazelle in its jaws and the gazelle goes limp, mentally absent. We hear this in news items after a disaster, when people say ‘it didn’t feel real; it felt like I was in a film’.

Anger

The scale of anger runs from being irritated, annoyed and angry, up to being furious and enraged. Once we reach fury or rage, we are in different emotional terrain to anger, as we will see below.

Anger is important because it enables us to assert ourselves when wronged. Like fear, anger releases the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol to temporarily shut down the immune system, so all energy is invested in our defence, which with anger is the fight response of fight, flight or freeze (usually a verbal rather than a physical fight).

Banned emotions

Some families come to an unspoken agreement that they will block an emotion, make it unavailable, that they will effectively ban happiness, sadness, fear or anger, declaring that one (or more) of these emotions is unacceptable. If we disallow any one of the emotions, we are storing up potential problems in our relationships with others and with ourself.

Happiness

Some families and individuals fear emotional intimacy, with the underlying belief that ‘others always let you down’ or ‘if you let others get too close, they’ll hurt you’, so they keep intimacy at bay by banning happiness.

We hear it in people when the most positive thing they can say is ‘I can’t see anything wrong with it’, or who talk incessantly about the faults and failings of others. They rarely smile.

When happiness is banned, there is only sadness, fear and anger, so connecting with others positively is impossible. In this situation, the best we can hope for is the comfort of familiar disconnection, the normality of distant relationships. 

Sadness

Since sadness exposes us emotionally to others, it is banned due to a fear of exposure, a belief that we should cope on our own, often with an underlying belief that ‘I am unacceptable if I am weak’, or ‘my role is to look after others’, or ‘if you let others get too close, they’ll hurt you’.

As a child, such a person may have received a message from a parent such as ‘Don’t be sad or you’ll make mommy/daddy sad’. This is terrifying to a child, made responsible for their carer’s emotional wellbeing, reversing the roles of parent and child. We see it in people who appear to smile and soldier on with a forced sunny disposition, even in difficult or life-changing circumstances.

Without sadness, we cannot connect with our grief. We cover sadness with another emotion, false happiness or substitute anger, leaving us vulnerable to depression. (More about substitute or racket emotions below.)  

Without sadness, there is depression. In common parlance, the words sadness and depression are sometimes used interchangeably, but this is incorrect. Depression is emotional exhaustion or blankness: it is periods of feeling nothing, feeling hollow, because the weight of emotions is greater than the capacity to process them, often followed by the emotional dam bursting, then back to blankness. Depression can happen to anyone, given an event of sufficient magnitude, but it is far more likely when a person has invested energy in deliberately not feeling an emotion, creating a backlog of unexpressed and unprocessed feelings.

It is for this reason that anti-depressants are never the answer. Sadness, fear and anger are normal emotions, and depression is difficulty in processing one or more of them. Emotions are not medical problems, so emotional stuckness cannot be resolved medically. Anti-depressants work by changing brain chemistry to dampen or block feelings, but the solution is to access and free them up, not chemically reinforce the original problem of suppressing them. (For more on this subject, see links at the end of this article under the heading Video links on the myth of ‘chemical imbalance’.)

Fear

Some people ban fear because they see it as weak or unmanly, because showing fear leaves them open to be taken advantage of, or leads to disapproval by their carers or peers. The suppression of fear may be established by such parental or peer group phrases as ‘man up’, ‘don’t be a girl’, ‘don’t be a cry baby’, ‘grow up’, or ‘suck it up’, reinforced by an environment where inclusion and approval is only won by ‘being hard’ and overcoming emotions.

When fear is not allowed, we behind behind fake happiness or cover ‘weak’ fear with ‘strong’ anger.

Anger

Some people ban their own anger because they come from a family in which the parents jointly banned it, labelling it ‘bad’. Anger therefore seems threatening to the child, so they never learn to express it safely, fearing it in others and themselves, never having learned that anger can be safe.

Others ban it because they feel so threatened by an angry parent that expressing their own anger in response to maltreatment feels dangerous to safety. They have seen anger’s destructive effects in a habitually aggressive parent, and decide they never want to be like that. This can be a difficult impasse, with the person feeling understandable anger at the parent’s behaviour, coupled with the felt need to suppress it.

In these ways, anger is banned because expressing it has been associated with fear of relationship rupture (the child breaking the bond with the parent by being angry), fear of repeating abuse (becoming like the parent), or fear of one’s own power, of becoming a raging monster (if I let myself be angry I’m scared of what I would do).

When anger is not allowed, we are left with fear, sadness, and a difficulty with asserting ourselves when needed. In such circumstances, it is highly likely that the suppressed anger will occasionally leak, followed by a sense of shame, reinforcing the felt need to suppress it.

Rackets: one emotion to cover another

Children learn the acceptable or approved emotional response from their parents.

In a racket, one apparently legitimate activity is used as a cover for the real illegal activity behind it. For example, a barber shop in which no one ever cuts hair is a front for gun-running and drug-dealing; or a make-believe company, existing in name only, is set up at a fake or unused address for the purpose of money laundering.

Eric Berne, the originator of transactional analysis, introduced the idea of racket emotions. When a family bans an emotion, parents implicitly teach their children which acceptable racket emotion should be used to cover up the real and banned emotion.

If happiness is banned, it may be covered with the acceptable racket of anger. For example, with happiness banned, the effort friends have made to mark a special occasion will be met with complaints about the noise, about how much the drinks cost, about how hot it was, about the mess that was left behind – all low-level aggressions to maintain relational distance and keep the relational bonds of happiness at bay.

If sadness is banned then it may be hidden by a happiness racket. With sadness banned then, on the death of someone who died very young, grief is inaccessible, covered over with ways of avoiding the loss, such as ‘I’m glad young Bill has died because he’s gone to a better place. At least he’ll never have to grow old.’  

Sadness and fear have the effect of emotional and physical weakening, of removing energy, lowering our defences. So in a macho environment where emotional and physical defence is important, de-energising sadness and fear are both covered with the racket of anger, because anger energises and heightens defence. Banned sadness covered with racket anger may result in a punch-up at a funeral. Banned fear covered with racket anger results in ‘I’ll take on all ten of you. Bring it on. You don’t scare me.’

Eric Berne identified anger as the chief racket emotion. This does not mean, of course, that anger is always a racket covering banned feelings: some anger is genuine, legitimate and healthy. But, in my experience, Berne was right: anger is the most popular racket, and can result in a continuous cycle of unresolved emotions.  

The racket cycle

To explain the continuous cycle of unresolved emotions, inevitable when there is a racket, let’s imagine there has been some shocking news where sadness would be appropriate, such as a partner, child or parent being in a life-changing accident. Sadness slows us down emotionally and physically, enabling us to process loss and grief but, in this example, sadness is a banned emotion, covered up with anger as the racket.

In this case, the cycle of unresolved emotions has four stages, which we can call Adaptation, Agitation, Incapacity and Violence or, alternatively, Free, Fidget, Freeze and Fury. With a racket, the healthy first stage, Adaptation, cannot be achieved, and it is this inability to adapt which leads to the other three problematic stages. Someone without a racket, and with healthy access to all their emotions, simply repeats the Adaptation stage.

Adaptation ~ or ~ Free

The Adaptation / Free stage is where there is active problem-solving. All four emotions are available: happiness, sadness, fear, anger. Since the emotional pathways are open, thoughts are generally clear.

With all four emotions and clear thinking available, a person is free to adapt to the situation. Three questions are key, utilising all parts of the self – feeling, thinking and acting:

1. Which of the four emotions do I feel? What or who do I need to help express and process these feelings?
2. What do I think about this? Why am I thinking this way? Are these thoughts reasonable and proportionate?
3. How can I act positively to help myself and make the situation better for me?

Having felt, thought and acted, the three questions can be asked again and again in a cycle. With all four emotions available, a person is able to search their feelings and thoughts without any mental STOP signs. They are thus able to process freely and adapt to the new situation, self-aware enough to manage their emotional difficulties.    

Agitation ~ or ~ Fidget

In a situation where an emotion is banned, a person is not free to adapt because a significant part of their emotional resource is unavailable. Because a person’s resources are limited, sufficient processing and problem-solving is not possible. In this case, we move to the Agitation or Fidget stage.

Imagine happiness, sadness, fear, and anger as the four wheels of a car. Sadness has already been removed. It is impossible to continue on the journey without risking serious damage. Due to the difficult situation, now happiness is gone. With only fear and anger remaining, movement forward is impossible.

With restricted emotions, therefore without clear thought and with no positive action possible, we become immobilised. Negative emotions literally become stuck in the body, leading to physical agitation and emotional frustration.   

Incapacity ~ or ~ Freeze

Emotional frustration and physical agitation leads to ‘brain fog’, which severely limits thoughts, feelings and action.

If fear is foremost and fear is an allowed or acceptable emotion, the now helpless person may seek and receive help to calm their fear.

But if anger is the default racket to hide sadness and fear, then anger, frustration and helplessness grow together, leading to the Incapacity or Freeze stage. The amygdala, the brain’s alarm centre, is highly active, and the body is flooded with the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol. The alarmed brain and those stress hormones may be calmed by gentle touch, by love and comfort; but none of this is allowed in the anger racket. Anger must find its expression, and this leads to …   

Violence ~ or ~ Fury

Without being tempered or balanced by the ready availability of the other emotions, it is likely that racket anger becomes rage. There is an important distinction between anger and rage.   

Healthy anger is controlled by thought: we know exactly what we’re doing, we make conscious choices, and we remember with clarity what happened after the event. We may still be angry when remembering why we were angry, mentally replaying sentences we were glad we said, or recalling sentences said to us, knowing now what we wish we’d said in reply. Anger properly and appropriately expressed can be useful, as the angry person is reasonable and in control. The motive of anger is to assert oneself when wronged.

Whereas memories of being angry are narrative – I said, he said, she said – memories of rage are episodic – just a split second here and there, with nothing to connect them – because stress hormones flood the body, impairing memory. Whereas anger is controlled, rage is a loss of control and loss of conscious thought. It may seem that the enraged person we were doesn’t really feel like us. It is a reversion back to the early childhood state of feeling helpless, having uncontained emotions which overwhelm, with no adult understanding of relationships, no conception of the reality of another living person. As with infant rage, the motive of adult rage is to destroy, and it therefore leads to violence, enacted in frustration on oneself, on an object, or on someone else.

Two examples of rage in an office, caught on security cameras. Both resulted in computers being destroyed.

Someone who hasn’t succeeded in processing emotions at the Free stage due to an anger racket is likely to go through the stages of Fidget, Freeze and Fury in a loop on a timescale of months, weeks, or days.

There are other rackets, other loops, with forced happiness, habitual sadness or routine fear used as ways to hide another emotion that has been banned.   

The purpose of therapy

The key question is: does your relationship with your emotions cause problems? More specifically, do you find yourself in a cycle, repeating the same behaviours and feelings (or lack of feelings), causing recurring issues for you? If the answer is yes, then counselling or psychotherapy has a role.

The investment in energy required to shut down a part of us, the effort needed to ban or suppress an emotion, to pretend it isn’t there, means that our overall function as an organism is compromised, leading to problems in both mental and physical health (as this article explains). To get off the unhealthy loop, to remain in the Adaptation or Free stage, it is necessary to increase the capacity to experience the emotion that has been banned, and thus close down the racket.

To achieve this, the purpose of therapy is help a person become more self-connected: recognising rackets; understanding why the suppressed emotion was banned; working on permission to express emotions; building up tolerance for experiencing buried feelings, more able to feel a fuller range of emotions; developing self-understanding so as not to be overwhelmed by previously suppressed feelings; thus able to live a more self-aware and fulfilled life. 

For a client, it can be challenging work, so it must always be at the client’s own pace. It is also, in my experience, always deeply rewarding. 

 

About Ian Pittaway

Ian is a psychotherapist and writer with a private practice in Stourbridge, West Midlands. Ian’s therapy is integrative, chiefly comprising key elements of transactional analysis, object relations, person centred therapy and self-psychology. Ian has a special interest in trauma recovery and bereavement.

To contact Ian, call 07504 269 855 or click here.

 

 

Video links on the myth of ‘chemical imbalance’ ‘causing’ depression, and the real effects of anti-depressants 

The key task of counselling or psychotherapy is to raise a person’s awareness of their own processes, to help them become attentive to their habitual patterns of thoughts and emotions. Not only can a drug not raise this awareness, psycho-active drugs positively militate against it. These videos explain why.

Dr. Peter Breggin: Do you have a biochemical imbalance? (7½ mins)

Prof. David Cohen: Sadness is not a brain disorder or chemical imbalance (3 mins)

Prof. David Cohen: There’s no such thing as an antidepressant (3 mins)

Katrina’s story: Psych drug withdrawal causes depression (6½ mins)

Dr. Peter Breggin: How psychiatric drugs really work (11 mins)

Dr. Gary Kohls: SSRI drugs are dangerous (6½ mins)