Psychotherapy Articles

Psychotherapy Articles

The Myth of the Psychologist: Changing Emotional States is a Process Not an Outcome

The Omniscience Psychologist

As a psychologist, I typically get one of two responses when I meet someone new and they inquire about my profession. The first is a quick clamor response, as if by speaking I can plunge deeply into their psyche and see parts of themselves they prefer to stay hidden. The second response is a personal story, so I can give them some special insight that’s going to resolve whatever personal concern they may have. I often try and deflect this by making the joke that I’m not a good enough psychologist to see, understand, or fix whatever concerns they might have. All this perpetuates the myth of psychologists having some special insight that can detect and fix problems. The problem here is this diminishes what psychotherapy really is, an experiential process of change. Change occurs through experience; you change behavior by doing an alternative behavior, thinking with improved thinking, and emotion with a new emotional experience (Greenberg, 2023). For many individuals who come to psychotherapy because they feel horrible, there is no psychological insight to undo this; only the hard work of emotional change.

Emotional Change in Psychotherapy

Right now, emotional change is an abstract notion. How does one even begin to change their emotions? This is something I and many others have been working on and affective neuroscience offers some promising solutions (Lane & Nadel, 2020). The first step is for psychotherapy to move past seeing emotions as an output phenomenon. Negative emotions don’t occur because someone doesn’t have the intuition to understand how their parents’ behavior affected them or because they lack the rational thinking skills to modulate the uncomfortable emotional state. Although these interventions may have value in psychotherapy, they don’t result in emotional change (Stevens, 2023). So, what does emotional change look like in practice?

First Steps Towards Emotional Change

Practice emotional awareness

This can be done through practicing mindfulness, journaling about your feelings, or just talking about your experience with a friend. Try to see emotions as information from your body. Be less judgmental and more curious about your emotions.

Validate your feelings

Whatever you feel is what it is. You can’t change these feelings: they’re real even if they don’t make any sense to you. Why am I angry in this situation? You may not know why, but your anger is real. You can accept it without acting upon it. Remember, you can’t change your feelings; you can only change how you respond to what you are feeling.

Practice self-compassion

Many of my patients get tangled up because they are mean to their feelings. This informs your body that you should suppress these feelings. Not only is it harder to work with feelings that you ignore, but that critical voice leaves you with the uncomfortable feeling of guilt for having feelings.

Conclusion

These are the first steps for responding to our emotions. They probably won’t fix any major psychological disorder, but these initial skills are necessary to practice and build before moving on. What these first steps do is stop us from fighting with ourselves and move us towards accepting our emotional experience. Then, more advanced techniques can be implemented to transform the emotion itself. For therapists interested in the neuroscience and theory behind emotional change, as well as getting started on the more advanced stuff, read Affective Neuroscience in Psychotherapy: A Clinician’s Guide for Working with Emotion.

Dr. Stevens graduated with a Ph.D. in psychology from Tennessee State University and completed his internship in Clinical Psychology at the University of Rochester Counseling Center. Dr. Stevens then completed his post-doctoral fellowship at the Salisbury, NC VA Hospital where he researched the anterior cingulate cortex. Dr. Stevens has taught at several colleges and universities in the Boston, MA area. Dr. Stevens has a long scholarship record in clinical affective neuroscience, publishing widely in journals such as Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, and Neuropsychologia. Dr. Stevens has a private practice and is a psychologist in Worcester, MA. His practice focuses on utilizing emotion for therapeutic change.

Cite This Article

Stevens, F. L. (2024, March). The myth of the psychologist changing emotional states is a process not an outcome. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 59(2).

References

Greenberg, L. (2023). Changing emotion with emotion. Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/14779757.2023.2234966

Lane, R. D., & Nadel, L. (Eds.). (2020). Neuroscience of enduring change: Implications for psychotherapy. Oxford University Press, USA. doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190881511.001.0001

Stevens, F. (2021). Affective neuroscience in psychotherapy: A Clinician’s guide for working with emotions. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003150893

Stevens, F. L. (2023). Revisiting the cognitive primacy hypothesis: Implications for psychotherapy. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration. https://doi.org/10.1037/int0000313

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