In Articles, Focus on Emotions

by Dr. Sarah Thompson, Clinical Psychologist

I’m excited to be jumping back into the Focus on Emotions series. For those of you who are new to this series, these posts aim to make accessible the research and science underlying emotion, attachment, and their impact on our self-understanding and daily interactions with others. SA-exchange will be re-posting the series’ previous posts in the upcoming weeks.

Last year, this series covered topics including understanding emotions as an adaptive signalling system, how to identify emotion shifts in yourself and others, how to manage big feels, even when you’re triggered, a guide to figuring out what kind of feeler you are (I’m a rather sensitive ‘orchid’ type for those who are interested), whether emotions support or interfere with making good decisions (it’s both, of course), and finally, what attachment is and how it impacts our relationships now.  Throughout each are woven my own journey in managing a pesky self-critical voice – something we’ll learn more about in the articles to come.    

This year, I’m excited to tackle emotion coaching, an exploration of the impacts of trauma on psychological well-being, and an exploration of why therapy works. In this post, we’ll focus on how we can help be an emotion coach to others, creating space in our somewhat vulnerability-phobic culture for authenticity, compassion and effective use of the signals that our feelings provide.  

In a past article, I focused on attachment styles and their impact on current relationships and even on managing feelings. Part of the pattern referred to as secure attachment includes children who have learned how to regulate their own feelings – to easily identify, name, and turn the volume up or down on the intensity of what they are feeling.  Children of responsive parents typically learn to identify their feelings (I’m hungry; I’m tired; I’m sad; I’m angry), identify the need that an emotion signals (I need to eat; I need to sleep; I need a hug; I need to set a boundary) and have learned at a young age that when they express their feelings and signal their needs, the need is met and then they feel better.   

Children growing up in families where parents are unable (or, less commonly, unwilling) to be responsive get less help learning to identify their feelings. In fact, children may be taught directly or indirectly not to express their feelings by parents in such situations.  For example, imagine a single parent, working two jobs, struggling with feelings of inadequacy and fatigue. At the end of the day, in the face of a crying toddler who has literally spilled the milk, this parent may not be able to understand that the crying comes from a sense of loss of a desired resource (the milk), or at frustration at not having one’s developing body achieve the intended result (getting the milk successfully to the table).  Where a rested and supported parent might recognize the child’s frustration, soothe the feelings, and replace the milk, an exhausted, overburdened, and under-supported parent might feel critically overstimulated by the loud crying, and stressed by the loss of the (expensive) milk.  

In a situation like the one outlined above, most parents, at some point in their parenting, will lose control of their own emotions – yelling at the child to be more careful, or storming out of the room to find quiet to calm down. In such cases, the child is most likely to feel more distressed, and is then left alone with intolerable (to a young child) feelings. (As a parent, I am confident that most parents will recognize themselves in the above scenario. Do not fear!) When these events are infrequent in a child’s life they are less likely to have a negative impact on the child’s emotional development, especially when the parent can return to the child after the fact, explain their response as a parent and apologize to the child for any emotional reactions that were more intense than the child’s behaviour warranted.  

“I’m sorry I yelled so loudly; Mommy was very stressed today from work, and that was not your fault.  I was frustrated when you spilled the milk, and it was wrong to scare you like that. We all make mistakes sometimes.”

If such circumstances are common occurrences, or if they are less common but more severe, children are more likely to learn to turn down or turn off their feelings. In such cases, children are less likely to learn to name and understand the signals coming from within their own bodies. They are less likely to understand these signals as indicators of healthy needs, and are instead likely to learn to shut off internal sensation and to tone down responses that have not been associated with getting one’s needs met by their caretakers. Children who develop such patterns are more likely to develop chronic worry, depression, disordered eating, addictions and a host of other challenges associated with over-controlled patterns of managing emotions (Watson & Greenberg, 2017)

Sound depressing?  Well, it can be, and it does mean that we need more support for parents and more support for childcare staff and teachers so that they have the knowledge and resources needed to provide safety and emotional literacy for preschoolers and school-aged children.   Until we get there, the good news is that these early developmental skills can be learned later in life.  This is where emotion coaching comes in (and/or a good therapist, but we’ll cover that in a later article on why therapy works)!

Excuse us for a brief interruption between Sarah and her inner critic: “Hey critic, where are you?  I haven’t been hearing from you so much lately.  Are you still there?”

“I am here. I’m watching.  But for the most part, I get that you can do this.  I see that you enjoy writing, and I’m starting to feel the confidence and excitement too.  I have some concerns that Adele and Joanne are going to be disappointed in you, that you’re not doing their theory justice in this piece, but you dealt with that by asking for their feedback.  So, we’re good.”

“Thanks for bringing that to my attention, critic.  Checking in with them was a good idea.  I’m glad we’re both good.”

According to developers of a promising new therapy called emotion focused family therapy, five simple steps can help you to become an emotion coach to others in your life.  The catch: while the steps are straightforward and easy to understand, we often have to learn to get out of our own way to use them effectively!  

How to be an Emotion Coach

The prerequisite is understanding the basics of emotions and feelings.  If you have been reading along, you’re already on your way to having this covered.  

Next, you’re ready to tackle the five steps of emotion coaching, co-developed by Dr. Adele Lafrance and Dr. Joanne Dolhanty.

Step 1:  Attend to the Emotion

To help with emotion coaching, we must first notice and become aware of another’s feelings. Use your strategies to manage your own emotions and feelings to come to a calm place, and then acknowledge that the other person is feeling something big. Avoid beginning with a focus on behaviour.  

Example 1:  A student walks in for a work shift visibly angry about an interaction with a professor. They slam the door as they walk into your office area.  

Attend:  “Hi River. I see that something is going on for you.”

Example 2:  A student is sitting in the hallway alone, crying softly.

Attend:  Kneel down (getting on their level) from a bit of a distance away (so as not to intrude on personal space) and say “Hey there, it looks like you may have a lot going on right now.”

Step 2:  Name the Feeling

Use your empathy to identify what the person might be feeling and check it out. In an earlier article we reviewed that simply naming feelings can help to regulate them.

  • Example 1:  It looks like you’re feeling pretty angry right now.
  • Example 2:  It looks like you’re feeling pretty sad.

Step 3:  Validate the Feeling (not the behaviour)

Pause.  This is usually the hard part. Sometimes people worry that if they validate someone’s feeling (Gee, it looks like you are really angry), they are implicitly validating someone’s behaviour (e.g. and so it’s understandable and okay that you slammed the door). But feelings and behaviours are very different, and the vast majority of individuals can understand that it’s ok to feel a certain way, but not ok to act a certain way.  This is one of the first things we aim to teach our toddlers. I can’t remember how many times I said to my two-year-old son: “It’s OK to be angry. It’s not OK to bite!”  

According to Dr. Lafrance, validating someone’s feelings means communicating to them “I understand you and your unique experience.” What could be more important than that in today’s post-secondary environment! Here’s how we do it:

  • Step into the other person’s perspective, standing for a moment in their shoes. Imagine what they may be experiencing right now. (This involves flexing your empathy muscle and drawing upon your mirror neuron network – among others!)
  • Acknowledge if another person’s experience is very different from your own. Accept that, and allow yourself to imagine their experience, as it is right now.

Example 1: A student walks in for a work shift visibly angry about an interaction with a professor. They slam the door as they walk into your office area. As your interaction with the student unfolds, you learn that the professor outed the student as being registered with Academic Accommodation Services for a learning disability in front of the class.

Validate the Feeling: “I can understand why you are so angry. I imagine it felt like a real violation when your professor spoke to you that way in front of your classmates.”

Example 2: A student is sitting in the hallway, crying softly. As she opens up, you learn that she is feeling as though she’ll never make friends on a new campus.

Validate the Feeling: “I understand that you’re feeling so lonely right now, feeling like it will be this way forever.”

Pro tip: If this makes you feel uncomfortable as a reader, validating that a student feels unbearably lonely and imagines it may never end, imagine yourself in her shoes. If you were feeling unbearably alone and frightened that it would never change, would you believe someone who, in that moment, told you that wasn’t true? That all new students feel this way, and that they then go on to make lifelong friends?  

I wouldn’t.  

Now imagine how it might feel for someone to reflect back to you, from a place of calm compassion, what you yourself are actually feeling. To feel that, in that moment of aloneness and fear, someone is there who really sees you and gets you. How might that feel?

I’d feel better.  More connected. Seen.

That’s the result we are seeking.

Watch out for common pitfalls at Step 3 – these tips will help you side-step common challenges!

  • Don’t ‘silver lining’ someone else’s experience!   (Brené Brown’s short clip wonderfully illustrates why this is a misstep!)
  • Avoid helping someone use logic to see the flaws in their thinking (this may be helpful later; but typically escalates things when feelings are already running high).
  • Make what is implicit, explicit, or as Dr. Lafrance writes, “speak the unspoken,” “speaking the truth that you both know, but that neither of you want to say out loud.”
  • Sometimes validation is a dialogue, and not a statement. You might name that someone is feeling anxious, and they may then tell you more about why they are anxious. Through this process, another deeper feeling may emerge.  For example, anxiety is never a primary feeling, there is always something underneath it that may or may not be easily identifiable. For example, someone might be feeling anxiety triggered by feeling lonely or unsupported in a new environment. Someone else might feel anxious because they know they are underprepared for an upcoming exam. Knowing what the primary feeling is is important as we head into the next step.

Step 4:  Meet the underlying need

The basics of emotion theory tells us that every emotion has an underlying need and an action tendency that will help meet the need. Examples of needs and action tendencies include jumping back in fear or leaning in for a hug in sorrow.  

After validating the feeling in Step 3, you can help to meet the need directly or help direct the student to helpful resources depending upon your role in the situation. When working with students in a post-secondary setting, meeting the need may at times blend with Step 5 – we’ll get there in a moment.

Example 1:  A student walks in for a work shift visibly angry about an interaction with a professor.  They slam the door as they walk into your office area.

Meet the need: “Let’s figure out a way to share your feedback with your professor respectfully and assertively.”

Example 2:  A student is sitting in the hallway, crying softly, feeling as though she’ll never make friends on a new campus.

Meet the need: My name is Sarah. Thanks for telling me a bit about how you’re feeling. I’m really glad you did, and I personally want to welcome you to campus.  (Seeing someone and validating their feelings can help meet a need for connection).

Step 5: Problem-solving

Sometimes, once we have attended to, named, and validated someone’s feelings, it’s time for us to get out of the way – the student will be able to then solve the problem on their own from a place of feeling calm and supported.  When this happens, step aside and know that you have done a great job providing some emotion coaching to help someone arrive at a place of supported calm, agency, and mental well-being to be able to resolve their own challenge.

When this isn’t enough, you can offer to help problem-solve, or to assist directly in working to resolve the problem. This is especially important when the individual is dealing with a problem related to abuse or bullying from a more powerful person, where safety planning is needed, and when an individual is facing discrimination and the impacts of systemic oppression such as structural racism, ableism and other systemic power imbalances. You can educate yourself, and talk to the individual to find out how you can best be an ally in a meaningful and helpful way.

Putting it all together – a quick review:

Example 1:  A student walks in for a work shift visibly angry about an interaction with a professor. They slam the door as they walk into your office area. As your interaction with the student unfolds, you learn that the professor outed the student as being registered with Academic Accommodation Services for a learning disability in front of the class.

Attend:  “Hi River.  I see that something is going on for you.”

Name the Feeling:  “It looks like you’re feeling pretty angry right now.”  (Listen to their response.)

Validate the Feeling:  “I can understand why you are so angry. I imagine it felt like a real violation when your professor spoke to you that way in front of your classmates.”

Meet the need: “Let’s figure out a way to share your feedback with your professor respectfully and assertively.”

Problem-solve (only when needed):  “I can see how challenging this is, and I’m concerned about the professor’s understanding in this case.  With your permission, I’d like to speak to our academic accommodation services to arrange for someone to speak with your professor to help them to understand more about privacy, respect for diversity in learning styles, and their Ontario Human Rights requirements.”

Example 2:  A student is sitting in the hallway, crying softly, feeling as though she’ll never make friends on a new campus.

Attend:  Kneel down (getting on their level) from a bit of a distance away (so as not to intrude on personal space) and say “Hey there, it looks like you may have a lot going on right now.”

Name the Feeling:  “It looks like you’re feeling pretty sad.”  (Listen to their response.)

Validate the Feeling:  “I understand that you’re feeling so lonely right now, feeling like it will be this way forever.”

Meet the need: My name is Sarah. Thanks for telling me a bit about how you’re feeling. I’m really glad you did, and I personally want to welcome you to campus.  (Seeing someone and validating their feelings can help meet a need for connection).

Problem-solve (only when needed): “I’d really like to introduce you to the folks in the mentoring program.  They have an amazing program to help first year students connect with senior student mentors, and they’re super friendly!”

Looking for more ideas to hone your emotion-coaching skills? Check out these additional resources to help you to help others manage big feels!

Brené Brown teaches us how setting firm boundaries can increase generosity when giving your time and energy.

Check out this article:  How Do Children Learn to Regulate Their Emotions?

Dr. Paul Ekman’s Parent’s Guide to Inside Out teaches parents about feelings – this guide will help you to help children (of any age) get the most out of this movie.

Having big feels at work?  Learn more about recovery when the feels get the best of you at work, and the assets inherent in being appropriately open about your smiles and your frustrations at work.

Now that you know the steps of emotion coaching, how might you apply it to your own work with students, colleagues, friends, or children?  

Already tuning into feelings on the job, or providing emotion coaching to those around you?  Take a moment and leave a comment to share your knowledge with others.

In the next article in this series, we’ll take some time to delve into the important and challenging topic of trauma, seeking to understand how traumatic events impact our brains, our emotions, our identities, our selves – and how this knowledge informs how we approach healing. 


Written by Dr. Sarah Thompson, Clinical Psychologist at Ryerson University’s Centre for Student Development and Counselling

Welcome to Focus On Emotions, a series by Dr. Sarah Thompson that delves into our emotional depths, getting at one inalienable truth: emotions matter. This series is designed to help us better understand our emotions, how to work with them, and, when needed, how to heal them.

Dr. Sarah Thompson is a Clinical Psychologist providing psychological support and treatment to students through Ryerson University’s Centre for Student Development and Counselling and to the general public through TransformingEmotions.ca. As a blog writer and aspiring children’s book author, she is excited to share her passion for the science, meaning, and experience of emotions with others.

 

Recommended Posts

Leave a Comment