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Emotions Are Meant To Be Witnessed

October 24, 2013

From an evolutionary perspective, emotions go hand-in-hand with sociality. They are an effect of group psychology much more than individual psychology.

Emotions communicate, or more accurately they manipulate. The only advantage emotions have for the individual experiencing them is the behavioral effects they have on other individuals.

There is no useful distinction between the experience of emotion and the display of emotion. Yes, we can learn to hide our emotions, with varying degrees of success and questionable health consequences, usually by means of a secondary masking effect.  Our default setting is that whatever is felt is expressed.

Through our emotional displays we are all constantly manipulating, i.e. influencing one another, usually on an unconscious level. Our emotions have the effect of inducing some form of either caretaking or avoidance behavior in others, but only if they are witnessed.

Which is exactly what they are for. They are wide-broadcast messages that say either “take care of me” or “stay away from me”, or some variation. Anger and other emotions that are directed at inanimate objects are examples of psychological mis-wirings, since inanimate objects can’t respond to our anger by choosing to cooperate.

Emotions are meant to be witnessed, and they have an in-built mechanism for ensuring that they are. This is the reason why it feels much more satisfying to “talk out” your emotions to a person instead of to a brick wall, but only then if you have the perception of being listened to and truly heard. Emotions will hold back for the most opportune time to express themselves, ideally when they can have the effect they are intended to cause.

Yet even a substitute witness will do to defuse at least some of the emotional charge. It may not feel as satisfying to express your anger to a neutral proxy as it would to the person you are actually angry at, but it will let off some of the steam. And once we feel witnessed, perceived, and understood deeply enough by anyone, any delayed emotional responses, and the need to express them, will evaporate.

This is why the best therapy is simply deep listening. To help someone release lingering emotions, all you have to do is give them permission to express while you pay complete, absolute, nonjudgmental attention. This is different than providing sympathy; in fact, the less you react while still giving the impression of undivided attention and complete understanding the better. It is counterproductive to take on their emotions, to interpret or analyze them, or to try to give advice or relate. The open space of conscious observation is all that is needed to provide therapeutic witnessing.

A higher order trick is to witness yourself; to detach from the emotion being experienced and step into the space of the universal observer, fully observing and witnessing the depth of the emotion without judgment or identification.  Just like any form of therapy, it is possible to provide it for yourself if you understand how it works.

  1. I really like the way you break that down. I have had many experiences that have lead me to a very similar view of emotions. Thanks!

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