OK, I feel happy, excited, sad or stressed. Is it just me? Is what I’m feeling simply a personal emotion, the product of a purely internal process? Can it be attributed solely to my personal nature, my psychological disposition or temperament? Much therapy and coaching in Western culture views emotion in this way, as an essentially individual phenomenon.
According to this view, if a person experiences emotional stress or distress, a therapist or coach will help the person explore its roots, e.g. in early childhood experiences, a psychodynamic outlook, or in faulty thinking, a cognitive outlook. In such cases, the emotion and its roots, its underlying causes, are located intra-personally, that is, within the person experiencing it.
A very different way of thinking about emotion is as a social, cultural and contextual phenomenon. This view proposes that I learn how to respond to experiences emotionally, I learn to attribute meaning to what I feel, culturally, and I subconsciously pick up things from my wider environment (e.g. organisational or team mood or climate) and experience them as if my own.
This latter perspective views the boundary between a person’s internal and external experience as permeable and fluid, not solid, not fixed. It’s influenced by history, culture and context, as well as the person’s own life story and experience. So, according to this view, I could say, ‘What I’m experiencing emotionally, how I’m experiencing it, is about me, but it’s not only about me.’
A therapist or coach who views emotion in this latter sense is likely to work with the client to explore his or her experiential environment. What is it about the client’s situation that is evoking the emotion? What is it about that context that means the client is unable to deal with the emotion? What needs to change in the environment to enable a healthy emotional shift?
So, what are you feeling? What do you attribute your feelings to? What are your feelings pointing to in your environment that could serve as sources of insight and transformation? Is it just you..?
Nick is a psychological coach, OD consultant and trainer, specialising in critical reflective practice.