Doing Emotional Work

Just about everything a person does, even sleeping, involves some type of emotional work. In fact, emotional work is so central to human life that even the strongest of our drives and highest wishes for our lives can be completely derailed by our failure to do our personal emotional work. The capacity to feel pain is essential to doing emotional work, even thought this pain is often the very thing we wish to avoid.

The use of pain as a primary form of communication began when the first baby screamed for the first feeding from the breast. The natural instinct of a mother to feel personally the pain of her children and at the same time to understand the meaning of it and meet the need (you’re hungry, mad, afraid, tired, etc.) is perhaps the best and earliest model we have of doing emotional work. The mother takes in and empathizes with the pain of her baby and by her response, transforms the distress into meaningful sense.  This alchemy — pain received by another, empathy, attuned response, meaning made — leads to a working through, and ultimately emotional growth.

Developing the capacity for emotional work is difficult partly because people are so adept at fooling themselves about their own pain and partly because a significant part of the emotional process is unconscious. Everyone needs help to bear and understand the meaning of their emotions; that is why there are parents. And since parents are just people with their own problems, there are therapists.