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Clinical, Counselling and psychotherapy, Emotion

The pivotal role of emotions

In interviews for our website, Dr Kal Kseib has met some of the founders of modern psychotherapy approaches. Here, he reflects on what he has learnt.

12 November 2019

They say you should never meet your heroes. I suppose the adage implies that meeting them face-to-face would somehow lead to inevitable disappointment as they revealed to you their human side, sending them tumbling ingloriously off their pedestal. I see it differently. Learning about the human side was, on the contrary, what first compelled me to seek out, meet and interview the founders of some of the foremost psychotherapy approaches today.

As a trainee health psychologist, I had learned much about evidence based models for contextualising and predicting behaviour change. Whilst recognising the utility these models could have in mapping essential drivers of change, I also saw that without broader recognition of the human mind and body within which these changes were ultimately experienced, such models alone were likely to fall some way short.

In my journey to becoming a psychologist then, I sought to open the aperture beyond traditional health psychology models in asking some of the more ubiquitous questions: 'What is it that leads people to do what they do?' 'Why do some find it more difficult than others to move beyond problematic patterns?' 'How can we alleviate some of these problems faced more effectively?' and 'In our attempts to help individuals, what might we be missing?' A lofty quest, of course, but in turning toward some of the psychotherapy approaches for answers I stumbled upon a rich source that I found at once enlightening, compelling and useful.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and Somatic Experiencing (SE) are what have come to be known as 'third wave' therapies and represent, of course, only a few drops in the bucket of psychotherapeutic approaches. As I became a student of these modalities I also wondered about their founders. Who were they and what led them to develop their theories? My aim in seeking opportunities to meet and interview them was to bring the founders and their ideas to a broader audience; to share their human side in ways that both devotees of the individual approaches and, equally, the interested but perhaps less familiar, would find accessible as well as applicable to their respective fields.

Whilst each of the founders brought their own unique perspectives, a few commonalities across the interviews emerged. One common thread was the pivotal role emotions play as a starting point in how we experience the world, and how working with them cannot be bypassed or downplayed in favour of addressing negative thought patterns alone. Also key was the influence that trauma plays in shaping both the physical and emotional context within the body, emphasising the case for the mind-body connection. Undoubtedly, experiences with shame in our formative early years largely design our capacity for self-care as adults, and the various founders offered commentary on how this may not only represent a significant barrier to health, but also an opportunity to move closer toward it.

It was also my intention that these interviews spoke to aspiring psychologists. I wondered what kind of worldly advice the founders would offer if they were my supervisor or mentor - a question that I hoped others might have been curious about too. Kelly Wilson, co-founder of ACT, provided some evocative thoughts on this: 'If you spend time with the brightest people who are talking about things that are super compelling to you', he says, 'then what happens is you meet other people who are interested in those things and it drafts you along'. Likewise, Steven Hayes encourages aspiring psychologists to 'bring what you really, really care about to the work'.

Given the times we live in and the great societal maladies facing today's world, I also invited the founders to share perspectives on how their approaches could be engaged in addressing some of these current challenges. Bringing mindfulness to the mainstream, addressing emotions within a culture primed to help us avoid and suppress them, creating conditions which help people to identify and heal from trauma, and bringing compassion into the way societies organise themselves, were just a few of their ideas.

Admittedly the cross over between health psychology and psychotherapy approaches is somewhat of an unorthodox one. In vaulting any protectionist walls there may be, however, perhaps these interviews are a small step forward in bringing the approaches off the couch and into the water supply. Perhaps other possibilities for cross pollination within the many varied and exciting spheres of psychology will spring up. However it unfolds, if you're curious and lucky enough to have the opportunity to do so, don't let the human side stand in the way of meeting your heroes.

I appreciate that there are many other founders whose ideas are deserving of greater exposure. I hope to continue to seek out and interview more of them. In the meantime please feel free to email me on [email protected] if you have a personal favourite.

Read Kal's interviews with:

Kirk Strosahl

Paul Gilbert

Kelly Wilson

Leslie Greenberg

Peter Levine

Steven Hayes 

Richard Schwartz

Stephen Porges

David Burns