• Jan-Paul Van Dessel

Expressing emotions; you don't have to obey Bono.

I was standing in the shower, adjusting the thermostat downward as it is now late February and the external water feed is clearly not as cold as it has been. So rather than the thermostat being almost at the 9 o'clock position to be at my desired heat, I was able to turn it back to about the 7 o'clock position. It got me thinking about something I've grown to understand better through my training and work as a counsellor.

We experience and measure our feelings and emotions in our own very unique way. In the same way as the shower takes in the cold water from the mains, we each take in the words, experiences and engagements with our world in our own way, and only we can sense the unique qualities of that (and keeping the shower analogy going); how cold? how fast? how pressured? how clear? how continuous? and even though we might use the same word to describe our emotional response (e.g. loss, joy, fear, excitement...) it is not the same. It may be similar but not same.

That can become easily overlooked when we are in the territory of major shared life experiences such as around the death of a friend or a family member, occasions such as births and marriages and any of the other 1,000s of things we might recognise as being shared experiences in the cultures we feel we belong in. Our 'event' might be seen as or feel the same, but our experience and expression of our emotions in response to (or anticipation of) it is different.

I remember once going to see the Irish band U2 in the huge Croke Park stadium in Dublin (at the generous invitation of my brother). It seemed like everyone stood to attention when U2 was reaching the finale and Bono shouted 'ok everyone, on your feet - hands in the air!'. I felt like the only one of 82,300 people to stay sitting down. I enjoyed the music, I enjoyed the crowd but I didn't feel the need to 'stand and wave' to express that. I wonder how many of the 1,000s that stood up actually had a similar thought but just went along to fit in?

Also in a period of shared loss and grief, because I didn't cry, or cry as much as others, I was 'called out' for perhaps not really doing it right, that somehow there might be something wrong with me and my grief process as I wasn't seen to be experiencing or expressing it the same way as most others.

I have learned, and continue to learn, to see past the identifiable descriptors of emotion almost as though they are appearing on a roadside advertising billboard - a signal to catch my attention - and then to look behind the billboard and truly empathise with the unique totality and reality of that for the client. I too have learned, and continue to learn, that my own feelings are exactly as they are, in whatever way I experience them. They may need attention, reflection and exploration but they are and never will be anything other than valid. I don't blame Bono either, he wasn't trying to be a therapist - he was just singing his heart out.

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