Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Emotion is as Emotion Does?

This article reminded me of a recent class discussion on emotion. On September 11, 2001, with second graders looking on, President Bush received news of the terrorist attacks from the White House chief of staff. While his expression visibly changed, according to witnesses, his composure did not. Recently, we discussed the idea of emotion regulation as a sign of maturity. Maintaining one’s demeanor, composure and even-keeledness while under extreme duress and in the face of tragedy is truly a learned skill, one that President Bush apparently has mastered. Upon receiving news of these horrific events, he paused briefly and then finished the book he was reading to the children before he left in, understandably, a bit of a hustle.

Interestingly, though the president did not outwardly panic, it became immediately evident to the children to whom he was reading that something was very wrong. The children (then 7 years old, now 16) tended to personalize what appeared to be anger or intense concern on the president’s face as a reaction to something they had done – some unknown offense that would land them on the wrong side of a secret serviceman. One girl felt anxious and on edge as if she were in trouble… a testament to the fact that children’s worlds are very small and they are the immovable center (and cause) of all events. This panic without proof is evidence of an undeveloped ability to regulate emotional responses which prevents a person from reacting appropriately to a perceived external stressor.

In counseling settings we will encounter a variety of levels of emotional maturity, as different people will fall somewhere along the continuum from deficient emotional maturity to accomplished emotion regulator. One is not better than the other, per se, as each harbors its own defenses against emotional forthcomingness, but a responsible therapist meets each client where they are and offers treatment accordingly. Of course the ability to determine the level of emotional maturity in clients requires a mature level of discernment in the therapist, lending further support to the idea that counselors need to be fully cognizant of their own “stuff” and how it affects their counseling craft before entering into a therapeutic relationship with clients.

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