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Patients should never block emotions

January 9, 2015
by Nicholas A. Roes, PhD
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“Giving yourself permission to be human is the foundation of all change.”

So says Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught Positive Psychology at Harvard University—the most popular course at Harvard. He tells the story of the time a student approached him to let him know that the student’s roommate was taking one of Ben-Shahar’s classes. “You’ll have to be careful now,” the student advised him. “If I ever see you unhappy, I’m going to have to tell my roommate!”

Ben-Shahar goes on to explain that the last thing he wants to do is give his students the idea that they should never be unhappy—nor expect the instructor of a class on positive psychology to be devoid of any unpleasant human emotion.

Many of our clients think that when they experience sadness, envy, fear, or another negative emotion, something is “wrong” with them. Nothing could be further from the truth. The exact opposite is true: Something is wrong with us if we don’t at times experience sadness, anxiety, envy, or disappointment.

“Only two types of people don’t experience these emotions,” Ben-Shahar advises. “The first is psychopaths, and the second is dead people. So if you experience any of these emotions, it’s good news—cause for celebration rather than repentance.”

Giving clients permission to be human involves helping them accept all their emotions, pleasurable and painful. They shouldn’t expect recovery to be a constant high, and they should realize that counselors also have their ups and downs.

It presents a problem, says Ben-Shahar, when clients try to block their negative emotions, because good and bad feelings flow along pretty much the same pipelines. Clients who try to block certain emotions pay a high price—they can’t fully experience life.

Neural pathways

“Once we give ourselves permission to be human, it's possible to progress toward recreating our neural pathways,” says Ben-Shahar. “Substance abuse, like any form of addiction, is a product of deeply embedded neural pathways. A certain behavior or thought pattern or feeling is literally etched into our brain circuitry. The challenge is to weaken the neural connections associated with the abuse.”

Ben-Shahar believes the best way to do that involves creating alternative neural pathways that are positive. “For example, a technique that can help is to practice focusing on something one is grateful for each time there is a craving,” he says. “This sounds simplistic, but what it does is, over time, replace the existing neural pathways with new ones.”

Clients in treatment experience almost every kind of emotion: ecstasy, joy, envy, anger, exhaustion, elation. Allow them to feel all of these. If one client is jealous of another, for example, blocking that feeling may also block off the feeling of peer support that may develop later. Pretending to be happy hurts us and those with whom we interact.

Giving oneself permission to be human is not the same as resignation, however. Ben-Shahar is talking about active acceptance of our humanity. So it’s not, “I’m depressed and anxious and that’s just the way it is.” Rather, we can distinguish between emotions and behavior.

“We can experience envy, and still act kindly toward a person. We don’t have to wear our hearts on our sleeves,” he says. We can experience anxiety or a craving, but still choose to proceed in the most helpful way. “That’s active acceptance, rather than passive resignation.”

Applicable to addiction

Positive psychology is compatible with many approaches used in substance abuse treatment. “The important thing to keep in mind when applying positive psychology is that it’s not a panacea, a cure-all,” advises Ben-Shahar, “but, absolutely, happiness is a major protective factor against both substance abuse and relapse.”

Steps 6 and 7 call on us to recognize and remove, rather than accept, our “shortcomings” or “defects of character,” so at first glance, certain aspects of acceptance might seem to conflict with a 12-Step approach. But as Ben-Shahar explains, “Acceptance is about accepting emotions, not behaviors. There is nothing wrong with feeling envy toward my best friend or hatred toward my business rival, but there is something wrong with hurting my friend or stealing from my rival.”

He continues, “Emotions are amoral; behaviors can be moral or immoral. The 12 Steps refer to removing behaviors (stop drinking and hurting others) rather than emotional change. The Serenity Prayer, which is central to AA, is all about accepting emotions, and changing behaviors.”

A very reliable marker of wellness, both physical and mental, is the way we breathe, and a corollary to the permission to be human is awareness of the mind-body connection. “Shallow breathing is both a symptom and a cause of stress; deep breathing is both a symptom and a cause of wellness,” Ben-Shahar says.

Full acceptance of what is can be facilitated by meditation or music—any activity that focuses our attention on our breath will prove helpful. And exercise constitutes another important aspect of the mind-body connection. “We were designed to be active—to chase an antelope for our supper, or run from a lion to avoid becoming the lion’s supper,” says Ben-Shahar. Exercise is our natural human state, so lack of exercise acts as a depressant.

Permission to be human and awareness of the mind-body connection are essential to high-quality sobriety. As counselors, we must be sure that the exciting discoveries of positive psychology are integrated into our practice.

For more information about positive psychology, visit Tal Ben-Shahar’s official website.