In Sri Lanka outward appearances count: husband has to earn well, wife smiling and pleasant and children must be well-behaved and show good study results. To complete this fairy tale package, the house and car must be owned and regular holidays abroad should be included too.
Many families suffocate in this outward shell. In any marriage there are issues which need to be talked about: relationship problems (like a lack of affection/respect, conflicting personalities, sexual problems, unfaithfulness, communication problems, etc.), unhappy children (problems at school, anxiety, depression) and financial problems to name a few. But many Sri Lankans find it difficult to talk about their feelings and they have a tendency to medicalize psychological issues (they prefer taking pills).
To top this, in South East Asian culture, much attention is placed upon mind and behavior; emotions are usually disregarded. In reality, emotions (and instincts) are the driving forces in our lives. Evolutionary speaking, emotions are much older than our cognitive brain. We are often taken by surprise by instinctive reactions and emotional impulses. Although our thinking process is very quick and seems to be the powerful ruler, emotions are difficult to control from the neo cortex. It’s one of the reasons why we sometimes feel ‘driven’ without exactly knowing why. We can be filled with joy, overwhelmed by grief, engulfed with power or we can feel deeply depressed.
There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about emotions and how to try to change unwanted behavior and emotions. As a result, while attempting to change emotions people use ‘here and now’ techniques which offer only short term recourse. Perspective (‘the glass is half full instead of half empty’), positive thinking, concentrating on your strengths and positive points, and so forth. The problem with these techniques is that they are mind driven and focus on your behavior whilst totally ignoring the uniqueness of the emotions. What is worse, they only concentrate on the present and disregard the influence of emotions from your past.
Another misconception is the so called ‘chemical imbalance’ theory concerning emotions. This is just a marketing concept from the pharmaceutical industry; there is no scientific medical proof. Emotions cannot be corrected with any fine-tuned medication to bring on the desired specific effect in the brain. The state of the art medication for depression is a good example for this. Anti-depressants don’t perform better than placebo tablets (see for example Kirsch I, Sapirstein G. Listening to Prozac but hearing placebo: A meta-analysis of antidepressant medication. Prevention and Treatment. 1998;1:Article 2a). There is no proof that there are biological explanations for depression and experts are very pessimistic about ever finding these. In some 30 percent of the cases these pills numb your emotions but they don’t address the root-causes of why you feel as you feel. Psychotherapy deals with causes and not only with symptoms as these tablets allegedly do. Furthermore, the modern anti-depressants have a long list of possible (serious) side effects such as weight gain and sexual dysfunctions. For an extensive discussion about all this see my article ‘anti-depressants and the chemical-imbalance hoax’ on my website.
What does work is a combination of cognition, behavior, emotions, influences from your past and the present. This blend will bring you balance in your life.
Some thirty years ago when I started practicing, the emphasis in psychology was on trying to change the thoughts of clients. The assumption was that as a result of this their feelings would improve. As I got more experienced I realized that it wasn’t helping my clients in the long term. The feelings of depression or anxiety in many cases reappeared after a while. That’s why my motto in psychology is ‘feelings are stronger than the mind’. The inclusion of feelings and making them the focal point of the therapy changed a lot for my clients.
When people are feeling empty, depressed or burntout, these are in many cases symptoms of an underlying conflict. Usually these symptoms stem from feelings from the past which are still too painful to be felt. Secondly, it focuses our attention to our self instead of towards those who have done us harm in the past. When you succeed in making the connection, then those ‘old’ feelings (usually mixed with present ones) explain to you the cause of your present state. Then you can start to feel the painful feelings from the past in full. At first you practice it with the help of a therapist and later by yourself. After a while the intensity of the painful feeling will diminish.
Focusing on your feelings can reveal the real cause of your issues and can allow you to feel the deeper, underlying roots. The new approach is that you don’t focus on the ‘thought’ side, but that you work with your feelings. Present plus past combined. It is a very down to earth method. It is aimed at giving the client powerful tools to do the work himself so that in time he does not have to rely on the therapist.
Apparently psychotherapy seems to consist only of talking. But in reality it is all about FEELINGS. Regularly (once or twice a week) venting your feelings and speaking about your issues with a professional psychologist in a safe setting can significantly alleviate your burden.