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"Emotional EEEEs" Part 2

If you have arrived here without reading the previous pages extracted from the book "Wanterfall", the four Es in Emotional EEEEs stand for Encourage, Explore, Express and Evaluate. These are the four essential steps when dealing with any painful emotions.

Safe expression of emotions

Gentle Expression

Con passione ma non troppo

The hallmark of the gentle levels of expression now to be discussed is simply that no significant disturbance is created. There is no other limitation on the means used to represent and convey the feelings. Importantly, all of the prerequisites described later under Facilitated Intense Catharsis must still be met. However, that is usually quite easy to do at this level.

Gentle Methods of Expression

Anything which serves as a way of representing and conveying a feeling can be a useful method of expression – as long as it is safe for all concerned. So, while I will mention a number of useful methods, I am not suggesting that the list is complete.

If the feeling is conveyed to one or more other people who are present, the interpersonal aspects of the process make a valuable contribution. However, expression of a feeling in the absence of an audience still makes it more accessible to the person's conscious mind. It also has symbolic significance, in the sense that the feeling has been put out into a wider context.

Private acknowledgement

This is the very quietest and gentlest form which externalisation can take. It cannot be very clearly separated from the previous "E" (Explore) – it is a transitional phenomenon between exploration and expression. Acknowledging a feeling necessarily involves interpreting it sufficiently for it to be accessible to thought, and conveying it to that part of the mind which thinks. So, in that sense, it is a form of expression within the mind – as well as an aspect of exploration. (The form in which it is accessed by thought need not be verbal, of course.)

Whatever "E" we classify it under, private acknowledgement is an important step. Before a feeling has been consciously acknowledged, it may be a fairly vague and uncertain impression – which is relatively easy to ignore. Afterwards, it usually remains fully conscious, which makes it harder to ignore – and easier to express more fully.

Putting it in words

Words are of considerable significance to the conscious mind. Though private acknowledgement is possible while a feeling remains entirely non-verbal, translating it into words – and then thinking about it verbally – confers additional benefit. It often makes it seem more real and more accessible. It also makes it easier to remember what is learned, if there is a verbal memory link between the feeling and any insights gained.

Saying the words

Putting a feeling into words, as above, does not necessarily mean that you will speak those words. But it does open up the possibility of doing so – either to yourself, or to another person. Saying them to another person is discussed under the next heading. However, even if you are alone, saying the words out loud adds an extra dimension to the externalisation process.

When a feeling is first interpreted for the benefit of the conscious mind, the beginning of externalisation occurs. When a verbal representation is considered by the conscious mind, the value of the process is increased. But when the words go out via the mouth, a further and slightly different experience of externalisation occurs. And when they come back in through the ears, their perception may be slightly different again. Any or all of these forms of expression can add value to the process.

Talking about it

Talking is the most popular of all the gentle forms of expression – and deservedly so, because it combines the simplicity of an everyday activity, the benefits of externalisation and often also the insight of another person who is not directly affected by the feelings. Added to those advantages, there may be a certain amount of visual, sonic, tactile or kinetic communication, as discussed below. This can turn the humble conversation into an interactive symphony!

Simple opportunities for talking about feelings might include a yarn over a beer, a chat over a cuppa, or indeed any conversation, whether planned or not, where one person is willing to listen while another person's feelings are described. And, as will be reiterated from time to time, if you happen to be the person listening, your contribution can be improved immensely by good communication skills – and even more immensely by a non-judgmental attitude.

Writing it down

Writing is another simple technique that allows verbal representation and externalisation of a feeling without creating any disturbance. It can be remarkably helpful to write down how you feel. Even wondering what on earth to write can be helpful. Then, after you have written something, reading what you have written usually reminds you of still more feelings. You may find yourself using much more paper than expected.

When you are finished with something you have written about your feelings, it is usually best to destroy it. Until then, keep it in a safe place. You probably don't want it to be read by anyone who happens to find it. Even if it seems fairly innocuous, feelings taken out of context are easily misconstrued. And, who knows – you might be famous, one day. If so, every word you ever wrote will suddenly be worth publishing!

Non-verbal expression

Non-verbal communication is a very large topic, but I will only comment briefly about it here. There is a footnote under Facilitation of Gentle Expression (below) about a free eBook, which provides a brief introduction to the basic aspects of communication. But there are also plenty of much larger books about this subject.

There are many possible visual methods of expression. Two examples are just doodling on paper, or drawing simple pictures – perhaps with coloured crayons. The images may be reality based, abstract or a mixture of the two. Facial expressions and non-specific gestures are also examples of visual communication. Gestures with known meanings are more like words, but they do have a visual component as well.

Sonic methods include vocal, instrumental and miscellaneous ways of making sounds. Vocal sonic expression is often added to speech, by way of variations in volume, pitch, timbre, speed and rhythm. However, various sorts of vocal sonic expression, including shouting, screaming, singing, keening and wailing, can be done with or without words.

Tactile methods include playing in a sandbox, modelling with clay or any other soft medium, or modifying various other substances in any safe way. Finger painting has a tactile element to it, as well as the visual one. More complex activities like carpentry or mechanical engineering, however, provide only limited opportunities for expression of feelings.

Kinetic methods include expressive movements such as clenching the fists, various limb and trunk movements, grimacing, beating something inanimate, or any tantrum-related behaviour. The latter two are particularly important in externalising powerful feelings, and are discussed under Facilitated Intense Catharsis. Dance can also be used to express feelings, but it is easy to pay too much attention to the dance and too little to the feelings. (Most kinetic methods also include a visual element – or sometimes a sonic element.)

Some of the above methods result in the production of an artefact, most commonly a picture. Discussing this can sometimes add value to the process. However, no artistic ability is necessary in order to employ non-verbal methods of expression, any more than it is for verbal expression. It is the act of expression that is healing, not the beauty of the artefact.

Crying is a unique non-verbal method of expression, so I will give it a heading of its own…


Crying is a special example of non-verbal expression. It is partly kinetic, in that various contortions of face and body often accompany it, and partly unique, in that its defining feature is the production of tears. It is often the first gentle form of emotional expression employed, and it frequently accompanies other methods – including intense methods. So, while it has been placed last in this list, it is anything but least in importance.

Crying is a natural expression of sadness, and a very effective one. It includes instinctive and learned behavioural elements. It can conveniently be done either alone, or in company. Tears are "acceptable" to most people. However, crying can upset some people, usually when it stimulates their own unfinished business. This is discussed under the next heading.

Crying while watching emotive movies is a time honoured example of this method of expression being used effectively without another person to facilitate the process. Other communication media, such as books, also provide triggers for buried emotions. So does sifting through one's own memories.

While it is true that tears contain endorphins, which are intrinsic neurochemicals with analgesic and tranquillising properties, the main value of crying in our current context is probably its instinctive use as a way of externalising feelings – especially sadness. This has been known and used throughout the participant's life. It has also been known and used throughout recorded history – and presumably before.

Facilitation of Gentle Expression

By facilitation, I mean helping another person to externalise feelings. This is sometimes helpful at any level of intensity of externalisation. It is discussed further under Facilitated Intense Catharsis. However, I will say a little about it here.

Communication skills, which are of very great importance to every aspect of helping, are discussed elsewhere[80] and will not be addressed specifically in this book. Apart from those skills, one particular quality in the listener is paramount, and that is the quality of being non-judgmental. Some of this quality is helpful, more is healing – and even more, is even better.

Another essential for the expression of emotions is a continuing supply of the reassurance, permission and validation previously discussed under Encourage. However, permission to share feelings with a particular person or persons must never be confused with a licence to inflict feelings on any person who happens to be present.

A related issue is that permission to share feelings with another person does not imply permission to direct those feelings at the other person – or to blame the other person in any way for the underlying distress. Some professional therapists might be comfortable in the role of virtual scapegoat, with agreed limits, but friends and relatives hardly ever are – which is not surprising, as it is neither logical, fair nor easy to tolerate.

The underlying principle here is that the whole aim of the "EEEEs" process is to get rid of emotional pain in a generally beneficial way. This is not achieved by dumping it onto other people. As previously discussed, it is best achieved by externalising it in a safe way, in a safe place, at an agreed time and with the permission and co-operation of everyone who is directly or indirectly affected.

On the other hand, it is frequently necessary to express antipathy which is directed at a particular person. This paradox is best resolved by ensuring that the person is not present when that work is done. And even if acquaintances of the person are present, it is best to change names and modify circumstances while vocalising. You will still know who you mean!

The management of self-directed anger deserves special mention. It is a very important issue to work on, but working on it sometimes distresses bystanders, for an understandable, though erroneous, reason. It may be felt that the person externalising might be harmed by the distressingly powerful and intensely critical abuse which is directed at their own self.

However, the fact that it is distressingly powerful is the proof that it already exists within their own pool of pain. Now that it is coming out, there will be less of it bottled up, and more of it accessible for the next "E" (evaluation). The person will consequently be at progressively less risk of suffering psychological or physical harm – not more. (That does not alter the fact that, in some cases, expert help may still be necessary.)

Another form of expression which sometimes distresses bystanders is crying. I mentioned this in passing under Gentle Methods of Expression, above, but I will also address it here, because it has to do with various aspects of facilitation. Bystanders often try to "comfort" a person who is crying – in a way rather analogous to putting sticking plaster over an abscess.

They say things like "Come on dear, calm down, don't cry, it will all be OK, dry those tears, let's see your beautiful smile, everything will be alright, let's have a hug, there, that's better, now let's get a drink into you – and if you can't sleep tonight, just ask the wife for some of her tablets, the doc reckons they'd knock an elephant out".

This may be partly due to a misguided notion that, if the crying stops, the problem has been solved. It is also part of most people's conditioning, that comfort should be offered in at least some of the ways mentioned, as a more or less routine response. However, in many cases it probably also reflects the fact that the "comforter" has some unfinished business, which is being stimulated by witnessing the tears – and which the "comforter" does not wish to face.

Crying, like any other form of expression, requires the permission of both self and bystanders. Some people have great difficulty giving themselves permission to cry. Males, especially, have often been strongly conditioned against crying from early childhood. A person who is already crying has obviously got past the barrier of the first permission – their own. But the "comforter" is effectively withholding the second permission – and very strongly arguing for reversal of the first.

So, if you want to be helpful to someone who is crying, or appears likely to cry, don't tell them to stop the very thing that is most likely to do them good. Just let them know that you are there, and offer tissues (whether needed or not, within reason).

If you think words are necessary, say something short like "let it out" or "let the tears out" – after that, say the minimum necessary to encourage continuation of the process. A single word (or tissue) from time to time should suffice. Sometimes, just being there is sufficient.

Also, unless requested, don't hug a person who is in the middle of crying, or externalising feelings in any other way. Although a hug is comforting – indeed, because it is comforting – it can be counterproductive at this time. When emotions are pouring out, a hug usually slows the flow – and often stops it altogether. On the other hand, some people might expect a hug, and feel hurt if it does not materialise. Close attention to non-verbal clues may be helpful, but it is not always possible to tell.

Any other physical contact, like a pat on the back or holding the person's hand, can have a similar effect to a hug. Being nearby is all the connection that you need, to be helpful to someone who is expressing feelings. Close proximity, within usual social limits, is rarely a problem – it is touch that seems to cause this effect.

When the externalisation of feelings is complete, however, hugs can be one valuable way of providing validation. Among many other things, a hug shows that the person has not become repulsive as a result of their self-disclosures. This is often very valuable, because the expectation of rejection may be strong, especially after working on guilt or shame.

However, not everybody wants to be hugged after externalising feelings – just as not everybody wants to be hugged in other situations. If the answer is not clear from non-verbal signals, it is better to ask than to remain uncertain, because, as mentioned above, the person who has just shared feelings may be in an unusually vulnerable state.

Calming Catharsis

Decrescendo e rallentando

It hardly needs stating that, so far, I have been exclusively considering ways to encourage, and certainly not to stifle, the precious process of externalisation. However, there are occasions when it is necessary to put a damper on the expression of emotions, simply because the conditions for its safe continuation cannot be met at the time.

The essence of those conditions, which you probably know off by heart by now, is that externalisation must be practised in a safe way, in a safe place, at an agreed time and with the permission and co-operation of everyone who is directly or indirectly affected. (These requirements will be discussed in detail later, under Facilitated Intense Catharsis.)

While the gentle methods described above are always important, and often sufficient, either the method or its intensity may sometimes be perceived as inadequate to the task. It may not seem possible to represent the emotions involved in any of those gentle ways. In such cases, the feelings might just remain bottled up.

Alternatively, there may be a spontaneous tendency for the strong feelings to come out in noisy and potentially disturbing ways, such as shouting, screaming, swearing and hitting things. Unless such an outburst is managed with a degree of care and skill, it may escalate, and could sometimes result in violence.

As we will see later under Facilitated Intense Catharsis, everything except the violence might be "just what the doctor ordered" – and the violence can be avoided. But it depends entirely on the situation. Screaming and swearing in the middle of a violin solo, in a packed concert hall, would create nothing but discord. Whereas, under the right conditions – which will be described later – screaming and swearing just creates the healing noise previously referred to as being "like Mozart".

Externalising anger at a bus stop, by abusing the other passengers and kicking panels out of the bus shelter, might get a person assaulted, arrested, or even admitted to a psychiatric unit under a compulsory treatment order. On the other hand, expression of the same anger, in a safe way, in a suitable environment, could start a process of emotional healing which might ultimately lead to improvements which are simply not realised by any other method.

So the "volume" of externalisation clearly needs to be turned down in some situations – but this does not mean that noisy and vigorous externalisation of emotions is impossible. It just means that it cannot safely proceed until the prerequisites already stated, and discussed under the next heading, are met.

Adjustment of the volume is the function of a person who is present in a helping role. This might be you – it might be anyone. It could even be a passing policeman. However, possibly because of their frequent encounters with criminals, some policemen are inclined to treat noisy emotional catharsis in a cell (not recommended). All the more reason to get in first.

It is a bonus if the noisy person also has some understanding of appropriate externalisation, but this situation is more likely to be encountered when that is not the case. Therefore, if you are present and you want to help, you will almost certainly have to take the initiative.

If you accept the role, you probably already possess the most important prerequisite for it, which is an urge to help. Having that urge, you will surely not have missed the importance of a non-judgmental attitude, which has been stressed frequently in these pages. And assuming that you are also possessed of a little common sense, you are off to a very good start.

However, you could still be completely out of your depth. The qualities needed in this situation are almost identical to those discussed under Facilitators, in Facilitated Intense Catharsis. If you lack some of those qualities, your attempts may only be partially successful. Indeed, they may be totally unsuccessful. Not every problem has an immediate solution, after all.

The most important thing is to avoid an adversarial situation. It is far better to agree, or to retreat, than to find yourself in conflict with the very person you are trying to steer away from violence. Compromising your own safety would only make matters worse for both of you. But before considering specific tactics, let's look at some possible scenarios.

A disturbing situation can arise from very innocent beginnings. You could have been listening while a person shared their feelings in a way which at first caused you no concern at all. The change in atmosphere can develop slowly, or it may be very sudden. However, if you have read this book, I hope it will never be a complete surprise.

Sometimes, when the gentle rain of feelings seems to be developing into an ugly storm, the strong emotions being expressed can have powerful effects on you, too. You might be distressed by feelings from your own pool of pain, which have been triggered by what you are now seeing and hearing. You could easily start to feel afraid of the situation – or possibly of the person who is expressing the feelings.

People who choose to share their painful feelings with you, with your permission, are in fact very unlikely to be a danger to you. However, your own anger or fear might sometimes pose a danger. And regardless of your own feelings, the situation may be very disturbing to other people who are present. As a result, they may also act in ways which make matters worse.

Noisy externalisation can be problematic in various ways. For example, what are you to do if your friend, who has been crying quietly about various aspects of an impending divorce, suddenly exhibits many of the characteristics of a nuclear missile? Especially if your room is next to the Vice-Chancellor's office, and she is currently entertaining the Governor and three major benefactors. What can you do?

In many cases, the externalisation of feelings can be reduced in intensity by the sensible use of your own personal resources[81]. I have previously mentioned some ways of encouraging expression, though this is discussed more fully under Facilitated Intense Catharsis. I have also mentioned that asking people to calm down, begging them to stop crying, telling them that everything will be alright and giving them a hug is usually totally disastrous – if you want them to express feelings.

Well, now that you don't want the feelings expressed, two broad approaches are immediately evident. First, withhold or withdraw any previous encouragement to express them. Just look a bit uncomfortable, like most people do when exposed to emotions, and suggest continuing the discussion later. That is sometimes all that is necessary. But if not, then proceed to plan B – do all the usual things that are alleged to "comfort" people when they are "upset". It's in a good cause.

After that, it may be possible to involve the person's intellect. If you try this too soon, you will just find that their intellect is not in attendance. And if you do it in a judgmental way, there is also a risk of stimulating anger. One good ploy is trying to engage the person in planning a suitable time and place to work with the feelings later. In addition to making it clear that externalisation is not being denied, just deferred, this requires some intellectual activity – which is just what you want. Then a few more hugs, and you may be chatting about the weather.

If not, then time will often work in your favour. Most fires die down eventually. Unfortunately, though, not all fires die down quickly enough. Occasionally, a complication of the above scenario can occur, in which emergency services become involved. And sometimes, they fail to understand the emotional causes of the situation.

There is then a risk that the distressed person could be restrained, bundled into an ambulance, transported to a hospital emergency department, sedated, marooned on a stretcher[82], interrogated by a flock of medical students and possibly even admitted to a psychiatric ward. I will now wax a little melodramatic about this scenario – so, if you think I have already done that, perhaps you had better skip a few pages.

If the above is happening to someone you are trying to help, it is very important to stay calm. Always obey police officers, refrain from obstructing ambulance officers – and carefully avoid any movements that might be misinterpreted as threatening. Spare a thought for the poor police officer. Think of all the forms he or she will have to fill in, if you happen to get shot while attempting to draw your deadly mobile phone.

But as soon as you can, explain that the person is distressed by the recollection of terrible events, rather than being mentally ill or possessed of any felonious intent. Depending on the circumstances, you could also explain that vigorous expression of emotions was advised by "the doctor" – and just got a bit more vigorous than expected.

Offer to arrange a taxi to take the person home, where you will look after them until they feel better – or to take them to "the doctor", if preferred. But if you cannot prevent a transfer to hospital, you could always tag along and explain the situation to the staff there. If so, try to discourage the administration of antipsychotic medication – in this situation, there will be no beneficial effect to balance against the risk of side effects (and the latter is not trivial).

Sometimes, it is difficult to escape being "sedated" for emotional distress. It is less likely, though, if the patient firmly states "I refuse to have an injection". You could make a note of that – dated and signed, of course. If you print NOTES MADE AT THE TIME clearly across the top, and then ask the doctor to check that you have the date correct, it should be noticed.[83]

If that is not sufficient, I guess you could make a very polite enquiry about the consent procedure currently in use – which is sure to be printed in a policy manual quite nearby. Or ask the address of the hospital's Ethics Committee, seeing you have such a particular interest in Human Rights, and would value the committee's opinions so highly. None of that will help much if a compulsory treatment order has been made, of course.

You will certainly not be popular, if you pester the staff members in any of the ways suggested above. However, if you refrain from explaining the distinction between negligence and felony[84], perhaps those same staff members will agree that you have been quite restrained, in the circumstances. Perhaps.

Of course, in other circumstances, antipsychotic medication may be an essential part of treatment. But here, we are considering an emotional catharsis – not a psychosis. OK, perhaps we are considering it in an overly dramatic way, too. If it's any consolation, the hypothetical situation in question was very nearly edited out completely. I couldn't decide whether it was comical, ridiculous, tragic, or all three. On reflection, I think it is all three. But perhaps it can serve to illustrate three points which, though not at all dramatic, are still important…

First, the externalisation of emotions can easily have complications – whether we go looking for them, or not. Second, working with emotions under optimal conditions, though obviously preferable, is not always possible. And third, regardless of the conditions, something unexpected can always occur – in which case, damage control is sometimes the best that can be achieved, at least initially.

Usually, though, it is possible to gain the co-operation of a person in need of emotional catharsis, and postpone it until the necessary prerequisites can be met. Under the next heading, I will discuss one way of meeting the prerequisites for powerful emotional catharsis. As mentioned earlier, there are many shades of intensity between gentle expression and intense catharsis, but I will leave them to the reader's imagination.


(Click the number of a footnote to return to its reference in the text)

[80] Notes on Communication, a free e-booklet from

[81] This does not usually apply if the situation is exacerbated by alcohol, other legal or illegal drugs, or a mental or physical illness. In those cases, professional help is frequently necessary.

[82] In this context, it has wheels – it is called a gurney in some countries.

[83] The approved way of recording such notes varies according to country.

[84] Administration of antipsychotic medication despite a clear refusal would be an example of both, in many jurisdictions.

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