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Handling Difficult Emotions

Therapists who are about to embark on their practice or are in the early years of their profession inevitably experience difficult emotions either from their personal life, professional life, or both. Shame, fear, jealousy, anger, sadness, self-criticism, rejection, and grief are common examples of negative emotions that we experience as human beings. Dwelling on negative emotions can hurt our wellbeing since these emotions tend to prolong and create unnecessary suffering. Ignoring and repressing negative emotions harms our mental and physical health and relations too. 

How to handle difficult emotions

When clinical supervisors assist their supervisees to handle and manage difficult emotions, this does not imply that they won’t occasionally experience these emotions. The opposite is true; they will live a healthier and much more fulfilling and productive life. This is especially so in our profession where we act as helpers, and in most cases, we are trying to address these difficult emotions in our clients. If your supervisees are in a position to handle difficult emotions well, they are in a much better position to help others. 

Below, we present five mindful tips that clinical supervisors can use to train their supervisees to handle difficult and complex emotions: 

  1. Identify triggers

The first and most important step in handling difficult emotions is identifying triggers. What triggers you to experience negative emotional states? Triggers come in many forms and shapes. People have different triggers.

Assist your supervisee(s) identify their triggers. Advise them to pay attention to mental and physical reactions that could be the onset of a trigger. These can include a preoccupation with negative thoughts, muscle tension in the body or an increased heart rate. In other instances, it can be people or physical spaces. Once your supervisees identify what sets them off, they can use their awareness and avoid overreacting in such situations. I tend to start many of my sessions with my supervisees by both exploring any tensions in our bodies, and relaxing and deepening the breath, to help restore greater sense of composure, balance and clarity.

  1. Pause and take deep breaths

Pausing and taking deep breaths or engaging in deep exercises, especially when you begin experiencing strong emotions, also helps you to calm down and regain control over your whims and impulses. It is totally okay to take breaks from the intensity of negative emotions. Taking deep breaths at this critical juncture also reduces a person’s stress levels and lowers their blood pressure. Pausing also allows one to create space between what they are feeling and their action giving them room to think clearly and avoid either saying or doing something that they might regret later. 

However, remember not to confuse taking breaks with escaping or engaging in avoidant behaviour. One can take breaks by taking a lovely bath; or shower; or a gentle stroll; or engaging in a leisure activity, or even working. Once you feel ready, centre yourself again and continue exploring a given difficult emotion and feel it before releasing it.

  1. Express emotions constructively 

Expressing your emotions constructively is yet another way that can assist your supervisee to handle difficult emotions. This especially applies when addressing situations, people or even colleagues who place them in such a low-spirited state. As the clinical supervisor, consider the personal reactions of your supervisee while engaging with them. How do they express themselves for example when they are frustrated? Is it in a constructive or a destructive way?

Clinical supervisors can assist their supervisees to communicate their emotions clearly and constructively by teaching them assertive communication. This involves stating one’s needs, feelings, and expectations clearly, confidently and respectfully without blaming, avoiding, or attacking the other party. An ability to express your emotions constructively allows you to resolve the issue at hand and still maintain healthy relationships which is beneficial to all parties. This is especially so in our profession.

  1. Reframe the situation 

Reframing or trying to see the situation from a different perspective is another effective way of managing difficult emotions. Clinical supervisors can assist their supervisees see difficult situations as opportunities or challenges rather than problems or threats. In practice, your supervisee can try to view a client they deem ‘difficult’ as a challenge or as an opportunity to learn from. They can ask themselves what positive outcomes may come from such an interaction or situation. Reframing the situation allows one to shift the focus from the negative to the positive. Additionally, it reduces the emotional intensity of the situation at hand and dissipates negative emotions.

  1. Asking for help or support

Therapists and counsellors who are just entering the profession will not be immune to experiencing the complexities of counselling. Therefore, the supervisee who is particularly newly qualified, alongside those supervisees who are more experienced need to feel comfortable and safe in your presence to share with you whatever they are going through. As supervisor, we ought to provide the necessary support. In addition, you can always encourage your supervisee to reach out to family, friends, mentors, colleagues, or peers when they are stuck in difficult emotional situations and states. Others can come in handy and show empathy, provide a different perspective, or suggest solutions that can help them bounce back to their feet. 

In certain circumstances, with your support, allow your supervisee to face the person causing them distress and let them try to understand their point of view or seek feedback from them. Seeking support and feedback is commendable since it reduces stress and isolation and enhances one’s emotional intelligence and capacity to empathise. It also improves one’s ability to communicate.

Dealing with emotions

The clinical supervisor plays a vital role in assisting his or her supervisees with their professional development. Helping them handle difficult emotions through support, guidance and feedback not only anchors their wellbeing as individuals but also helps them deliver quality service to their clients.

Learning how to handle and manage difficult emotions requires time and sustainable efforts from both parties since it is a dynamic learning process.

Christian Dixon. 2024.


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