Emotions Get a Bad Name-It’s All About “The Context”


Emotions can be difficult to understand, let alone talk about openly. They’re abstract, subjective, complex, and invisible. No two people feel the same emotion in exactly the same way due to no two people sharing the same experiences with the same brain. Many emotions are uncomfortable and others are highly sought after, but one thing is clear...they are a fundamental part of being human.

Many people seek therapy because they believe their emotions are a problem.  It makes sense...we’re given plenty of messages that invalidate our emotional responses to events in our lives. Parents that tell us that we “have no reason to be scared,” or “I had it worse in my day.” Friends that may say, “don’t worry about it, there’s a lot of fish in the sea” after a break up or the media that portrays us as flawed and abnormal if we aren’t persistently happy. In fact, our emotions are rarely considered within the contexts we experience them. Instead, they're considered as irrational ways of being that point to some underlying mental health problem or disorder. Emotions being placed into categories of ‘good or bad,’ and ‘positive or negative’ is a symptom of this perspective and it leads to us trying to rid ourselves of any uncomfortable emotions we experience at all costs (avoid, numb, distract, etc…).

Looking at Emotions in Context

One of the most extraordinary aspects of my work is watching someone’s perspective shift toward greater compassion and self-acceptance of their emotions. It’s common for a first therapy session to begin with someone saying that there is something wrong with how they’re feeling or that they ‘feel too much.’  As therapy progresses, we explore the context around their emotions as responses to their experiences, and it becomes clear that their emotions actually make a lot of sense and essentially confirms that they are human. It becomes increasingly apparent that there is a great deal of wisdom behind their feelings.

When we don’t describe the context surrounding an emotion, we’re far more likely to view our feelings with a negative bias.  Rather than seeing our emotions as responses to our experience, we see them as the result of apparent underlying psychological problems. Context helps things make sense and without it, the view looks distorted and our emotions make less sense.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

John is a 12-year-old boy attending middle school. About 4 months into 7th grade, his mother and teachers notice that he’s been increasingly sad and irritable. He’s increasingly withdrawn, taking less interest in hobbies and activities he was once excited about. He is frequently late for school, because he struggles to fall asleep and wake up in the morning. He tends to go back and forth between tearfulness and emotional flatness.

From a therapeutic perspective, John is likely depressed.  There is an underlying negative assumption that his emotional state is a problem and needs to be fixed. After all, it is interfering with his ability to function.

Now consider this: John’s parents divorced a year ago and conflict has been high between them. His father has been opting out of scheduled visits with John, spending time instead with his new girlfriend. When he does see John, he’s telling him to tell his mother that he’d rather be living with his dad. Finally, a group of boys have been bullying him.

After reading more about what John is responding to, did your perspective change at all?  Did it make more sense as to why he might be withdrawing, struggling with sleep, eating less, and is frequently tearful?  When we look at our emotions as meaningful responses to events in our lives, they become far more understandable and normal. In John’s case, I would be more concerned if he wasn’t responding to those circumstances as he is.  When we respond to adversity in these ways, it shows we have a pulse and are reacting to something that is important to us.

Emotions and Meaning

A big factor in why we feel the way we feel in response to events has a lot to do with the meaning or value we give it. Generally, the more important something is to us, the more intense our emotional response will be. Producing meaning is a very individual and personal process.   Take a grief response for example...the experience of loss could mean something very different to two people. One person could respond by shedding a few tears (or none at all) and feel “over it” after a week, while the other could be in mourning for years. It all depends on what the loss means to each person.

It’s way too oversimplified to conclude that the way someone is feeling is “distorted,”  “irrational” or even pathological. When we do this, we imply that people are deficient, and their responses are abnormal (the stigma attached to therapy is based on this). This is why, in my work as a therapist, I work to allow clients to avoid placing rules on themselves about ‘normal’ and help people heal on their terms, within the context of their very unique lives.

Emotions Are Valuable

Our emotions can work like a compass, pointing to things we need to consider and address in our lives. Instead of fruitlessly working to stop experiencing our feelings, we can look at the things our emotions are pointing to and make meaningful changes in those areas. Counseling and therapy can be helpful when it comes to understanding troubling aspects of our lives in a new way. Many people talk to therapists to redefine the meaning they make of events about which they feel distressed. For example, I’ve helped men who were subjected to sexual abuse as children, who then feared that they too would offend against children as adults. These men came to understand that their distress actually demonstrates that they take a firm position against perpetrating sexualized violence. Once they felt secure in that understanding, their levels of distress were far less disturbing for them. Examples like this show how understanding circumstances and our responses to them more thoroughly can help us increase acceptance and feel more comfortable with our emotions.

If you, or someone you know, would like help in working through the process of increasing acceptance and compassion of emotions, consider contacting me at (717) 288-5064 / and schedule an appointment today.

What Can Our Frustration Tell Us About Our World?

Frustration can be a very challenging emotion for many of us. Chances are, it’s a feeling that you’re all too familiar with (because you are human).  It’s been a part of our emotional repertoire since the moment we were born: we enter the world kicking and screaming and seeking something even close to the comfort we grew so accustomed to in the womb. For many people, this is the essence of frustration… to have a want, need, or longing for something that cannot be attained in that very moment. A lot of people seek counseling in order to address their experiences of frustration. They might feel like they have a low threshold for getting frustrated, or they may not like some of the things they do when they feel that way.

In this post I want to outline the practical reasons we experience frustration, and some strategies for keeping it under control.

-Why We Feel Frustration

As far as our range of emotions is concerned, frustration generally does not feel all that great, since it is inherently tense and unsettling. We experience feelings for very important and specific reasons. Emotions tell us about the world around us, and vary depending on the meaning we attribute to different experiences we have. Frustration is no exception to this.  Although it may not feel comfortable in the way more pleasurable feelings do, it alerts us to the reality that things are not how we would like them to be. It can point us in the direction of what is important in our lives. Frustration points to important things that need our attention, but which also require some effort to change.

-What Determines Your Level Of Frustration?

The bigger the meaning, the bigger the feeling. The more we care about the object of our frustration, the more frustrated we’re likely to feel. For example, we might feel only slightly annoyed if we misplaced something of little significance and couldn’t track it down. We are likely to feel far more frustrated if we misplaced our car keys and couldn’t find them anywhere, increasing if we need to be leaving the house in a couple minutes to get to work on time. The intensity of that frustration would reflect the level of importance to each person to be able to get to work on time. Again, frustration points to a longing for an outcome that just isn’t happening.

That last example also illustrates another factor that can have a whole lot to do with how you experience frustration: how urgent something feels.

-Is Frustration a Problem?

Something only becomes a problem when it interferes in our lives intrusively or stops us from achieving something that we want to achieve, so it is based on the individual. The feeling of frustration, although uncomfortable and stressful, it is often totally understandable when looked at in context.  Frustration, as with any emotion is the price of admission we pay for being human and living rich and meaningful lives. What we choose to do with our frustration (externalizing and taking it out on others, internalizing with negative self-talk) is often the determining factor in how much frustration poses a barrier to our lives (interpersonally or intrapersonally).

-Problematic Feelings or Problematic Actions?

Some emotions have a bad reputation because of how people behave when they’re feeling certain ways.  Anger is a good example... it’s very common for us to think that it’s bad to feel angry because we associate it with violence and other problematic kinds of behavior. This leads to classifying emotions as bad or good, positive or negative… then leading us to want to resist any kind of discomfort and emotion that brings it on. Frustration is not exempt from that list of blacklisted emotions. Some people do and say unkind things, which only adds to the negative reputation frustration carries. Contrary to popular belief, I think that all emotions can be helpful.  While it may not feel great to be frustrated, the emotional experience of frustration can tell us a whole lot about ourselves in relation to the world around us. In particular, the context in which we experience frustration can tell us:

  • What kinds of situations we feel challenged in

  • What really matters to us

  • Different aspects of our lives that may or may not be working for us

Not unlike other emotions, frustration can say a whole lot about our position on things in our lives.  From my perspective, this makes it a helpful thing to pay attention to, just like the sensations we experience when we’re hungry or thirsty. The dark side of frustration hinges on how people respond when they feel that way. In my therapy practice, people share stories of punching walls, destroying property, throwing and breaking things, putting others down and being aggressive, and even hitting other people. These are the kinds of actions that people take issue with when they say they have a problem with frustration.

-Responding to Frustration in Preferable Ways

In my practice, many of the people I’ve seen turn things around when it comes to their expression of frustration have had a few things in common when they first set out to make that change:

  1. They wanted to avoid behaving in those ways. This may seem obvious, yet not all of us recognize the impact of our actions on others.

  2. They realized they’ve been “bottling up” their frustration and not expressing it closer to when they first felt it.

  3. They believed that the fact that they sometimes felt frustrated was evidence of a serious character flaw. Often taught from their upbringing, being told that they are a problem or something is ‘wrong’ with them for feeling (frustration or any emotion).

They generally saw a meaningful improvement when:

  1. They realized there are alternatives to the responses they have used to achieve short term relief from frustration.

  2. They express themselves more calmly and closer to the time they first felt frustrated.

  3. They accept that frustration is an understandable response in the contexts they experience it, and they can accept frustration as a part of being human (as are all emotions).

As with any change away from a repetitive (and reinforced) behavior, it requires accountability and intentional effort from the person striving to do things differently when they feel frustrated.  However, acceptance of the emotion and commitment to respond in preferable ways allows the change to be made (we become more powerful than the automatic program we have grown into).


Frustration can tell us when there are factors in our life to be concerned about, which puts you in a better position to address those things. If left unaddressed, some people find their sense of frustration to grow and become increasingly distressing. This is partially why frustration has developed a bad reputation, along with the fact that some people take up problematic behaviors when they feel frustrated. By acknowledging frustration as valid and expressing it in more preferred ways, it can really become a spotlight directed on those aspects of ourselves and our lives that are important to us.

What are some preferable ways you express frustration?

When has it been helpful to recognize the source of your frustration?

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with frustration and want help in working through the process described above, consider contacting me at (717) 288-5064 / and schedule an appointment today.

“The Haunting of Hill House” Part 1: The Stages of Grief

While I watched “The Haunting of Hill House” on Netflix recently, I found myself being more drawn to the symbolism more than the scary moments, recognizing that the ghosts, while scary, are just representations of the “ghosts” we carry with us through our lives and don’t ever want to face, but we know they are there… they follow us and haunt us... almost always brought on by trauma… I’ve convinced my wife to watch the show (I wanted to see it again!) and felt inspired to share some connections I’ve made to my role as a therapist and how they relate to all of us.

Obligatory Spoiler Alert. If you haven’t watched the show, go watch it now! I’ll wait!

Part One: The Crain Kids and the Stages of Grief

There may be a moment in the show when you come to the realization that each of the Crain siblings represent the stages of grief, and in this case, the grieving of their mother’s apparent suicide and the loss of an ability to lead a ‘normal’ life after the experiences at the house. Even more interesting is that they represent the stages from oldest (Steve) to youngest (Nell). If you are wondering what the stages of grief actually are, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross originally wrote about them in 1969 and her stages remain the ‘go to’ when trying to place grief in a framework. She named the stages as follows and she believed that they occured in this order, although current belief is that they cycle and the order is unique to each person:

  1. Denial: Somehow you must be mistaken, and cling to a false reality that is more acceptable to you.

  2. Anger: When the grieving person recognizes that denial can’t continue, they become frustrated and direct it toward others in their world. Often, there is a component of blame and victim mentality. "Why me? It's not fair!" or  "How can this happen to me?" are fairly common questions.

  3. Bargaining: The grieving person will attempt to essentially negotiate with the traumatic event. They might attempt to bargain with a higher power or attempt to adapt their life in order to put off facing the trauma.

  4. Depression: The grieving person may face their own mortality or come to believe that they have no reason to go on because of the loss in their life.

  5. Acceptance: The grieving person comes to acknowledge the trauma event as reality and there is some type of relief or catharsis.

Steven Crain as “Denial”: Steve goes through his life denying what he saw and experienced as a child at Hill House. He discredits any memories of ghosts in the house when brought up by his siblings, and he believes that they are all mentally ill, just like their mother which led to her suicide. Somehow, what he knows to be true has to have another explanation than the reality.

Steve’s denial is best represented when Steve’s father told Steve to close his eyes as they are escaping the house. Steve metaphorically, kept his eyes shut all the way through his life. Throughout the show, Steve is in the position to have to face the truth (Nell’s death, the clock repairer ghost appearing to him) until a point late in the show when his denial is broken and can’t be sustained any longer.

Shirley Crain as “Anger”: Shirley is a walking ball of anger. Angry with her father for leaving the home without her mother, at Steve for exposing the family to ridicule by writing the story of Hill House, and angry at Nell for repeating what happened to their mother. Shirley has spent a good deal of her life resenting the fact that she had to be the ‘mom’ of the family, because her mother left them and Steve wouldn’t accept responsibility (victim). Her life is out of control and she unsuccessfully tries to control it...the fear of being out of control comes out in anger.

Theodora Crain as “Bargaining”: Theo wears her gloves to keep herself from feeling (she has  adapted her life in order to avoid facing her trauma) if the gloves are a way to control her empathic skills (or telepathic, in this case). The gloves shield her from deep interpersonal relationships which she also does by limiting her relationships to one night stands. She lives her life in an attempt to avoid connection (the significance of being the middle child (loner, excluded) is at play here too), but later in the series, when she touches Nell’s dead body and feels nothing, she comes to a realization that connection (to something, to anything) is all that she wants. Her confessional speech to Shirley about feeling empty and wanting to connect with her life again after they run off the road is raw and powerful (giving me more chills than the ghosts!).

Luke Crain as “Depression”: When Luke discovers that his twin sister, Nell, is dead, he believes that he can’t go on living without her. Luke and Nell arguably experienced the worst of the horror in Hill House (compounded by their innate twin connection) and Luke uses heroin as a way of numbing his suffering (this numbing is very prevalent in people that feel flooded with emotional pain). He also has the obsessive tendency to count to seven (the number of family members) to build a protective wall around him to keep the trauma away. Even when he attempts to pull out of the depression through gaining sobriety for 90 days, the “floating man” follows him wherever he goes, reminding him of the pain he wants to avoid.

Nellie Crain as “Acceptance”: Nell is haunted by the “bent-neck lady” throughout her life, leading to high levels of depression and anxiety. Later, she comes to the realization that what she has been witnessing (the physical aftermath of a suicide by hanging) has been her all along in the future. After Nell ‘gives herself’ to the house in an attempt to reunite with her dead mother, she is able to reach a point of forgiveness of her siblings for what they have done in their lives to discount, minimize, blame, or exclude her. There is relief in her forgiveness...she’s no longer suffering with anger or depression. She tells her siblings at the end of the show, “Forgiveness is warm. Like a tear on a cheek,” noting that she loved them completely and she knows they loved her, despite their actions that have hurt her in the past.

While grief is a current that runs through “The Haunting of Hill House,” it is a significant factor in each of our lives from time to time. It can be something that exacerbates a mental illness or brings underlying mental illness into our awareness. If you are grieving the loss of something or someone in your life, please seek professional help to guide you through the grieving process.

For help with your grieving process in the Lancaster, PA area, please contact me at (717) 288-5064 / and schedule an appointment today.