Humans are complicated, emotional creatures. We feel lots of different things for lots of different reasons. And sometimes we can feel more than one emotion at once, even about the same events.
Rational Emotional Behavioural Therapy (REBT), the type of CBT we practice here at CCBT, is typical of this type of therapy in that it tends to focus on one problem and goal at a time. That’s not to say the skills we practice can’t be applied to more than one problem, it’s just that it’s much easier for client and therapist to have a clear line of progress in mind when working together.
But one problem or goal doesn’t necessarily mean just one unhealthy negative emotion (you can learn more about healthy and unhealthy negative emotions here). Quite often, clients can be experiencing more than one at once. So what does this look like, and how do we treat them?
Mixed and meta emotions
When more than one emotion is present, we can usually split them into two categories: mixed emotions and meta emotions.
Mixed emotions are when you are experiencing two (or more) emotions about the particular presenting problem you want to work on, or at a particular time in your life. For example, someone who is experiencing difficulties at work may be experiencing anxiety AND depression. They are anxious because their job might seem overwhelming, that they are having trouble coping and they are worried about losing their job and all the problems that come with redundancy. But they also feel depressed because they are telling themselves they are a failure and that they should be able to cope with the pressure.
Or someone may be feeling both jealousy AND hurt when it comes to their relationship with their partner. They may believe that their partner is paying more attention to someone else and that there is a threat to their most important relationship. At the same time, they may be believing that they are being purposefully treated unfairly by their partner who is showing scant regard for their feelings by giving this attention to someone else. (Remember, not all, or in fact any, of the above reasoning by the clients may be rational and true, and REBT will help them reach a clearer understanding of what really is happening).
Meta emotions are when we feel an emotion ABOUT an emotion. A common example of this would be someone who is experiencing depression feeling guilty about it, telling themselves that they really don’t have anything to be down about, lots of other people have it worse around the world and so on. And yet they are still depressed, so they feel like they are at fault.
Or someone may feel shame about their anxiety. They tell themselves they should be able to cope better, to not worry, and to have their anxiety revealed to others would be a sign of weakness. And then this shame in turn leads to maladaptive behaviours trying to maintain a façade of confidence instead of accepting the situation and seeking help.
The REBT approach to mixed and meta emotions
How does Rational Emotional Behavioural Therapy approach the issue of mixed or meta emotions? First of all, we accept things as they are. We accept that feeling different things all at the same time is part of the human condition (we are a rationalist, humanist school of therapy after all).
And then, we quite simply listen to our client. In every therapy session there are two experts. The therapist, guiding the way through the CBT structure, and the client, who is the expert in themselves. We will ask, which emotion is disturbing you the most? Which is impacting your life the most? Which one, if it were better managed, would have the biggest impact on your wellbeing? The path of therapy is then decided by the answer given. This does not mean the other emotions are forgotten or ignored. It simply means we now have a route to take and progress is already being made.
So don’t despair if you feel like you are experiencing several emotions at once. It’s quite common, and never the barrier to emotional balance that some people think it is.
If you’d like to lean more about REBT, either as something you feel would help, or to train to become a therapist yourself, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.