Deepening self-awareness in the early stages of psychotherapy - Knowing more enables doing more

By: Tom Cloyd - 13 min. read (Published: 2003; reviewed: 2024-04-09)

In the beginning stages of psychotherapy, one is often invited to become more aware of certain aspects of one’s life. This increased awareness is a key part of the personal growth that characterizes successful therapy. When you know more, you can do more, and real change becomes more likely. It all begins with increasing self-knowledge by increasing awareness.

On of this page…

Introduction: awareness, feelings, and psychotherapy

Although increased awareness could occur in several different areas of one’s life (objective behavior and social relations being two of the most important), probably the most critical area of increased awareness is that of internal process, of “feelings”, specifically. Feelings begin with a certain type of brain energy “output”—a response to stimulation by other parts of the brain. When we become aware of this energy response the result enters our awareness as a “feeling”. Let me explain this a little.

Brain 101—it isn’t that tough

The brain may be thought of as having three fundamental divisions—like a three-layer cake:

∙ the lowest part (brainstem and cerebellum) is the “body” brain—it directly manages major aspects of our bodies;

∙ the middle part (“limbic” system) is the “feeling and memory” brain—it produces our feelings and manages the creation of memory;

∙ the top part (cerebrum, also called “cerebral cortex”) is our “thinking” brain—it manages recognition of anything in our perception about which we already know something, and decision making about how we will respond to what we recognize.

In truth, these parts are very involved with each other, with a great many interconnections. But this simple version of brain process has some very real advantages in helping us understand how to make better use of this marvelous organ we all have.

How the brain makes its living

All organs of our body do something practical and useful. For example, the lungs process gasses, bringing oxygen into the body and letting carbon dioxide and other gasses out. The digestive tract processes ingested nutrients. The circulatory system processes blood.

What does the brain do—what does it “process”? Its “work” is simply information processing. It is the most complex known material construction and the world’s best computer. We have yet to replicate with any real skill many things the brain appears to do effortlessly—like learning and using language.

The brain’s information processing may be thought of as going from top to bottom. The first step is for energy to impact our sensory system, through our eyes, ears, taste buds, olfactory sensors, tactile sensors, and the special sensory system we use to “feel” our own body. This external energy is converted into nerve signals which go into the brain to be interpreted—in the topmost part of the brain. Once this “making sense” of incoming information is accomplished, the first stage of thinking is complete. We now know what we’re confronted with—what we’re seeing, hearing, or whatever.

The next stage is to decide what to do. Sometimes this involves formal thinking, but often it’s carried out at a simple, unconscious level, which can happen quite quickly. For example, if one looks up and sees a tree branch falling out of the sky, little formal thought is required! If the “thinking” brain decides, by whatever means, that action is required, it signals the middle or “feeling” brain to make a feeling. Other parts of the brain, especially the bottom or “body” brain, respond to this feeling, and things can quickly get pretty exciting.

What feelings do

Feelings are like fuel in the mind’s engine. With feelings active in the brain, something can now HAPPEN. The lower brain is energized by the feelings—it’s “motivated”, and something does happen. Note that a lot of this process I’ve just described happens outside of awareness. Most often, only rather small amounts of feeling are required to achieve the motivation to act. Consider, for example, how little you have to feel to reach for a glass of water on the table in front of you. It doesn’t take much—so little, in fact, that we typically have no awareness of our feelings at all. This is all wonderfully efficient. If feelings are the “gas” in the engine of our mind, we usually get a lot of miles out of a small amount of fuel!

To make very clear the central role of feelings in the brain, consider what happens if the feelings stop—if you “run out of gas”: things get really quiet in your brain. Movement tends to stop. There is little response to anything. Nothing is particularly rewarding. Life tends to be flat, gray, and lifeless. If this experience goes on for long we may start to get rather irritated. We have a name for this condition: depression. Being stuck with it is awful, which is why no one wants to be depressed.

Feelings are the reason for therapy

People come to therapy because of their feelings. Put simply, they’re having feelings they don’t like, in quantities they can’t handle. They can’t fix the problem, and they’re fed up. So, this is why in the beginning of therapy it can be so useful to enlarge one’s awareness of feelings. Otherwise, you’re going to be trying to weed your garden with your eyes closed. You’ll probably miss some of the bad stuff and pull up some of the good stuff, and that won’t win you any prizes as a gardener! You will profit from becoming more aware of your feelings precisely because of the central role they play in your brain.

Many of us value thinking, and thinking certainly IS important, but only because we “like”, or “enjoy”, or “value” the process and result. All those words in quotes are feelings-words. Feelings give value. Period. Discover what you have good feelings about and you discover what you value.

So, for that reason, and for many others, let’s begin working at discovering what feelings we’re actually having. This will result in the experience of “increasing self-knowledge by increasing awareness” which I spoke about in the first paragraph. But before we can go very far we’ll need to solve the problem of language.

Language and feelings

There are at least hundreds of words for human feelings. That can be intimidating. What if there were a way to simplify this apparent complexity? Well, there is, fortunately. Decades of research have provided good evidence that there are probably only nine basic human feelings, although they often occur in mixtures, such as fear-anger, interest-disgust, surprise-shame, interest-shame, or even more complex combinations. They can be grouped into positive, neutral, _and _negative.

What follows is a bit detailed, and even abstract, but it’s extremely useful, as I hope you’ll get to find out. Here, then, is the list of the nine most basic human feelings, with brief definitions. The definitions I give here may seem a bit odd. They are written not so much to describe our conscious sensation when we’re having the feeling (although a given definition may do that well) as to

**TOM CLOYD, M.S., M.A., PSYCHOTHERAPIST / **(509) 475 - 9617 - (80 0) 841 -4424 / [email protected] < p. 2 of 6 \

describe events in the brain, relative to rising, falling, and enduring levels of neural activation. If you think briefly about the definitions you will likely find that they make a lot of sense.

These definitions are summaries of the statements of a renowned authority on feelings and the brain—psychiatrist D. L. Nathanson, in his book _Shame and Pride _(1992).


Interest—excitement: This happens when anything we’re attending to becomes more intense.

Enjoyment—joy: This happens, curiously enough, when the brain quiets down - when brain activity reduces.


Surprise—startle: This is the briefest feeling, coming and going very quickly. It happens when we encounter an extremely sudden major increase in stimulation. Depending upon what it’s combined with, it can be negative or positive in tone. By itself, because it’s so brief, it is neither. Its main effect and function is to clear out from our brain and mind (consciousness) anything else we were feeling before the “surprise” was stimulated.


Fear—terror: This is triggered by an over-abundance of incoming information (which seems to be experienced by the brain as inherently threatening).

Distress—anguish: This is triggered by knowing something is wrong or missing. Its effect is to call attention to the fact that all is not well and that some action is required.

Anger-rage: This is caused by the highest levels of stimulation. A stimulation source, for example pain, which causes initial distress may, if prolonged, ultimately cause anger. The primary function of anger is to amplify both the problem and any response generated by it.

Dissmell: Triggered simply by bad smell. It provides an early warning of noxious substances and acts to limit hunger. Dissmell and disgust (see below) may operate independently or together at different times.

Disgust: Coupled with dissmell at times, disgust can also act to limit hunger. But it is much broader in scope, as “hunger” easily becomes “contact” in general. This feeling usually functions to limit our contact with all manner of things.

Shame-humiliation: A critically important feeling that only works with other feelings, primarily acting to at least partially inhibit positive feelings.

These “pure” feelings can be hard to describe in a few words. I have, once again, derived these definitions from D. L. Nathanson, _Shame and Pride _(1992). These definitions may seem a bit odd in places, because of their brevity and abstract nature, but they are very carefully considered.

Another reason why they may seem odd is that feelings are not emotions, and one may be reading about a feeling but thinking about an emotion. An _emotion _can be particularly difficult to define. It’s the complex of feelings we have in certain contexts. Consider “exhilaration”, for example. For me, it’s about skiing and cycling. For someone else, it’s about riding fast on a horse, or gambling with large sums of money. From the point of view of feeling, it’s about Interest, Excitement, and Fear, at the very least, but in the context of a particular individual’s personal history. You might well not make much sense of my description of the emotion, nor I of yours, but we’d have NO trouble understanding each other’s Fear!

**TOM CLOYD, M.S., M.A., PSYCHOTHERAPIST / **(509) 475 - 9617 - (80 0) 841 -4424 / [email protected] < p. 3 of 6 >

Reviewing this list, and writing it out as a short list of merely nine terms, is an excellent idea at this point. We’re about to make use of these terms.

Finding our feelings

In my own personal history, I had to practice before I was any good at consciously reading people’s feelings, much less my own. It didn’t take long, however, for me to learn the trick, and then I was almost overwhelmed by the information I had at my disposal. People show their feelings a lot of the time, and usually without knowing it at all. This is because our faces are intimately connected to our feelings, and we tend to simply respond facially to what we’re feeling. Learn to read faces and you’ll be able to read feelings. Know that both feelings and the facial expressions that invariably go with them are with us a birth—we don’t have to learn anything—and they are the same all over the world. This really IS a universal language. Let’s learn to speak it!

How to begin? Let’s start by being simple:

  1. Take a piece of blank paper and just write down some words that describe the feelings or emotions you are aware of right now. Anything you write is acceptable. We just need to begin. It’s often easier to get a sense of direction after one starts moving. Just notice what’s inside your head. Probably the trickiest feeling to “get” is Interest, because it’s quiet. If all you’re doing is reading this text, and thinking about it, the feeling you’re most likely having is probably Interest. But look around inside your head. Most of my clients have rather complex feelings, at least at the beginning of therapy.

Here are some words you might write:

Noise – rushing – sadness and heaviness – quietness – loneliness – fullness.

Or, you might write, in a somewhat different style, something like this:

Swirling, buzzing noise, like water running downhill fast – tightness and scaredness in my head and chest – letting go and settling down.

The two sorts of examples I’ve just given may not be at all the kinds of words you might choose. That’s just fine! The best thing to write at this point is simply what _feels _right for you, and that’s something that I can’t give an example of—you’ll simply have to discover it. In the act of this discovery you’ll become more aware, so already this exercise will be working for you.

  1. Now consider what you wrote. Work on it a bit, so that the words better suit what you’re talking about. All of us find at times that the words we use to describe what’s happening inside us are simply the words that are easiest for us to find in our mind, rather than the words that are objectively most descriptive.

  2. Finally, see if you can find in your words, and in the feelings they describe, any of the nine feeling terms in the basic list. Expect to find other things as well—things that may not even be feelings! That’s quite customary. If one wasn’t entirely sure what a sheep looked like, a goat or two might well slip into the pen!

  3. Do this exercise repeatedly. I’d recommend about 5 minutes at a time (or more, if you like), about three times a day. Repeated practice will quickly help you to gain familiarity with the basic terms, AND their occurrence in your life. You may find that certain feelings are very common for you and that certain others rarely or never appear.

  4. As a very useful alternative, try the exercise while looking at other people. You may find that this is even easier! After all, you’ll have their face to work with, in place of their internal information. Faces, once you learn to read them, are rather easy.

Keep your sheets of paper, dated, in a folder. They can be productively reviewed, at the end of the day, or brought to therapy for review with your therapist.

The point of all this

Doing this ought to help you be much more sensitive to your own feelings and those of others. It ought to help you see something that initially seems impossibly complicated as really rather accessible and understandable. You’re likely to find that the “meaning” of the moment is the “feeling” of the moment, and that your feelings have a wisdom to them that you’ve never really seen, until now. Remember what happens if the feelings go away. Nothing. And that’s not good!

In the end, you may expect to have a respect for feelings, yours and those of others, which has simply not been possible for you before. I know that that has been the effect on me of becoming much more familiar with feelings. I’m truly grateful (an emotion—for me, the excitement/joy that occurs in the context of receiving gifts) for this familiarity and all that it brings to my life. I hope that this is your experience as well.

**Tracking Form for self-monitoring of feelings **

Name: _______________

Day / Date: __________

Approximate time of day the monitoring is accomplished: __________

Instructions: This form is simply for tracking. It is assumed that one is familiar with the feelings, and can identify them with reasonable accuracy. Merely tracking feelings across several days will generally serve as excellent training in identifying what one is experiencing. Beyond that skill, it is of great interest to see WHAT feelings you are having, HOW MUCH you are experiencing, and how they CHANGE through the day and across several days.

Record, for each feeling, the score you give yourself on the following scale, when considering the following question: Monitoring question: In the past 2-3 hours, how much of this feeling have I been experiencing? _Monitoring scale _(0” means “none at all” - “10” means “as much as I could possibly feel”):

0—- —-1—- —-2—- —-3—- —-4—- —-5—- —-6—- —-7—- —-8—- —-9—- —-10 **RECORD YOUR ANSWERS HERE: **
  1. **Interest—excitement: ____ **

  2. **Enjoyment—joy: ____ **

**3. Surprise—startle: ____ **

  1. **Fear—terror: ____ **

  2. **Distress—anguish: ____ **

  3. **Anger-rage : ____ **

  4. **Dissmell: ____ **

  5. **Disgust: ____ **

  6. **Shame-humiliation: ____ **

Additional information, notes, etc.:


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