Counselling, psychotherapy and human emotions

The E-CENT counselling and psychotherapy approach to understanding and managing human emotion

by Dr Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling, August 2016

Dr Jim's photoThis is a ten page extract from the forty page Chapter 5 of my new book, Holistic Counselling in Practice.  The chapter is titled: Understanding and Managing Human Emotions.

This is how it begins:

5.1: Introduction

Because counsellors and psychotherapists deal with their clients’ emotions – (as well as their behaviours, goals, relationships; plus their environmental stressors, and so on) – every system of counselling and therapy has to have a theory of emotion.


This, however, is a significant problem, for three reasons:

  1. Firstly: Human emotion is hugely complex. For example, Stephen Pinker, in his book on how the mind works, draws attention to a quotation from G.K. Chesterton about the unutterable complexity of human emotional tones and moods and shades, which begins like this: “Man knows that there are in the soul tints more bewildering, more numberless, and more nameless than the colours of an autumn forest”. (Page 367)[i]. Therefore, at the very least, we should show some humility in developing our systemic models of such complexity.
  2. Secondly: As one psychotherapist has pointed out: “The terms ‘feeling’ and ‘emotion’, and ‘affect’ are used in many different senses in psychology. A review of more than twenty theories of emotion reveals a plethora of widely diverging technical definitions. These vary with the technique of investigation, the general theoretical framework, and the value-judgements of the psychologist.  Often, they are so diverse as to defy comparison let alone synthesis”.[ii]  So we are not going to arrive at a universal definition of emotion in this book; though we have to come to some working hypotheses, in the form of practical conclusions, which allow us to understand and help our clients.
  3. Third: There is a good deal of confusion regarding whether emotions are innate, or socially imposed; and whether they exist ‘inside the client’ or ‘outside’ in social relationships.

With regard to point 3, which is the most fundamental question we face, we should resolve that issue up front:

(a) In E-CENT counselling, we use the insight from Dylan Evans’ (2003) book on emotion, about ‘degrees of innateness or learned emotions’. This means that we accept the conclusion that some basic emotional wiring is innate, at birth.  However, those basic emotions (or feelings) are inevitably shaped by the culture of the mother (and father [normally]) into acceptable and unacceptable expressions of affect – or observable manifestations of feelings – over time. The main concepts we use are:

(1) Innate emotional wiring (Panksepp 1998); which are also seen as basic emotions[iii] – (Siegel, 2015);

(2) Higher cognitive emotions (like pride, confidence, guilt and shame, jealous, trust and so on – (Panksepp and Biven, 2012); and:

(3) Culturally specific emotions (as in the ways in which various universal emotions are manifested differently in different cultures; e.g. the more restrained Japanese versus the more expressive Americans – (Evans, 2003).

Somewhere between the universal, higher cognitive emotions and the culturally specific emotions, I would place the “family variations” in the range and mode of expression of the basic and higher cognitive emotions.

So, individuals have some of the ‘universal shape’ implied by Plato, Freud, Albert Ellis, Eric Berne, etc.; but also quite a lot of ‘family shaping’ which is idiosyncratic and unique. Plus national variations in how those emotions are expressed.

In evolving our theory of emotion, we went back as far as it is possible to go in developing knowledge of our ancestors, and what we inherited from them.  For example, we have been influenced by the perspective of Jonathan Turner (2000)[iv], which can be summarized like this: “…our ability to use a wide array of emotions evolved long before spoken language and, in fact, constituted a preadaptation for the speech and culture that developed among later hominids.  Long before humans could speak with words, they communicated through body language their emotional dispositions; and it is the neurological wiring of the brain for these emotional languages that represented the key evolutionary breakthrough for our species”.

Against-DSMAnd according to Panksepp (1998), those emotional systems are located in the most primitive parts of the brain: the limbic system and brainstem.   (These are the neuro-logical substrates (or foundations) underpinning what Freud called the ‘It’ – the physical baby and the primary (emotive) processes of mental life. Those primary, sub-cortical (limbic) processes inform our secondary, more culturally shaped emotions, which modulate our capacities for cognition: which means that our attention, perception, memory, and thinking can never be separated from our feelings.  As Damasio (1994) demonstrated with his patient, Elliot, we cannot make choices and decisions without the emotional capacity to evaluate options!

Finally, in E-CENT, we would never go along with a list of categories of emotional disturbances like that displayed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5 (or any other DSM), or any other equivalent manual, such as the European’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases.  Humans are too complex to be classified into ‘disease boxes’ or ‘personality disorders’.  And we will argue elsewhere in this book that much of the modern explosion of emotional disorders are a result of lifestyle distortions, especially in the areas of bad diet, lack of physical exercise, and rising levels of externally imposed socioeconomic stress.  (See in particular, Appendices E and F).


Afterthought: However, despite the fact that we in E-CENT have clarified our own understanding of human emotions, there are lots of disagreements within the field of counselling and psychotherapy on this subject.  Since there is no universal agreement regarding the nature of human emotions in counselling and therapy, we, in E-CENT counselling, have to account for our own theory of emotion: to justify it, as well as defining and elaborating its elements.  So let us begin with some of the older theories of emotion.

5.2: Buddhism and Stoicism on emotion 

E-CENT counselling has been influenced by Buddhist ideas and Stoic ideas, including some of their ideas about human emotions.  This is obvious from a reading of Chapter 4, on the Six Windows Model.

With regard to Buddhism, it seems from The Dhammapada[v], that the Buddha taught that all human disturbance arises out of desire; and this idea is shared with Stoicism.

In E-CENT theory we have taken some of these ideas as points of departure, but we have also found serious flaws in both of those philosophies.

For examples:

  1. Regarding Buddhist theory: The opening lines of the Dhammapada are as follows:

“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind”. (Page 1)[vi].

In my view, it would be more accurate to say:

(1) “What we are today comes from our thoughts (and feelings) about our experiences…”

So, we are not talking about disembodied thoughts, devoid of a stimulus in an external reality.  And we are not talking about beings that can think independently of their basic emotional wiring! People are emotionally wired up by their earliest relationships, and they live in the real world of good and bad experiences!  They have body-minds, and their thoughts are strongly affected by diet, exercise, relationship support or its lack, external stressors, and so on.

(2) “…and our present thoughts…” (Plus our feelings and actions, including eating, sleeping, relaxing, exercising, etc.) “…build our life of tomorrow…”

So our thoughts (about our experiences) do not act alone; they are not the sole determinant of our lives.

(3) “…our life is the creation of our mind” (Our mind Plus our relationships, plus our experiences; plus our diet, exercise, stressors – including economic and political circumstances, family life, and on and on).

philosophical-misdirectionSo the Buddha can easily mislead the unwary; as the unwary were misled by Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck – who downplayed the role of the environment in human experience; with Ellis denying the role of early childhood in shaping the later life of the social-individual. Those theorists also overlooked the importance of our eating of unhealthy diets; and our failure to exercise our bodies; all of which impacts our emotional states).

To serve our clients well, counsellors and psychotherapists need to be critical thinkers; to be awake; to be well informed (meaning widely read, and subject to multiple influences); and to think for ourselves.

Buddhist ideology downplays the impact of the environment upon human organisms, in a way which is corrected by modern social psychology.  (Social psychology is an attempt to understand and explain the various ways in which “we, as individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of others”. Allport, 1985)[vii].  If we are to develop a theory of human emotions, we must not follow the Buddhist dumping of this impact of the social environment on the thinking, feeling and behaviour of our clients, lest we end up blaming the client for their disturbance, as was done by Freud, Klein, Ellis and Beck. (Indeed, it was Dr John Bowlby who most strongly emphasized the importance of early childhood relational experiences: the impact, for better or worse, of our early social relationships upon our attachment style, and our chances of having a happy marriage in adult life. Because this went against both Freud’s and Klein’s perspective – [which blamed the child for their own emotional disturbances] – Dr John Bowlby was ostracized by the British psychoanalytic community for decades – because they insisted upon blaming the clients’ ‘phantasies’ for their upset emotions.)[viii]

However, the mindfulness aspect of Buddhism, especially Zen Meditation, is very helpful for all of us, counsellors and clients alike, because it stops us ruminating on past problems, or anxiously anticipating future difficulties.  Here is an illustration of how to understand ‘mindfulness’, or awareness of the present moment:

“The greatest support we can have is mindfulness, which means being totally present in each moment.  If the mind remains centred, it cannot make up stories about the injustice of the world or one’s friends, or about one’s desires or sorrows.  All these stories could fill many volumes, but when we are mindful such verbalizations stop.  Being mindful means being fully absorbed with the momentary happening, whatever it is – standing or sitting or lying down, feeling pleasure or pain – and we maintain a non-judgemental awareness, a ‘just knowing’.” Ayya Khema[ix].

However, here’s one serious caveat: It is not a good idea to try to use mindfulness to suppress or deny our feelings about our distressing experiences.  That will not work.  We have to file our distressing experiences in the past, or they will insert themselves into our future!  And the only way I know to file our distressing experiences in the past is to experience their emotional content fully; to digest those emotional experiences; to complete them; and thus to burn them up; and file them in inactive files in our long-term memory.  In the process we get to re-frame them; to see them differently; to drain them of their original meaning.


  1. Regarding Stoic theory: The most famous saying of the Stoic philosophers in the world of cognitive counselling systems today is this belief: “People are not upset by the things which happen to them, but rather by their attitude towards those things”. This extremist belief is central to Rational Therapy (REBT), Cognitive Therapy (CT) and CBT in general.

That belief is also very similar to the opening statement of the Dhammapada, in that it both blames the client for their interpretation of their experience, and ascribes to them the capacity to be indifferent to their environmental insults, hurts and defeats. (This inference is clear from verses 2 and 3 of the Dhammapada, page 1).  But only a lump of wood, or a stone, or some other inanimate object, can be truly indifferent to particularly intense environmental stimuli.

A wise person may well choose to ignore some environmental insults, hurts and defeats; to downplay them; or to reframe them, so they seem less painful.  But not all of our clients can claim to be wise upon first encountering us.  (And many of them will fail to achieve significant levels of wisdom; and almost none will rise to the level of Stoic functioning, just as most Stoics fail to rise to the level of the theoretical ‘indifference to externals’ which Stoic theory demands of its adherents).

In time, we might teach some of our clients to be somewhat wiser – using some moderate Stoic principles – but we should not attempt to teach them the more extreme principles, such as that shown above; partly because we would have to blame them for their distress, to begin with; and then we would have to move on to advocating super-human goals for mere humans.

But there are some moderate principles of stoicism that we should try to practice and preach.

The most helpful principle of Stoicism, which is also found in Buddhism, is this, from Epictetus’s Enchiridion:

About-control“Freedom and happiness consist of understanding one principle: There are certain things we can control and certain things we cannot control.  It is only after learning to distinguish between what we can and cannot control – and acting upon that knowledge – that inner harmony and outer effectiveness become possible”.[x]

If some of the things that negatively affect me, in my current social environment, are within my control, then it makes sense to try to correct and control them: to change them.  And if something proves to be beyond my control (or most likely beyond my control) then it makes sense not to rail against that, but to learn to accept it (which will take time and effort, and courage and fortitude).

But that is not (ultimately) what is taught by the major Stoic philosophers, when they deploy their more extreme principles.  For example, in his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius defines ‘harm’ as being the ability of some outside agency to damage his ‘individual ethical stance’.  And he then declares an absolute principle that: Nobody has the ability to damage my individual ethical stance.  Hence, logically, nobody has the ability to harm him.  Hence, his final conclusion: Nobody can disturb me!

(See the Introduction to the Enchiridion, by D.A. Ross)[xi].

The problem with that conclusion is that only a rare sage could live a life based on the idea – the fantasy – that a hatchet through my skull does not constitute harm, since it leaves my individual ethical stance intact. 

Or, that somebody murdering my baby and raping my wife cannot disturb me, because it leaves my individual ethical stance intact. 

These are unreachable goals, and inhuman beliefs, which could never be universalized as an approach to life.  And therefore, counsellors and psychotherapists should not (morally) imply that these are goals which are achievable by average counselling clients; and that the client is somehow remiss for not acting like a lump of wood!



So, while we can learn some things about moderating our desires and distinguishing between what is a realistic goal (to be pursued) and an unachievable goal (to be abandoned) – we must not spread the lie that our clients are not disturbed by their social experiences!  They are!


5.3: Another point of departure – Evolutionary psychology

While Buddhism and Stoicism mainly apply the negative theory of emotion – which assumes that all emotions are a problem – evolutionary psychology promotes the idea that our emotions arose, and were selected by nature, because they served to keep our ancestors alive. This is a positive theory of emotion.

Evolutionary psychology is an attempt to build a science of psychology, based on inferences – (many from anthropological studies; and many which appear to be little more than applied logic) – about the ways in which our ancestors adapted to their environments, and how and why some psychological adaptations were most likely selected by nature for their survival value.  For examples:

Without your innate tendency towards anger, there would be nothing to stop selfish individuals taking advantage of you, even to the extent of threatening your survival (by stealing all the available food, for example).

Without anxiety, you might sit and watch with curiosity while a lion approached you and then ate you.

Without distress (or sadness) you might be unable to attract social support when you are weakened by illness, or when you are otherwise disadvantaged and in need of extra support.

Without feelings of lust and romantic love, you might fail to attract a mate, and the quality of your life might seem so poor that you could easily abandon the attempt to stay alive.

So feelings, even apparently destructive or painful emotions, can be seen to serve useful survival functions, except when they are taken too far, and then they cause more harm than good.

And, paradoxically, as pointed out by Siegel (2015), emotions are both regulated and regulatory.  They are regulated (or controlled) by both internal and external factors; and we also tend to internalize those external, social factors over time.  (This external factor often takes the form of verbal or non-verbal feedback from significant others [mother, father, others] about their experience of our emotional expression [or expression of affects]). Some of our emotive-cognitive experiences (including that feedback from significant others) help us to regulate other of our emotive-cognitive urges.


The modelling (or demonstration) of emotional self-regulation by our parents is another of the major internalized sources of self-regulation that we have (which begins outside of us, but ends up encoded in our neurological, higher cognitive emotions, probably largely in the right orbitofrontal cortex [OFC]).

An example of the excessive use of negative emotions would be the driver who is so angry about being frustrated by other drivers that he (or she) gets out of their car and assaults somebody – killing or maiming them; resulting in great harm to both parties.  Or the person who is so anxious they cannot go out of their own home, and thus they miss out on all kinds of social pleasures (and the possibility of earning a living!)  Or somebody who is so distressed (sad/ depressed) that they cannot relate to others, and they lose their life partner as a result.  Some of these overly-emotional responses may come from our family of origin; and some may come from changes in our lives today, including in our relationships, our stress levels, our diets, or the balance/harmony of our lives; or even from pharmaceutical drugs we take to ‘cure’ ourselves[xii].


On balance, in E-CENT counselling, we see emotion as being more positive than negative, and more helpful than unhelpful – though it is obvious that our emotions can complicate our lives and cause us suffering when we do not manage them well.


But we still have not defined emotion, nor said anything about the origin of emotions in the historical processes of evolution of species.


5.4 The origin of human emotions

Charles Darwin was the first major theorist to publish a serious study of the ways in which life on earth most likely evolved, and the principles that seem to control the evolutionary process – primarily natural selection of those randomly arising features of organisms which best fit an available ecological niche or habitat.  Or, to state is another way, those organisms which were well adapted to survive in their local environment survived to pass on their genes, and those who were poorly adapted did not survive.

Darwin noted, in his book on emotions in humans and other animals[xiii], that all mammals displayed similar emotional arousal patterns.  This he saw as evidence for a common ancestor.  But he considered that those emotions were a residue of more primitive times, while recent research suggests that emotions are fundamental to all brain-mind functioning, being primary processes which modulate cognitions (like attention, perception, thinking and memory processes); generate evaluations; drive goals; and dictate behaviours.  (Panksepp, 1998).

Much later, Paul Ekman, an American anthropologist, set out to prove that Darwin was wrong about the universality of all basic primate and mammal emotions; and that, in fact, many cultures are wired up emotionally to be very different from each other – the major example being westerners versus the oriental mind.  This is the famous concept of ‘cultural relativity’. However, despite the rigour of his studies, Ekman only succeeded in proving Darwin to be right.  There is no cultural relativity in respect of the basic human emotions of anger, fear, distress, surprise, disgust and joy[xiv].  There are some cultural differences in how those emotions are expressed – for example the American and southern European tendency to be very open about feelings and emotions, on the one hand; and the Japanese tendency to be concealing of their feelings and emotions – but the basic emotions – which are being revealed or concealed – are common to all cultures.


Social-emotionsProfessor Jonathan Turner[xv] has written an extensive study of the origins of human emotions.  He draws attention to the social nature of humans and the relatively solitary practices of other kinds of apes; and argues that the development of our increased sociality[xvi] was brought about to facilitate living in the more exposed environment of the savannah, where banding together provided the best chance of survival.  This need encouraged strong emotional ties, “allowing our ancestors to build higher levels of social solidarity”.  So the social nature of human emotions (or, rather, our higher cognitive emotions) can be explained in this way – as a constructive adaptation to a new foraging environment.  But we still share our basic emotions with all mammals (as argued by Darwin and confirmed by Ekman, as above).

Jaak Panksepp is one of the foremost researchers in the field of affective neuroscience.  In his book on the archaeology of mind, he “reveals for the first time the deep neural sources of our values and basic emotional feelings”.  These patterns in the human brain “are remarkably similar across all mammalian species”[xvii].

And we know from some brain studies that some emotional disorders result from damage to those emotional centres of the brain.  However, most emotional disorders probably arise out of disruption of the higher cognitive and social emotions, (like guilt and pride), which will be introduced and discussed later.


5.5 The proximal cause of emotional disturbance

According to Dr Gordon Coates, all emotions can be understood as a result of our wanting something to happen (hope), and/or wanting something else not to happen (fear)[xviii].  (This is very similar to the Buddha’s view that all our emotional distress, or human disturbance, results from our desires.  And it also reminds us of Freud’s conclusion that humans are innately programmed to seek pleasure and to avoid unpleasure [or pain]).


But these conclusions by Coates could be a lightly concealed circular argument.  What they seem to suggest is this: I experience hope because I want something to happen; and/or I want something to happen and therefore I feel hopeful.  Not only is this argument circular, but it also does not account for wanting as the ‘prime mover’.

Why do I want anything?  And why do I want the specific things that I seem to want?

If wanting is the prime mover of our actions/ thoughts, resulting in a cascade of emotions, what accounts for the state of wanting itself?

We will return to this problem, but first let us complete Coates’ model.  This little model, called the Wanter-fall chart, has two branches which flow downwards:

Branch 1. When I want something to happen, I experience hope.  When the desired outcome occurs, I experience happiness (plus something called ‘propathy’, which is the opposite of antipathy).  But since I am now happy, and I want that state to continue, I now experience fear.

Branch 2. The second branch runs like this: I want to avoid a particular outcome, so I experience fear.  When the feared outcome occurs, I experience sadness and antipathy.

This little model is too circular, and cannot account for the origins of emotion as such.  And neither can it account for the determinants of human wants.

5.6 The evolutionary view

The perspectives of evolutionary psychology and affective neuroscience are better sources of explanation of human emotions.  According to Panksepp and Biven (2012) our evolutionary adaptations (as mammals) laid down certain subcortical structures in the limbic areas of the brain.  These neurological structures underpin seven emotional systems as follows:

…End of extract…

For more, please go to the Holistic Counselling in Practice book page.***


Additional sections in Chapter 5 include the following:

5.7 Understanding emotive-cognitive interactionism

5.8 Language and mentation 

5.9 The social individual

5.10 Managing human emotions

5.11 Managing anger, anxiety and depression

For more, please go to the Holistic Counselling in Practice book page.***


[i] Pinker, S. (2015) How the Mind Works.  London: Penguin Random House.

[ii] Hobson, R.F. (1985) Forms of Feeling: The heart of psychotherapy. London: Routledge. Page 88.

[iii] Paul Ekman (1993) identified the most universal, basic emotions – from a detailed international study – as: anger, fear, disgust, sadness, and enjoyment. See: Ekman, P. (1993) Facial expression and emotion. American Psychologist 48 (4): Pages 384-392.

[iv] Turner, J.H. (2000) On the Origins of Human Emotions. A sociological inquiry into the evolution of human affect.  Stanford University Press.  See the book outline at this website:

[v] The Dhammapada (1973/2015) Taken from Juan Mascaró’s translation and edition, first published in 1973. London: Penguin Books (Little Black Classics No.80)

[vi] The Dhammapada (1973/2015)

[vii] See page 245 of Cardwell, M. (2000) The Complete A-Z Psychology Handbook.  Second edition.  London: Hodder and Stoughton.

[viii] Bretherton, I. (1992) The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology 28: 759.

[ix] Ayya Khema quotation taken from: Josh Baran (ed) (2003) 365 Nirvana: Here and now. London: HarperCollins/Element.

[x] Epictetus (1991) The Enchiridion. New York: Prometheus Books.

[xi] Aurelius, M. (1946/1992) Meditations. Trans. A.S.L. Farquharson.  London: Everyman’s Library.

[xii] First example: ‘Painkillers (are) behind most mass killings, say researchers’ from a news item in the magazine, What Doctors Don’t Tell You, dated August 2015, page 14. (This report is based on a published research study from the University of East Finland, published in World Psychiatry, 2015; 14:245-247). Second example: DrugWatch, an advocacy organization which supports people damaged by drugs, reports that people who take antidepressants: “…may experience side effects such as violent behavior, mania or aggression, which can all lead to suicide.” Source:  And Third example: Patrick Holford has found evidence that brain allergies to particular foods and chemicals can cause emotional dysfunctions: “The knowledge that allergy to foods and chemicals can adversely affect moods and behaviour in susceptible individuals has been known for a very long time. Early reports, as well as current research, have found that allergies can affect any system of the body, including the central nervous system.  They can cause a diversity of symptoms including fatigue, slowed thought processes, irritability, agitation, aggressive behaviour, nervousness, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, hyperactivity and varied learning disabilities.” Source:   

[xiii] Darwin, C. (1872/1965) The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[xiv] Evans, D. (2003) Emotion: a very short introduction. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

[xv] Turner, J.H. (2000) On the Origins of Human Emotions. A Sociological Inquiry into the Evolution of Human Affect. Stanford University Press.  See the book outline at:

[xvi] Sociality is a measure of the extent to which individuals in an animal population tend to associate in social groups, and to form cooperative communities or societies.

[xvii] Panksepp, J. and Lucy Biven (2012) The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion: W.W. Norton and Company.  See the book description here:

[xviii] Coates, G. (2008) Wanterfall: A practical approach to the understanding and healing of the emotions of everyday life.  An online e-book.  Available at this website:  Section 1: The origins of emotions.

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