Working Through

When I first started conceiving people in terms of emotions and defenses many years ago, I made the same mistake Freud had, many years earlier.

I noticed that people who got better had expressed their emotions and assumed that there was something about the expression itself that helped them do that.

Of course, that idea is nonsense, though it has a firm and unfortunate hold among both the lay public and an undeservedly large segment of treatment professionals. Venting (catharsis) alone does not work and cannot work at changing anything or anybody. There is a great deal of evidence confirming as much.

However, I was stuck trying to write objectively, so my therapy notes continued to read “So-and-so expressed his sadness about his mother” or some such, and my supervisor kept criticizing me for those notes, reminding me that expression wasn’t important. Working through was important.

My question at the time was how we would be able to operationalize working through, or even define it. I was informed that working through was a mystical process that just happened when the situation was right. If an emotion was fully and properly worked through, it never returned. If the emotion returned, then it obviously hadn’t been worked through completely.

This did me less than no good. I understood that expression wasn’t enough but knew that it was part of the working through process. I also had no way to know whether something had been worked through except that something else didn’t happen, and we all know how difficult proving a negative is.

So maybe how we know that something has been worked through? is the wrong question. Instead, the right question might be how do we set up the conditions in which it can be worked through?

This moves us away from trying to prove negatives and into the realm of trying to explain what was formerly seen as being mystical.

That sounds like an impossible task, but actually it’s not all that bad. Science is full of discoveries and theories that have addressed what was formerly the purview of religion. That is, as people have found other ways of conceiving problems they have discovered ways to measure and quantify what was formerly mysterious.

Working through, in the Freudian thinking, had something to do with libido, which these conjectures won’t address, largely because it can’t be shown to exist in any meaningful way. Besides, these conjectures are based not on energy models but on affect and defense and on what can be demonstrated about each.

All emotion must be regulated. Regulation is such an intrinsic part of emotion that it always accompanies emotional arousal. Regulation is first learned in dyadic relationships with caregivers, as sort of a dance between exposure to strong affect, distraction, and re-exposure.

Memories of significant events are not unitary, but instead are mediated by different parts of the brain. The emotional parts of the memory are mediated by one part while the contextual parts of it are mediated by another. As stress increases, the emotional parts get stronger and the contextual parts grow weaker.

Trauma occurs any time emotion outstrips the ability to regulate it productively, generally because of a breakdown of the dyadic relationship required to regulate it productively. This could happen for many reasons. Maybe the caregiver was the responsible party. Maybe the caregiver was unavailable.

In such situations, because of the way our stress systems are constructed, emotional memory far outweighs contextual memory. We are stuck with strong, unregulated emotions that occur without adequate contextual cues.

Without contextual anchors, the person cannot understand what the emotion means, how it originated, or where it came from. The sufferer may try all sorts of wild behavioral tactics to make it go away. They may feel driven to do all sorts of things inexplicable even to themselves.

A common strategy is attempting to avoid the painful emotion, which makes matters even worse. The degree of personality warp is directly proportional both to the intensity of the traumatic emotion and the intensity of its avoidance.

The process of working through begins when avoidance ends. The counselor assumes the role of caregiver and helps the client explore, express, and regulate the intense emotion. As the emotion is explored, its origin in the client’s life is explored. Context is reestablished.

By exploring the emotion, its intensity is allowed to decrease, allowing context to emerge. By reestablishing context, the emotional memory is brought back under individual control. Similar situations no longer provoke disproportionate responses.

This process leads to a marked decrease in objectionable and wildly emotional behavior that appears “out of touch” with ongoing events.

It leads to working through.

Dr. Steven G. Brownlow trains clinicians and consults with therapeutic programs. If you’re a clinician or run a therapeutic program, please visit the ADEPT Therapy Consulting website. Enjoy the other posts on sgbrownlow, and thanks for visiting!



  1. Stuart Harris
    Mar 23, 2012

    This makes a lot of sense and is elegantly expressed.

    I defer to your long experience of treating clients with such issues. However I have been in the client seat regarding an issue in which an emotional event needed to be recontextualized – at least a couple of times, in fact – and it’s still driving behavior in an aversive way.

    • Steve
      Mar 23, 2012

      In that case, to sound like my early mentor, it wasn’t worked through.

      What I wrote here is the bare bones of the work. There are defensive secondary emotions, screen memories, distracting behavior, warps in personality, and a host of other ways that people try to protect themselves from reexperiencing the pain in its original intensity.

      Once someone understands what the work is, it’s not that hard to know what needs to be done with any particular person, though each one presents an individual challenge.

      • Stuart Harris
        Mar 23, 2012

        Kind of ipso facto really **chuckling **

        So reexperiencing the full intensity of the original pain is part of the working through, right?

        Sounds both scary and promising.

  2. Steve
    Mar 23, 2012

    There’s no avoiding it, but if it’s done right there will be someone there to help regulate the intensity of it this time around so it won’t end up being traumatizing again. The traumatic aspects of it will dissipate.

  3. judy belmont
    Mar 25, 2012

    Great Post – very thoughtful – it made me think of a saying I heard – “What you resist will persist! “

    • Steve
      Mar 25, 2012

      What you resists not only persists, but gets all tangled up with anxiety. People resist it even more then, and when it finally comes up it has so much anxiety propelling it that it comes out too forcefully and is very poorly directed.

  4. Lalita Raman
    Mar 27, 2012

    Good post. We need to recognize our emotions and overcome them and get over them rather than be a slave of our emotions.

    • Steve
      Mar 27, 2012

      Thanks. I wouldn’t say overcome though, more like allow them to do what they were intended to do. If I feel suddenly threatened it should be because something in the current situation has changed, not because of something I avoided working through many years ago. My ongoing feelings should be providing information, and I won’t ever even notice them if my affective system is all gunked up with old stuff I’ve never addressed.

  5. Jenna
    Dec 22, 2012

    Loving your insight and verbal clarity regarding this issue. Thank you.

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