Engaging with emotions

The Reflective Practice Guide: An interdisciplinary approach to critical reflection - Barbara Bassot 2015

Engaging with emotions

’If you are carrying strong feelings about something that happened in your past, they may hinder your ability to live in the present.’

(Les Brown, 1992)


Many writers on the subject of critical reflection discuss the importance of engaging with our feelings. This is particularly the case when reading literature from health and social care, where some of the challenges practitioners face can prompt an emotional response. This chapter will explore the topics of objectivity and subjectivity, and the importance of engaging with our emotions will be discussed. The reasons for doing this will be explored using insights from Transactional Analysis. This is followed by an explanation of the Almond Effect. Two theoretical models will then be presented that can help us to engage with our feelings in a systematic way. The chapter concludes with some suggestions of how we can begin to process our feelings effectively.

What are emotions?

First, it is important to understand what emotions are and the effects they can have on us. Emotions are more than just feelings; Williams and Penman (2011: 19) define them as a combination of thoughts, feelings, impulses and bodily sensations (such as a faster heart rate or trembling hands) that create ’an overall guiding theme or state of mind’. These different elements play off one against the other and can result in us feeling positive or negative depending on the situation and our previous experiences. Our emotions, therefore, guide us in particular directions depending on the circumstances we are facing. Unlike many animals, who are able to experience such things as fear (for example, when chased by a predator) and then quickly relax, as humans we tend to dwell on what happened as our minds remember past experiences that are similar and imagine what might happen in similar circumstances in the future. The result is that we remain on high alert and can find it difficult to ’switch off’ when we leave work.

Objectivity and subjectivity

When looking at definitions of these terms in a standard dictionary, objectivity is said to rely on facts and subjectivity on opinion. Objectivity is often linked with the idea of taking a scientific approach that can be justified and defended if needed, whereas subjectivity is more difficult to define and relies on deciding how to act in the particular situation depending on the circumstances. Many professional practitioners seek to take an objective approach to their work by being clear about factual events and circumstances, trying not to rely on opinion, which can be biased either in favour of or against the client. However, Schön (1983) suggests that people in the ’minor professions’ need to move away from a reliance on a scientific approach (or technical rationality) to reflection-in-action (see Chapter 1). This kind of ’thinking on your feet’ can often involve engaging with our emotions in our everyday practice.

Why is it important to consider our emotions in relation to professional practice?

Many people enter the so-called ’helping professions’ because they enjoy relating to people and feel that they have something to give both on a personal and societal level. Any such work is demanding as it involves getting closer to people’s lived experiences and seeking to support them. In addition, many clients face struggles and setbacks that we can only imagine, although some practitioners may indeed have had similar experiences and feel drawn into their particular role because of them. For example, my own lack of careers advice coupled with my choice of the ’wrong’ course at university certainly prompted me into my work as a Careers Adviser; my doctoral research was all about university choice and even today it gives me great satisfaction to help someone choose the ’right’ course or career for them.

However, because of these experiences, working with clients can bring our past experiences, positive and negative, into focus. A counsellor friend of mine once explained it like this. If you imagine the human brain as an oval-shaped object, the top third of the oval represents our conscious — the things (including thoughts, memories and experiences) that we remember and are aware of on a regular basis. The bottom two thirds are our unconscious — a myriad of things that we are not aware of. What appears at first to be a complete barrier between the two (see Figure 6.1) in fact has a concealed trap door in the middle (see Figure 6.2) which opens in response to triggers that are beyond our control. These triggers are things that remind us of our past experiences and can include such things as sights, sounds, smells, words and phrases. When we experience a trigger, the trap door opens and things from our unconscious ’spill out’ into our conscious; Freud (1912) called this ’transference’.

But how is this connected with our emotions? In his work on Transactional Analysis (TA), Berne (1961) asserts that the human brain stores memories and feelings in such a way that they are inseparable. This means that we not only remember things that have happened in the past, but we also experience the feelings again that we felt at the time. In short, we not only remember the past event, we also feel how we felt at that time.


Figure 6.1 The human brain


Figure 6.2 The human brain responding to a ’trigger’

Berne argues that everything we experience is stored within us. When hearing this for the first time, this might seem somewhat far-fetched, but here are two examples that serve to illustrate Berne’s point.

A colleague of mine who used to teach in a university in Sweden once came to visit my university and as part of his visit observed one of my sessions. That day I was teaching Berne’s TA and as we discussed some of the core principles, he shared this story. He explained that he grew up in the locality of my university and as he travelled that morning by taxi he was suddenly overcome by an intense feeling of travel sickness. By the time he reached the university the feeling had passed; as he had not experienced any kind of travel sickness for a long time, he was curious about this. By the time of the session, he had remembered being a very small boy (about 3 years old) and being in the car with a relative and feeling very travel sick, so much so that they had to stop the car — and you can imagine the rest! That morning, his feelings of being travel sick occurred at the very spot where they had had to stop the car that day many years before.

Again whilst teaching TA, I once asked my students if any of them wanted to share an experience to illustrate the premise that memories and feelings are stored together. One student explained that she was a foster carer and one of the teenage girls that she used to care for had a real dislike of oranges. This dislike was so intense they could not have any oranges, orange juice or anything containing oranges in the house. One day the student concerned spoke to the girl’s social worker about this and it transpired that in her case notes it was recorded that she had been abandoned as a newborn baby and left outside a hospital in an orange box.

When thinking about the effect of triggers, it is important to remember that memories cannot be recalled without the feelings experienced and vice versa. Harris (1967: 12) explained it in this way ’I not only remember how I felt, I feel the same way now’. This means that as professional practitioners we should not be surprised when we have emotional responses to our experiences at work. Often these will occur as a result of a trigger reminding us of a past experience (positive or negative) which in turn will mean that we also feel how we felt at that time.

Reflective activity 6.1

Describe a recent experience that prompted an emotional response. What surprised you about this?

Case study 6.1

Tom is a bereavement counsellor who is working with a number of clients who have recently lost people close to them. He enjoys his work and went into it because of his own experiences of losing his father when he was young. At that time Tom was fortunate in having a close relationship with his father’s district nurse, who was also the father of one of his close school friends. Tom spent time talking very informally with him for a period of time following his father’s death and some years later realised how valuable this had been in supporting him and helping him begin to come to terms with a wide range of things that he had thought and felt during this time. Tom is currently working with a client in her fifties who has recently lost her elderly mother. During their early sessions Tom is surprised by his feelings about the client and her situation. The client’s mother was 85 when she died and Tom felt jealous and wished that his father had lived such a long life. He felt that the client should have been grateful for her mother’s long life, but instead she was overwhelmed by grief. He found himself thinking ’if you knew what I went through, you’d realise how lucky you are and get through it’. Tom’s grief that he felt many years ago re-surfaced, and in that moment he felt like he did during those first few months after his father died.

So if the trapdoor is open, what happens next?

The Almond Effect and the closing of the trapdoor

As human beings most of us have emotional responses to the situations we encounter and the people around us, which can be triggered by a range of things. The effect this has can sometimes be very powerful and can take us by surprise. We can all probably remember times when we have said things that we very quickly regret, or have reacted in a certain way and wish we had done things differently. In her book Where Did That Come From? Riches (2012) explains that this happens because of what she calls The Almond Effect.

Neuroscience shows that the human brain responds to potentially threatening situations with a ’flight or fight’ response. These responses are mostly automatic and result from the hardwiring of our neural pathways. Developed through the process of evolution, they have played an important part in the survival of the human race. Originating from the Greek word for almond, the amygdalae are two almond-shaped parts of the brain that play a vital role in both stimulating and regulating our emotional reactions to people and situations, particularly in relation to fear. The amygdalae prompt our ’fight or flight’ response where appropriate; they also enable us to sense emotional responses in other people. It is important to remember that our instinctive emotional responses always happen first; this is the Almond Effect.

However, the process does not usually stop there. Following our initial emotional response, we can then reach a more rational approach by using a range of strategies, many of which involve helping us to slow down and think. First, of course, we have to recognise what is happening as it is happening (part of the skill of reflection-in-action, Schön, 1983). These signs will vary from person to person but could mean being aware of such things as an increase in our heart rate, trembling, nausea or shallow breathing. This recognition gives us the opportunity to slow down and to reach a more measured response. Riches suggests some practical techniques such as remembering to breathe deeply and being sure to keep our body language open so as not to appear defensive. Following this process the trapdoor closes.

Reflective activity 6.2

Think back to the previous activity. Following your initial response, did you manage to reach a more rational one? If so how? If not, why not?

Case study 6.2

Bernadette is training to be a Careers Adviser and as part of her course she is required to spend some time on placement in a school. She decided to become a Careers Adviser because she had very little guidance when she was at school. She left school at 16 because she hated it and drifted from job to job until she found something she enjoyed. She now has two children of her own and wants them, and young people generally, to get more support than she did. Bernadette is not looking forward to her school placement and after the first week she contacts her tutor as she is very unhappy. She explains that each time she goes into school she feels physically sick and cannot wait for the end of the day. In particular, she cannot bear the smell of the school, which ’hits’ her as soon as she walks through the main entrance. She feels that she might have to withdraw from the course, or work with adult clients instead, as she cannot bear the thought of feeling like this in the long term. During the discussion Bernadette is reminded of her sessions on TA and realises that her unhappy memories of school are re-surfacing, in particular how she was always in trouble and made to stand outside the Head’s office. The smell is acting as a trigger for her memories and feelings, making her fearful and wanting to ’flee’. Bernadette soon realises that she is an adult and does not need to experience her time in school now in this way. She also realises that she has lots of empathy with young people in school who might be having similar experiences to hers, and that she is in a good position to support them.

Of course, all of this is also very helpful when thinking about how our clients respond; being in tune with our own emotions and recognising and understanding the emotions of others are two key aspects of emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1996). In relation to work with clients, it is important to remember two things. First, that the initial response we see is likely to be an emotional one. The second is that some clients will need our help and support to reach a more rational response and will not always be able to do this for themselves. At times, we too will need this kind of support from colleagues, and through supervision if it is available.

Reflective activity 6.3

How might you be able to use your knowledge of the Almond Effect when working with your clients?

Why do we need to process our feelings?

Processing our feelings can be uncomfortable and, particularly when we are busy, it can be very tempting to simply put them to one side. However, being in tune with our emotions is an important part of professional practice because it allows us to deal with how we are feeling about our work and those we are supporting. Many practitioners experience positive and negative emotions about their work, and the effect of not processing our feelings, particularly negative ones, can be damaging and detrimental to ourselves and to the people we are supporting.

For example, a practitioner who has lots of negative feelings about their work and their clients can expect to experience at least some of the following.

• Lack of motivation.

• Dissatisfaction with work.

• Higher levels of anxiety.

• Fatigue — especially mental and emotional fatigue — which in extreme cases can lead to exhaustion.

• Cynicism.

• Anger.

• Anxiety.

• Burn out.

• Low self esteem.

• Little sense of well being.

• In extreme cases burn out, depression and poor mental health.

Storing our feelings can be rather like using a ’pressure cooker’. As time goes on, unless the steam is released, the pan could explode, with somewhat devastating consequences.

Gibbs’ reflective cycle

We will now move on to examine two theoretical models that can help us to process our feelings. The first is Gibbs’ (1988) reflective cycle and is shown in Figure 6.3.

There are some clear similarities with Kolb’s (1984) model (see Chapter 4) but also some clear differences. Like Kolb, Gibbs also emphasises learning that happens from experience, which he suggests happens in a particular sequence. Gibbs’ cycle appears more detailed, having six steps and provides useful questions as prompts to help us to explore what we have learned at a deeper level. This also makes the model easy to use in practice.

At the second point on the cycle Gibbs focuses on feelings and our emotional response to situations. For those professionals supporting people in challenging circumstances (e.g. health, counselling, social work), this aspect of Gibbs’ cycle is particularly helpful. Bearing in mind the Almond Effect and the ways in which our brains store memories, it would be somewhat naïve to think that as professional practitioners we could somehow turn our emotions off and respond objectively immediately.


Figure 6.3 Gibbs’ reflective cycle

The third step on Gibbs’ cycle is also worth noting. The questions under the heading of ’Evaluation’ ask us to examine what was good about a particular experience as well as what was bad. This combination reminds us of the contrasting cycles of Ghaye (2011) and Osterman and Kottkamp (2004) (see Chapter 5) and seems well balanced. It prevents us from dwelling too much on the negative side and running ourselves down and also asks us to look at the positives so that we can build on them.

In particular, the fourth step on the cycle entitled ’Analysis’ helps us to think at a deeper level still in order to try to make sense of the experience. This could involve looking at the experience from different perspectives to try to see what was happening and why. It is interesting to note that Gibbs chooses tentative words in his question for this step on the cycle ’What sense can you make of the situation?’ rather than a more direct question like ’What sense do you make of the situation?’ The implication here is that we will not always be able to make sense of every experience in our professional practice but he certainly encourages us to try.

In some situations it will be easy to stop at this particular point on the cycle, but the next two points are important if we are to learn from experience and if our practice is to move forward. Using the heading ’Conclusion’ Gibbs encourages us to think through alternative approaches and what we might have been able to do differently. The cycle concludes with ’Action Plan’ where he asks us to think about what we would do if the same situation arose again.

Case study 6.3

Prem is training to be a paediatric nurse and is enjoying his placement in an Accident and Emergency unit. One Saturday afternoon a couple arrive with their two-year-old son who is having difficulty breathing. They have been preparing for his birthday party and think he might have swallowed something, perhaps one of the party balloons. Prem assists the nurse involved but finds the situation quite distressing. He decides to use Gibbs’ cycle to reflect on the experience after his shift.

Description — what happened? The parents arrived with their son who was having difficulty breathing. They were understandably very anxious and distressed. The boy looked a bit blue and was starting to become floppy.

Feelings — what were you thinking and feeling? I felt very anxious for the boy and for the parents too. I knew we needed to act quickly, but didn’t know what to do. This made me panic inside, although I tried not to show it. I also felt angry because the boy’s parents had not been watching him closely enough.

Evaluation — what was good and bad about the experience? I was glad that I was with an experienced nurse who knew what to do. She took action quickly and the boy was assessed by the registrar on duty and everything then moved very quickly to get him the help he needed. I found my own initial feelings of panic difficult to cope with and hope that I didn’t pass them on to the boy and his parents.

Analysis — what sense can I make of the situation? I felt guilty because of my anger towards the parents. It is not possible to watch a two-year-old every minute - this could happen to anyone. I didn’t have enough clinical skills or experience to cope with this. Maybe my anger was caused by a lack of understanding.

Conclusion — what else could I have done? I was pleased that I was able to manage my feelings of panic and did not appear to pass these on to the parents.

Action plan — if it arose again, what would I do? I would take some deep breaths, act swiftly and calmly to get the necessary help, try to understand the clients’ situation and use my interpersonal skills to help them in the best way I can.

Reflective activity 6.4

Now choose a recent experience from your professional practice and reflect on it using the questions from Gibbs’ cycle. How does using this cycle compare with others you have now used?

The work of Boud, Keogh and Walker

Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985) also encourage us to pay attention to our feelings, often referred to in literature as the affective dimension. Writing from the context of adult education, the focus once more is on learning from experience and they argue that reflection acts as a processing phase after the occurrence of an experience. Importantly, they also argue that it is the conscious process of reflection that enables us to learn and to develop our practice through analysis and evaluation rather than some kind of ad hoc thinking about things, for example on the bus on the way home. Such reflection can be prompted by positive and negative experiences and involves intellectual and affective aspects. The outcomes of reflection can include the following.

• Synthesis — a mixing of different ideas to bring about a different whole.

• Integration — combining two or more things to become more effective.

• Appropriation — taking something forward that you want to use in the future.

• Validation — growing confidence in knowing your actions were justifiable.

• A new affective state — a change in the way you feel about the experience.

• A decision to engage in some further activity and a commitment to action.

Boud et al. draw our attention to three important factors that affect learning, and it is worth considering them in relation to our own learning. First, learners all have previous experiences that affect how they approach the current learning situation. So, if someone has had positive learning experiences in the past, they may well be more enthusiastic and open to learning compared to those whose experiences of learning have been more negative. Those who have had negative experiences need an opportunity to process them; this is not only important for adults in an educational setting but for children too. Such negative experiences prompt emotional reactions, which, if not processed, can become a barrier to learning. Processing those feelings can mean liberation from previous assumptions, such as ’I’m no good at Maths’. Rather like Honey and Mumford’s (2000) learning styles (see Chapter 2), we need to be aware of our learning habits so that, if necessary, we can liberate ourselves from them. This is a process that can be swift (like a ’eureka’ moment) or slower, where a series of happenings enable us to look at things differently. For those in the teaching profession these are vital points to remember not only in relation to how we learn in our own practice, but also how those in our classrooms and seminars learn too.

Reflective activity 6.5

Take a few minutes to think about your previous experiences of education and learning. How might your learning habits affect your learning now?

Secondly, Boud et al. discuss the importance of the intent of the learner. People differ in how they approach learning; some are satisfied with a ’surface approach’ (Boud et al., 1985: 24) whilst others adopt a deeper one. Those who take a deeper approach seek to understand what they are studying and engage with it, for example to compare and contrast it to what they know already. They actively interact with their material to discover meaning. Those who take a surface approach are more likely to memorise information and simply focus on the requirements of the essay or examination.

Thirdly, Boud et al. are clear that taking a reflective approach is a deliberate choice, rather like the choice we make to look in the ’metaphorical mirror’ (see Chapter 1). Choosing to look in the ’metaphorical mirror’ then presents us with a second choice: whether to take action on what we see or not. And, importantly, we must always be prepared for our initial emotional responses to what we see and be ready to process them.

Boud et al. present their model in three stages and these are shown in Figure 6.4.

Stage 1 (returning to the experience) is familiar and involves taking some time to reflect on the experience. Boud et al. suggest that writing things down in a detailed way can be helpful and they also encourage us to hold back from making any judgements regarding what happened at this point. In particular, they ask us to observe our feelings. This material provides us with the data that we need to process in the next stage.

Stage 2 (attending to feelings) asks us to pay attention to our feelings. Using positive feelings is important as these keep us focused on moving forward, particularly in circumstances that might be challenging. In very challenging situations our positive feelings might be minor compared to the negative feelings we experience and, therefore, all the more important to remember in relation to our own motivation and well being. This stage also involves processing our negative feelings to ensure that they do not ’drag us down’ and become a barrier to our development.

Stage 3 (re-evaluating the experience) is closely linked with the outcomes of reflection on page 74, which lead us to action. This re-evaluation can help us to see things differently, to change our behaviour and to be ready to take action on what we have found.


Figure 6.4 Boud et al.’s model for reflection

Boud et al. (1985), p. 36

In particular, it is important to notice that, unlike previous reflective cycles we have examined, Boud et al. show that their cycle is multi-directional. In other words, the arrows go in more than one direction, showing that the processes involve re-visiting (perhaps even repeatedly) the stages, as distinct from other models that seem to imply that the stages or steps in a cycle are only visited once. This makes this cycle different and more complex.

Case study 6.4

Jon is on his second placement in a primary school and is working in a class with pupils in Year 1. He is getting to know the children quite well and can see that there are a couple of children in the class who might be being bullied by other children. Jon notices that there are certain boys and girls who call some of the other children by what he considers to be harmful nicknames and this makes him feel very uncomfortable. He uses Boud et al.’s cycle to analyse his experiences so he can discuss them in depth with his mentor. He writes this in his journal.

Stage 1 (returning to the experience) — Children can be very mean. Today I overheard one of the girls teasing another girl because she is friends with one of the boys. She and the boy have been friends since nursery and she became very upset when the other girl started to call him silly rhyming names. I felt angry because good friendships are so important for children and bullying is never acceptable.

Stage 2 (attending to feelings) — Why did I feel so angry? I suppose it reminded me of the name I was often called at school and how it really hurt and often undermined my confidence. I wasn’t bullied badly at school, but even so, calling people names is horrible. I remember talking to my Mum about it and that always made me feel better. She used to say ’sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’. I remembered those words and they helped me to feel better.

Stage 3 (re-evaluating the experience) — what new perspectives do I now have and how will I change my behaviour? Children can be cruel but I don’t need to let that drag me down to the point where I feel negative about them. Bullying is never good, but children need to build their resilience and as long as they have support, they can often cope with it better. I will talk to my mentor and ask her to help me to formulate some strategies that I can use in situations like this.

How can we process our feelings effectively?

It is clear that processing our feelings is important and that it will be vital to our well being to find effective ways of doing this. Some possible ways include:

• Writing about your experiences in a notebook or journal. As discussed in Chapter 3, this forces us to slow down.

• Using a recording device (e.g. on your smart phone or tablet) that you can listen to afterwards.

• Finding a trusted colleague who you can share with; often this is termed a critical friend (see Chapter 8).

• Using supervision if it is available (see Chapter 8).

• Finding a safe space, e.g. a supportive group, where you can share your feelings and know that they will be handled sensitively.

All of these things will help you to externalise your feelings rather than store them up when they might have a tendency to make you re-visit things far too often. It is also important to remember that the feelings we have can be communicated unwittingly to other people; this is called countertransference.

Reflective activity 6.6

Which of these methods would suit you best? If appropriate, how can you make sure you have the support mechanism in place?

Case study 6.5

Camille is a newly qualified social worker who understands the value of reflection. She is working in a children and families team and has some challenging safeguarding issues to deal with, which she finds upsetting and sometimes distressing. Camille often finds it difficult to ’switch off’ when she leaves work, so decides to use some methods to help her to process the feelings she is experiencing. She writes in her reflective journal regularly and finds that this is a good way of ’letting off steam’. When time is at a premium, she records her thoughts by speaking into her smart phone. She has a close friend at work and they have a regular cup of coffee together each week to share their experiences. Camille always attends her supervision sessions and uses these as a means of exploring her cases from a number of different angles. All of these help her to process her feelings and to externalise them. This means she is less likely to take them home with her and pass them on to other people.


In this chapter we have explored the vital area of engaging with our emotions in professional practice. This is always challenging, particularly in relation to processing negative feelings we all undoubtedly have at certain times. Finding ways of doing this that work for us as individuals is vital for our well being, motivation and development. In the next chapter we move on to consider the area of assumptions.


Berne, E. (1961) Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy, New York: Grove Press.

Brown, L. (1992) Live Your Dreams, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p. 16.

Boud, D., Keogh, R. and Walker, D. (1985) Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning, London: Routledge Falmer.

Freud, S. (1912) ’The dynamics of transference’, in J. Strachey (ed.) (1961) Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 12, London: Hogarth, pp. 99—108.

Gibbs, G. (1998) Learning by Doing: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Methods, Oxford: Further Education Unit, Oxford Polytechnic.

Ghaye, T. (2011) Teaching and Learning through Reflective Practice: A Practical Guide for Positive Action, Abingdon: Routledge.

Goleman, D. (1996) Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, London: Bloomsbury.

Harris, T.A. (1967) I’m OK — You’re OK, New York: HarperCollins.

Honey, P. and Mumford, A. (2000) The Learning Styles Helper’s Guide, Maidenhead: Peter Honey Publications.

Kolb, D. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Osterman, K.F. and Kottkamp, R.B. (2004) Reflective Practice for Educators, 2nd edn., Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Riches, A. (2012) “Where Did That Come From?” How to Keep Control in Any Situation [e-book] Sudbury, MA: eBookIt. Available at http://www.anneriches.com.au/almond-effect.html.

Schön, D.A. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Williams, M. and Penman, D. (2011) Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to finding Peace in a Frantic World, London: Piatkus.