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How Therapy Works: Why Should I Talk to A Stranger?

“You should talk to someone.” For many of us, these are the words that begin the journey into mental health. Whether whispered in our own minds or spoken by another, there is a defining moment when we recognize we can’t do it alone. We need help.

But what is help?

When we think of therapy, an archetype comes to mind: a quiet room, a couch or chair, someone sitting across from us occasionally asking “how does that make you feel?”

Is this help?

Talk therapy has been around since the ancient Greeks and is a proven treatment for improving mental health. But if you’ve never been to therapy, you may find yourself wondering: why does talking to a stranger work?

The answer lies in the phrase emotional intelligence. We can think of this as an umbrella term, including concepts such as mindfulness, self-awareness, emotional regulation, rational thinking, detachment, etc. The terminology changes based on the therapist, but the idea is the same: the ability to find distance from our emotional experience so that we can better understand, accept, and ultimately empower ourselves.

Let’s break that down. In any moment, we potentially feel several emotions at the same time. One way to understand this is to break these emotions into three categories: primary emotions, subconscious emotions, and past emotions.

Our primary emotion is the initial feeling we experience in a situation. A compliment could make us feel happy. A fight with a friend could make us angry. A death could make us sad. We often feel this primary emotion as a reaction of the experience; in other words, we usually don’t define it, we just feel it.   

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While we are reacting with primary emotions, we are simultaneously experiencing subconscious emotions. These exist underneath our primary emotions and frequently affect us without our knowledge. For example, if a person is stood up on a date, their primary emotion may be anger. However, their subconscious emotion may be fear that they will never find someone, self-doubt about their ability to interest others, embarrassment they are alone in a restaurant, etc. Our subconscious emotions are part of what makes us so complicated; they can be extremely hard to recognize.   

Add to this the dimension of time. Past emotions arise in us when a present experience connects to a past one. Our brains store our emotional pasts and use the information to react when similar situations arise. (Evolutionarily, this makes sense. Emotionally, this makes complications.) A person stood up on a date may be experiencing the primary emotion anger and the subconscious emotion fear, yet they may also be re-experiencing the pain of past emotional experiences when they were abandoned or devalued. Past emotions can be deeply embedded in us, affecting us in ways we can’t see.

Primary emotions, subconscious emotions, and past emotions. This is a lot of emotions.

So how does talk therapy help?

In order to talk to someone, we take our internal experience and communicate it externally. In other words, we translate feelings into words. This requires emotional intelligence; we must learn to identify our emotions so we can name them. Yet we’ve just learned that primary, subconscious, and past emotions are all swirled together in a complicated mess of feelings.

So how do we separate them?

We learn to find distance.

Think of it as a photography perspective game: can you recognize the zoomed-in picture of orange and black? Maybe, but you’re too close to tell. Once you see the zoomed-out picture you can see it’s a tiger.

We do this when we talk about an emotion: the very act of saying “I feel angry” means you have distanced yourself enough from reacting to identify the primary emotion; you see your tiger. (For some of us, we have never done this; there are therapies designed for the sole purpose of helping people recognize their primary emotion.)

Once we use distance to identify the primary emotion, we can begin to explore it. We start to see that the photograph of the tiger has a background, an environment we couldn’t see when we were too close, yet was there the whole time. As we develop an understanding of our primary emotion, we begin to uncover our subconscious and past emotions. We begin to see their complicated relationship. It takes work. It’s not easy.

An easy way to think of emotional intelligence is as a map; getting to where you want to go is almost impossible if you don’t know where you are. A map provides the distance needed to identify your location, the surrounding area, and to see the possible routes to your destination.

Yet once again we must add the dimension of time. On the map, the past is not only the route we took to get where we are; it is also the traffic, potholes, secret passageways, and detours that make our future destination a much more complicated goal.

Cue the therapist.

A good talk therapist has studied the relationship between primary, secondary, and past emotions; their job is to help you draw your map. While people we know can offer us support, they tend to suggest destinations and directions. However, a good therapist will not do this; how could they? They don’t know you. But a good therapist is an expert in facilitating the type of conversation that allows you to develop emotional intelligence. They may not know your life, but they understand which primary emotions tend to partner with which secondary emotions, how past emotions can affect present experiences, which thoughts can lead to what emotions, etc. They understand how emotions become knotted together, and the many techniques that are used to untangle them. As they come to understand the way you experience emotions, they begin to provide the techniques they believe will work best for you. Often times this is like buying clothes; you have to try on a few to find your size. A therapist has a closet full of techniques, and will help you find the perfect fit.   

As emotional intelligence develops, so does understanding. We start to see why we feel what we feel when we feel it. As this ability grows, we can begin to see that our emotions are not the controlling things we thought they were; they are actually our allies, providing information we can use to interpret experiences and make decisions. This is why we go in the quiet room, sit on the couch or chair, and talk to a stranger.

They will not fix us, but we learn to fix ourselves.

How Therapy Works: Why Should I Talk to A Stranger?

Britt Mahrer

Britt Mahrer is a therapist and author in Denver, Colorado. She is currently accepting new clients. Please visit to schedule an appointment.

APA Reference
Mahrer, B. (2018). How Therapy Works: Why Should I Talk to A Stranger?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 9 Oct 2018 (Originally: 9 Oct 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 9 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.