EFT, Emotion-Focused Therapy
What is Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT)?
An emotion-focused approach to positive change assumes that emotions are a key source of information about what is important and meaningful in our relationships, and that they motivate our responses to what is happening in and around us. One of the things EFT therapists do is help clients figure out whether their emotion system is malfunctioning and therefore giving untrustworthy information, or whether they are not using their emotion system to its full potential because they have been ignoring or suppressing the useful information carried by unpleasant feelings. For an emotion-focused therapist, the way to assist clients is to help them move through their painful feelings in order to identify and work through the unresolved aspects of the experience that gave rise to their distress.
Why focus on emotions in therapy?
Part of what it means to be human is to have moment-by-moment feelings about what is unfolding in and around ourselves as we go about our daily lives. Scientific research has shown that our emotion system is a right brain function that is oriented to the “big picture” and relies on imagination, symbols and images. Like other right brain functions, emotion presents possibilities and is designed to deliver a holistic and felt understanding of a situation faster than is possible if we think about the situation sequentially and logically. In learning to bring our emotional brain “online” and working in alignment with our thinking brain, we are better able to make more balanced and creative decisions as we engage with life’s obstacles and challenges.
Therapists who take an emotion-focused approach help their clients take full advantage of the meaningful information carried by their emotions. They also help clients work with, instead of against, the negative or distressing feelings everyone inevitably experiences when life presents painful situations or dilemmas that are hard to endure and difficult to resolve.
What good are bad feelings?
While we may reasonably prefer to not feel them, “bad” or distressing emotions have been compared to the warning lights on a car’s dashboard: when they are working properly, those early-warning bad-feeling signals get our attention, tell us that something is wrong, and prompt us to do something about whatever is lighting up our emotion system before we are seriously damaged by the experience. When they are working well for us, those early-warning bad-feeling signals also point us toward potential healthy responses and move us to action. Sadness moves us to grieve or go after something we’ve lost; anger prompts us to assert self-respecting boundaries; fear warns us to protect ourselves by getting out of harm’s way.
When our emotion system malfunctions and doesn’t give us useful information in a timely fashion, we may run into trouble because we are getting too much or too little of an otherwise good thing. When this happens, we can’t trust our feelings to help us figure out how to respond. A therapist who takes an emotion-focused approach can help a client “reset” their emotion system so it gives more trustworthy information. Take anxiety as an example. It is an early-warning bad-feeling signal that is essential for survival because it works like a detection system that senses when there is a threat to our physical or psychological well-being and “lights up” to get our attention. Anxiety becomes a problem, however, when it is evoked too often, too easily, or for false alarms, all of which can leave us feeling like we can’t cope with life or calm ourselves in the wake of an anxiety alert. When our emotion system malfunctions on a regular basis, it is important to learn how to regulate the intensity and frequency of the signals, how to recognize false alarms and calm ourselves when they happen, and how to take the good information from the emotional signal and use it to respond in more adaptive ways.
We are in trouble when we don’t feel anything at all.
Not all of us have trouble with an overactive emotion system; some of us have learned to suppress or ignore upsetting but useful feelings because we were (and maybe still are) in a relationship where we learned that it is not safe to be emotionally vulnerable and open. While it may sometimes be necessary to keep our feelings from those who would take advantage of our vulnerability, making a habit of suppressing or ignoring our feelings means we don’t have access to the early-warning signals that tell us to get out of harm’s way. Furthermore, because it is not usually possible to systematically suppress only one emotion, pushing away distressing feelings like fear, sadness or shame also robs us of our capacity to feel joy, love, and lively curiosity. Instead, we can end up feeling like there is a heavy wet blanket over all our feelings, not just the troublesome ones. We stop living creatively and flexibly, and instead get stuck in patterns of responding to new situations the same old way. An EFT therapist creates a trustworthy therapeutic environment in which clients feel safe to learn how to feel what they are feeling without being overwhelmed. An EFT therapist also helps clients to learn how to step into and then out of informative but distressing feeling states so that they can gain a working distance from them and learn how to act on their feelings in adaptive, healthy ways without causing unnecessary problems in day-to-day life or relationships.