The basic tenets of Emotion Focused Therapy are very simple. Emotions such as sadness, anger, surprise, fear and happiness are adaptive and, without them, humans would have not survived. For instance, fear told us to run (or fight) when facing danger or threat (e.g., to self or to our family). In essence our emotions tell us what we need and they help us to connect with others. Unfortunately, we all have difficulty dealing with emotion sometimes and Emotion Focused Therapy was developed to help people to become more aware of their emotions so that they can be used adaptively.
Despite the adaptive nature of our basic emotions, they are often misunderstood. There are a number of misunderstandings or negative thoughts about emotions in the popular media, society, etc. For example, the word “emotional” is often associated with being sad (or emotionally unstable), which is perceived to be bad or undesirable. In addition, many people are taught to act like superman (or woman), in total control of their feelings. We tend to shy away from expressing emotion, as it is often perceived as a sign of weakness or impending breakdown. These beliefs are problematic because they limit our ability to fully connect with others via our emotions.
In therapy, clients discover how they tend to inhibit or suppress their emotions and learn to be with them more comfortably. People often report feeling “lighter” after experiencing their emotions in a validating therapeutic environment. Clients are also taught to contain their emotions to minimize feeling overwhelmed and to work through secondary emotions such as anger that shutdown more primary emotions such as sadness and fear.
How does EFT work? Our emotions reside in our bodies, most typically in the chest or stomach. A main task in Emotion Focused Therapy is to explore bodily sensations and to find words that correctly label our emotional experience. The body will know what words fit. Having such awareness fosters direction and meaning. Other EFT tasks include processing unmet needs related to key life experiences so that closure and acceptance is reached.
Finally, clients can reach a sense of completeness by minimizing problematic behaviours such as self-criticism via dialogue tasks. These tasks help clients to explore parts of the self (e.g., fear underlying self-criticism or laws of behaving that are imposed by others) in order to give voice to adaptive behaviour. An impressive body of scientific research has shown that EFT can help reduce depression and interpersonal problems and increase self-compassion, assertiveness, self-esteem, and problem solving in social and work settings. In addition, clients report improvements in symptoms related to traumatic experiences such as avoidance of reminders. Last, research also shows that EFT helps couples reduce distress and, more importantly, begin to rely on each other for comfort and support. It works, and more research is currently being done on the process of change. That is, what specific therapist and client behaviours occurring in session lead to the most change?
Anyone who is depressed, has problems in relationships and who generally feels unwell regarding who they are and what they do will benefit from Emotion Focused Therapy. In the words of many clients: “It’s like I just went to the spa.”