Emotion Focused Therapy
What are Emotions?
According to Emotion Focused Therapy, emotions are adaptive instinctual (gut) reactions that tell us about our environment and signal to us when and how to act.
Emotions are both necessary to our survival and determine the quality of every single experience we have.
Importantly, emotions are considered to be innate and immediate reactions that occur before thoughts. Because emotions occur before we have time to assess a situation cognitively, people are often not aware of what they are feeling or why. Developing awareness of our emotions is a necessary first step in Emotion Focused Therapy.
Based on the research of Dr Paul Ekman 6 ‘primary’ emotions have been identified. These primary emotions are observable in infants and across cultures (Ekman, 1992).
These 6 primary emotions are:
A perceived threat to one or more of these needs triggers an uncomfortable emotion. This emotion drives us to protect and restore that need. Once the need is restored, the emotion subsides and we are left with a feeling of satisfaction.
Starting from birth we learn how to interact with the world through our emotional system. We cry when we are scared, we reach for our primary caregiver when we feel sad and need comfort, and we feel curious to explore a new toy or object. If our emotional expressions are attended to in a consistent and appropriate way, we learn to trust our emotions, other people, and the world around us. However, if our emotions are ignored or responded to inappropriately then we may learn to distrust our emotions, making it difficult to meet our own needs in the future.
Throughout our lives, there are many experiences that can damage our emotional system, such as: abuse, violence, neglect, loss, bullying, illness, racism and other forms of discrimination, poverty, family or community rejection due to gender or sexual identity, and so on.
Problems in the development of the emotional system can lead to emotional difficulties and disorders, including: anxiety and mood disorders, trauma-related disorders, addiction and eating disorders, attachment and relationship problems, and personality disorders.
Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT)
Increasing emotional awareness is a necessary first step in EFT. Many people are largely unaware of their emotions and lack the language to articulate what they are feeling. Many people complain of vague feelings of ‘stress’ or ‘upset’ without being able to identify the particular emotional components of what they feel. As such, many people struggle to identify the causes behind much of what they are feeling.
Increasing emotional regulation is fundamental to facilitating emotional change. When emotions become too intense, such as panic or rage, we become overwhelmed, unable to think clearly, and lose control of our behaviour. On the other hand, emotions can become dulled or numbed to the point that we can no longer feel them. This emotional numbing is a key feature of depression. Emotional regulation refers to the ability to keep our emotions within a certain range of intensity, not too high and not too low. When we can regulate our emotions, we can access them in a safe way and learn what they are trying to tell us.
Transforming emotion refers to working with the adaptive potential of our emotional system so that we can change unhelpful emotional states and feel better within ourselves. In EFT, clients are guided to attend to their emotions in different ways. This focused attending reveals to clients new and more adaptive aspects of their emotional system. Clients are then guided to use these new aspects of their emotional system to heal or resolve unhelpful emotional states.
Ekman, P. (1992). An Argument for Basic Emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 6(3/4), 169 – 200.
Greenberg, L. S. (2004). Emotion Focused Therapy. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy. 11, p.p. 3 – 16.