Why focus on emotions in therapy?
Feelings give us useful information about what’s important
and meaningful in our interactions with others, and can tell us
how to respond to what’s going on. Our emotion system is
designed to deliver a “felt understanding” of situations
faster and better than merely thinking about them logically. Just
as a bland offering of pureed food is satisfying only to infants
who are not yet ready to celebrate life’s finer moments over
dinner with good friends, so processing incoming information stripped
of emotion-based meaning is only good for robots designed to use
Therapists trained in Emotion-focused therapy (EFT) help clients
work with instead of against, the “bad” or
distressing feelings that accompany painful situations. They do this
by helping clients figure out if their emotion system is malfunctioning
or if they’re not using it to its full potential because they’ve
been ignoring or suppressing unpleasant but useful feelings.
What good are bad feelings?
While we might rather not feel intensely
sad, angry or afraid, “bad” or
distressing emotions have been compared to the warning lights on
a car’s dashboard: when they are working properly, these
early-warning bad-feeling signals get our attention and tell us
something is wrong. At the same time, they point us toward the
best response. Sadness moves us to grieve or go after something
we’ve lost; anger prompts us to tell another person to “back
off;” fear warns us to get out of harm’s way.
We run into trouble when our emotion system malfunctions
give us accurate information in a timely fashion; we learn we can’t
trust our feelings to help us figure out how to respond. Take anxiety
as an example. It functions as a “threat-detector” that
senses when something could be dangerous. It tells us to look for
the source of the threat and readies us to feel anger (and assert
ourselves) or fear (and get out of the way). Feelings of anxiety
become a problem when they are triggered too often, too easily
and even when there’s nothing to be alarmed about. An EFT
therapist helps clients learn how to recognize false alarms and
calm themselves instead of panicking.
We don’t all have trouble with a malfunctioning 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 it was not safe to be emotionally open and vulnerable.
This sort of thing happens when we’ve been ridiculed or taken
advantage of by someone who felt entitled to misuse or abuse us.
While it’s good to protect ourselves against those who take
advantage, making a habit of suppressing or ignoring our feelings
whenever we feel vulnerable means we won’t have access to
the early-warning signals that tell us to get out of harm’s
way. Furthermore, because it’s impossible to suppress only
one emotion on a regular basis, always pushing away distressing
feelings like fear and shame also robs us of our capacity to feel
joy, love and sensual pleasure. We can end up depressed, like we’re
wearing a wet blanket over all our feelings, not just the troublesome
ones. An EFT therapist helps clients learn to let themselves feel
what they are feeling without being overwhelmed, and how to act
on their feelings in healthy ways that won’t cause unnecessary
problems in their relationships.
You can learn more about Emotion-focused therapy by visiting www.emotionfocusedtherapy.org.