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 artificial intelligence.

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 and doesn’t 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.




















220 Queen Street South
Mississauga, ON. L5M 1L6
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Dr. Wanda Malcolm, Psychologist
Phone: (416) 225-5800
Email: wmm@drmalcolmpsychologist.com