In emotion-focused therapy, emotional responses can be classified into four general categories; adaptive, maladaptive, reactive, and instrumental.
Adaptive (Healthy) Emotional Responses are beneficial emotional responses to life. For example, sadness about a loss, anger in response to a violation, and fear of threat all lead to needed change and powerful action. Sadness is a healthy response when it motivates us to reconnect with someone or something important that is missing. Anger is a healthy response when it motivates you to take assertive action to end a violation. Fear is a healthy response when it motivates us to avoid or escape a threat to our well-being.
Maladaptive (Unhealthy) Emotional Responses are generally dysfunctional responses based on emotions conditioned from our past that are no longer useful and are often formed during traumatic experiences. For example, a person may respond with anger at genuine caring or concern because as a child he or she was offered caring or concern followed by a violation. Automatically responding to caring or concern with anger even when there is no violation becomes an unhealthy response.
Complex (Reactive) Emotional Responses: are when a different emotion occurs after the first emotion. Reactive emotions can be escalations of a primary emotion response. We can feel angry about being angry, afraid of our fear, or sad about our sadness. Reactive emotions can be a defense against our primary emotions such as feeling anger to avoid sadness or fear to avoid anger.
Reactive emotions are a defense against feeling the deeper, more painful emotions that we are afraid to see and process. We can explore these defensive emotions gently in therapy to see and heal what is underneath.
Instrumental (Manipulative) Emotional Responses are experienced and expressed when we learn that our positive or negative emotions have an effect on others. We might express emotions to get someone to pay attention to us, to get them to do something for us, to approve of us, or perhaps most often just not to disapprove of us." Instrumental emotion responses can be consciously intended or unconsciously learned in childhood.
Examples include crocodile tears (instrumental sadness), bullying (instrumental anger), crying wolf (instrumental fear), and feigned embarrassment (instrumental shame). Instrumental emotion responses can be explored in therapy in order to increase awareness of their interpersonal function and/or the associated gain.