Updated: Oct 27, 2020
In Emotion Focused Therapy there are six stages of emotional healing:
1. Awareness ~ 2. Expression ~ 3. Regulation ~4. Reflection ~ 5.Transformation ~ 6. Corrective Experiences
1. AWARENESS: Increasing awareness of your emotions, and naming what you feel, is the most fundamental goal of counselling. Once you know what we feel, you can reconnect to your deepest needs for well-being and happiness and you will feel more motivated to meet them. Becoming aware of, and tangibly symbolizing your core emotional experiences with words impels us to take action to meet your emotional needs.
Emotions contain valuable information on how you need to grow and self-actualize. It is important to note that emotional awareness involves feeling the feeling, not just talking about it. Emotion-focused therapy can help you to approach, accept, tolerate and symbolize (viscerally elucidate) emotions rather than avoid fully processing them through mental explanations.
Emotions deeply inform you of what feels hurtful, wrong or untrue, and they invite you to move forward into healthier ways of living. When you make sense of what your emotions are telling you, you can identify the goal/need/concern that the emotion is organizing you to attain. The action tendency that arises when you see, name and understand your emotions provides new ways to improve coping with life.
2. EXPRESSION: Expressing your emotions does not involve the venting of your defensive emotions (anxiety, shame and guilt) but rather overcoming your avoidance to express previously constricted and repressed primary emotions (fear, anger, grief, joy, and excitement). Sharing what you vulnerably feel in therapy (or in art or writing), even when you feel ashamed to express, will help you to attend to and clarify the central needs and concerns that your emotions are pointing toward.
There is a strong human tendency to avoid expressing painful emotions. In therapy, you will be encouraged to overcome your avoidance and approach your painful emotions by attending to your bodily experience, often in small steps. This also involves witnessing limiting/negative beliefs that "feed into" your pain such as “anger is dangerous” or “I am unlovable.”
In therapy, you will be encouraged to allow and tolerate being in deep contact with your painful emotions, and witnessing all the attendant negative beliefs that "amp up" your pain. These two steps of approaching your emotions with kindness and tolerating your emotional pain for bearable periods of time are consistent with the principles of exposure therapy and are also spiritual practices of self-compassion. When you expose yourself to previously-avoided emotions by gently approaching a repressed emotion, allowing it to "come up" (emotional arousal), and tolerating the emotional experience for longer and longer periods of time, your emotional pain will gradually reveal its painful beliefs. As you grow in compassionate witnessing awareness, your learned and inherited "pain body" gradually loses its uncomfortable charge.
It should be noted that experiencing emotions that you have been afraid to feel is necessary but not sufficient for change. Once contact with your emotional experience is achieved, you must also cognitively orient to your emotional experience as valuable information, and explore, reflect on, and make sense of the limiting beliefs that feed into it.
3. REGULATION: The third principle of emotional processing involves the regulation of emotion. It is clear that emotional arousal and expression are not always helpful or appropriate in certain aspects of our life. And, for some of us, practicing emotional down-regulation must precede or accompany the heavier and harder processing of our emotions.
Emotions need to be regulated when anxiety and distress are so high your emotions can no longer inform you about how to healthily adapt to your environment. You may need to calm your anxiety before you can find out what is underneath. The first step in emotion regulation is the creation of a safe, calming, validating and empathic environment. A hot bath, guided meditation, or a walk outside in nature may be needed in order to calm your nervous system. When you feel calm, you can start to "feed" yourself with self-nurturing thoughts as you process your emotions.
Internal security develops by feeling that one exists in the mind and heart of another. Being able to soothe yourself develops initially by internalizing the soothing gestures of a protective other. (Experiencing the kindness of a therapist, or imagining what a nurturing mother or a good father would say are a few ways to self-soothe.)
The security of being able to self-soothe develops by remembering and practicing the soothing gestures of a loving other, or asking for "otherworldly" spiritual sustenance through prayer or meditation. Over time and with practice, "outer" soothing is internalized and becomes more automatic.
Forms of meditative practice that involve observing your emotions and letting them come and go, breathing, surrendering and accepting what is arising create a working distance from overwhelmingly painful core emotions. In therapy, you can safely learn how to tolerate your emotions and learn how to self-soothe through relaxation, development of self-compassion, and positive self-talk.
4. REFLECTION: Symbolizing your emotions in words (and art) can help you to make sense of your experience. The meaning you make of your emotional experience makes you into who you authentically are. Self-reflection helps to create new positive, strength-based meanings about the purpose of your suffering. As you tell and retell your old emotional story, you will become tired of it, and the desire to create new inspiration, meaning and purpose will arise from the awareness of our pain.
You can assimilate old, habitually painful emotions into new narratives to explore the deeper meaning and new direction of your life experience. When the unsayable is made sayable, situations can be understood in new ways and old experiences can be reframed, leading to new strength-based views of self and the world.
5. TRANSFORMATION: Probably the most important way of dealing with emotions in therapy involves the transformation of a negative emotion into a higher emotion. The maladaptive emotion is not to be purged or "gotten rid of." It is transformed into an alchemical opposite. The process of transmuting lower emotions into higher emotions goes beyond ideas of catharsis, completion and letting go.
Practicing higher feelings transforms the lower emotions. Resilient individuals cope with life by recruiting positive emotions to undo negative emotional experiences. Bad feelings can be transformed by happy feelings, not by deliberately trying to look on the bright side, but by the evocation of embodied experience that undoes the neurochemistry, physiology, and conditioned experience of negative emotions.
New embodied experience can be as simple as creating a daily gratitude or appreciation practice. We can literally re-sculpt our biology through small, positive decisions to focus on something other than our emotional pain. As spiritual writer F. Aster Barnwell explains how it is fully possible to "re-sculpt a new me":
"Our hormonal and nerve impulses will change to correspond to the new person we are becoming. Once we have achieved this degree of change we are able to do "good deeds" without any expectation of reward. Good deeds are now a natural and spontaneous expression of our beings as a result of our consciousness becoming established at a higher level. We can start by making small changes in our life by focusing on little things."
EFT works on the basic principle that people must first arrive at a place before they can leave it. You have to feel it to heal it! Memories of past childhood losses and traumas are activated in the therapy session to change through memory reconstruction, meaning-making and the activation of the higher emotions that create new life direction. By being activated in present time the old memories can then be restructured by introducing new adult understanding to the old situation.
6. CORRECTIVE EXPERIENCES: A key way to change is to have a new lived experience that changes old painful emotions forever. New lived experience with a therapist provides an initial corrective emotional template. Experiences with new people out in the world provide different "energetic templates" than we have known in the past.
It is absolutely possible to correct negative emotional patterns that were conditioned from earlier times. With new experiences out in the world we can experience interpersonal soothing, we can dispel limited beliefs, and we can receive confirmations about our higher potentials.
In Your Journal:
Reflect upon what stage you are currently healing within, and I invite you to bring your contemplations to your session.
With much care,
* Article inspired by Emotion-Focused Therapy: A Clinical Synthesis by Les Greenberg