In Emotion Focused Therapy there are six stages of emotional healing. I have tweaked the model to place the need for nervous system regulation before the expression of vulnerable emotions.
1. Awareness of your emotions ~ 2. Regulation of your nervous system ~ 3. Expression of your vulnerable emotions ~4. Reflection on the meaning of your emotions ~ 5. Transformation of your emotions ~ 6. New experiences with others and the world
1. AWARENESS (of your emotions): Increasing awareness of your emotions, and naming what you feel, is the first goal in emotional healing. Once you know what you feel, you can reconnect to your deepest needs for well-being, and you will become more motivated to find happiness.
The awareness stage of emotional healing encourages you to notice and name your emotions. Emotions contain valuable information about how you need to grow and self-actualize. It is important to note that emotional awareness involves feeling your emotions, not just talking about them.
Painful emotions inform you of what feels hurtful, wrong or untrue, and they incite you to move forward into healthier ways of living. When you make sense of what your emotions are, you can identify the goal/need/concern that the emotion is organizing you to address. The action tendency that arises when you see and name your emotions provides new ways to cope with life.
2. REGULATION (of your nervous system): The second stage of emotional healing (in my experience) involves the necessity of nervous system regulation. Since it is common to feel anxious when a vulnerable emotion is arising, calming your anxiety must precede processing heavier and harder emotions.
The first step in nervous system regulation is to resource yourself by creating 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 resource yourself with encouraging thoughts before you begin to process vulnerable emotions.
Finding ways to soothe yourself develops initially by internalizing the soothing gestures of a loving or protective other. (Experiencing the kindness of a therapist, or imagining what a nurturing mother or a protective father would say is a good way to anchor internal security.) Over time and with practice, imagined outer soothing is internalized and becomes more automatic and self-sustaining.
Inner security can also develop by asking for "otherworldly" spiritual sustenance through prayer or meditation. Forms of meditative practice that are supportive can involve observing your emotions and letting them come and go, breathing with your emotions, and surrendering and accepting what is arising. You can safely learn how to tolerate your emotional pain by self-soothing through relaxation, and resourcing through the development of self-compassion.
3. EXPRESSION (of vulnerable emotions): Expressing your emotions does not just involve the venting of defensive /inhibitory emotions of anxiety, shame, and guilt but also overcoming your avoidance of expressing the primary emotions of fear, anger, grief, joy, excitement, disgust and sexual excitement.
Expressing what you vulnerably feel in art or writing, even when you feel ashamed to express it, will help you to attend to and clarify the central needs and concerns that your emotions are pointing toward.
Becoming aware of, and tangibly symbolizing your vulnerable emotional experiences with words and imagery will show you how to take action to heal the past and meet your need for forward growth.
There is a strong human tendency to avoid painful emotions, yet it is possible to overcome avoidance and approach painful emotions by attending to your bodily experience, often in small steps.
With kindness and determination, you can tolerate being in deep contact with your painful emotions. Approaching your emotions with kindness and tolerating your emotional pain for bearable periods of time are consistent with the principles of exposure therapy and also builds the spiritual practice of self-compassion.
When you express and expose yourself to previously avoided emotions by allowing them to "come up" (emotional arousal) and tolerating the emotional experience for longer and longer periods of time, your emotional "pain body" it will gradually lose its uncomfortable charge.
It should be noted, however, that expressing the emotions that you have been afraid to feel is necessary but not sufficient for change. Once deep 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 need for change that your emotions are pointing to.
4. REFLECTION (on the meaning of your emotions): When activated in the present moment, painful memories can be cognitively restructured and re-storied by introducing new adult understanding to an old situation. Symbolizing your emotions in words and art can help you to make new meanings of old painful experiences.
Self-reflection helps to create new positive, strength-based meaning about the purpose of your suffering. This is because as you tell and retell your old emotional story, you will eventually become tired of the pain it brings, and the desire to create new inspiration, meaning, and purpose will arise.
You can assimilate habitually painful emotions into new narratives to explore the deeper meaning. When the unsayable is made sayable, old experiences can be reframed, leading to new strength-based views of yourself and the world.
5. TRANSFORMATION (of your emotions): The fifth stage of emotional healing involves the transformation of negative emotions into higher emotions. At this stage, 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 trying to look on the bright side, but by the evocation of new embodied experiences that undo the neurochemistry, physiology, and conditioned experience of negative emotions.
Transformation can begin as simply as creating a daily creative practice or a positive affirmation practice. At this stage of emotional healing, you can literally re-sculpt your neurology and biology through small decisions to focus on something better-feeling than your emotional pain.
Emotion-focused therapy works from the basic principle that you must first arrive at a place before you can leave it. In other words, you first have to feel it to heal it! Memories of past losses and traumas are activated in order to change them through memory reconstruction, meaning-making, and the activation of the higher feelings that create a new life direction.
6. CORRECTIVE EXPERIENCES: A key way to change is to have a new lived experience that changes old painful emotions forever. Healing through creative practices and with supportive people out in the world can provide uplifting "energetic templates" that are different from what you have known in the past.
It is absolutely possible to correct painful emotional patterns that were conditioned from earlier times in your life through inner mirroring through spontaneous creative practices and outer mirroring through positive relational experiences. With new corrective experiences, you can experience interpersonal soothing, dispel limiting beliefs, and receive confirmation about your higher potentials!
In Your Journal:
Reflect upon what stage of emotional healing you are currently healing within, and bring your contemplation to your session.
With much care,
* Article inspired by Emotion-Focused Therapy: A Clinical Synthesis by Les Greenberg