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What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)?

what is emotionally-focused therapy?

In the world of talk therapy, there are many different modalities to choose from. Your therapist may be a hard-core supporter of one or may be influenced by many. There are some that are very popular: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), for example, is considered the gold standard for many treatment methods. 

Emotionally Focused Therapy, or EFT, is one of the lesser-known but still effective therapeutic strategies. Originally used for couples therapy, it has since expanded into treating individuals and families. It serves as a way to balance the more popular cognition and behavioral-focused therapies.  

This article will dive into what EFT is, how it works, and who it can help.

What is Emotionally Focused therapy?

At the heart of Emotionally Focused Therapy are, as you probably guessed, emotions. EFT rejects the idea that change is best delivered through our thoughts or behaviors (although it does acknowledge the importance of those aspects of self), instead stating that emotions are the most powerful hinge to positive change. 

Let’s go over a few facts about Emotional-Focused Therapy

  • Emotionally Focused Therapy is very humanistic and person-centered, meaning it prioritizes seeing the client as a holistic human and conducting therapy with empathy and affirmations. 
  • EFT is also heavily based on attachment theory, which we’ll get into below, and helps clients identify and transform negative emotional patterns that create distress. 
  • EFT is a response to the more behavioral and cognitive-focused therapy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, stating that while these theories are good, they take away from the importance of emotion. 

The APA states, “EFT operates on the evidence that emotions are not accessories to human experience but organizing principles of our lives” and promotes “awareness, acceptance, expression, utilization, regulation, and transformation of emotion as well as corrective emotional experience with the therapist”

With Emotionally Focused therapy, long-lasting change must start from emotional change, changing the dialogue surrounding therapy from “I think, therefore I am” to “I feel, therefore I am.”

The history of EFT

Emotionally focused therapy was founded by Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg in 1985 and draws from two main psychological fields of thought:

  • Humanistic Theory: Carl Rogers' Humanistic theory stresses the importance of human potential and our individual journey towards self-actualization. It radicalized the psychology field by promoting empathy and understanding, trying to find the potential in clients, and moving away from strictly pathologizing and trying to fix what was “wrong” with clients. 
  • Attachment Theory: This theory examines how our relationship with our parents as children influences our adult relationships. We’ll dive into it more below, but essentially, it is about security in human relationships and how the presence or lack of security influences our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. 

Emotionally Focused Therapy was originally used primarily in couples therapy, and although it is still a very common approach in couples and marriage counseling, it has since expanded into the individual therapy practice.

What is attachment theory?

You can read more in-depth about the attachment theory here. This theory found that children developed one of four attachment styles informed by how available and responsive their parents were to meet their needs as infants. These attachment styles influence adult relationships. 

Briefly, the four attachment styles are:

  • Secure Attachment Style:
    • Characterized by trust and comfort in relationships.
    • Feel secure in emotional connections.
  • Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Style:
    • Fear of abandonment and seek constant reassurance.
    • Often worry about rejection and need frequent validation.
  • Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style:
    • Maintain emotional distance and independence in relationships.
    • Avoid getting too close and come across as self-sufficient.
  • Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style:
    • Combination of anxiety and avoidance.
    • Struggle with emotional intimacy and fear rejection while also desiring closeness.

EFT therapists will often talk about attachment style, especially in Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples therapy.

How does the EFT view emotions?

Emotions are the cornerstone of Emotionally Focused Therapy, which views them as the fundamental building blocks of our life. The primary emotions of anger, sadness, fear, and disgust orient us to our environment and inform how we should think and act. They are motivational and goal-directed, influencing how we see the world, our cognition, and our behavior. 

This type of emotionally focused work is not seen in CBT and provides a good balance to its cognition-focused approach. Many therapists therefore use aspects of EFT to provide a more well-rounded approach to therapy, even if they don’t adhere to all of its teachings.

How does Emotionally Focused Therapy work?

EFT believes that we feel, and then we think, and then we act, but we can only think and act as much as we feel. The way to change unwanted life patterns, then, is to address the emotions. In pure EFT, this is done short-term, over 8-20 sessions. However, many therapists will use aspects of EFT in their approach, so the actual length is highly dependent on the therapist and the individual client's needs. 

Core Principles of EFT

There are 8 main pillars of this theory that form the framework for its practice. They are: 

  1. An empathetic therapist relationship is vital to facilitate healing.
  2. In order to change our emotions, we must first learn to accept our emotions. Encouraging acceptance of emotions is therefore paramount. 
  3. People generally do what they feel like doing rather than what reason or logic dictates, so to enact behavioral change we have to start at the emotions.
  4. Emotions are a guide to our most authentic self, and we must listen to them to heal and grow. 
  5. We must explore the origin and dynamics of our emotions. 
  6. Our ability to access emotions can be interrupted, in which we need to clear the way to be able to fully access, feel, and process the emotion. 
  7. Emotions can create a new narrative for ourselves.
  8. Accepting and experiencing emotions unlocks emotional change, which will become cognitive and behavioral change

Emotionally Focused therapy will help clients discern when an emotion is adaptive, meaning positive, or maladaptive, meaning negative. However, acceptance underpins both maladaptive and adaptive emotions. Clients must be able to understand an emotion in order to change it or let it go. 

Emotionally focused therapists believe that humans possess an innate tendency to grow and heal. Emotions are part of that natural process, but things like trauma, bad coping skills, and mental health issues can block that natural process.

Practices of Emotional Focused Therapy

In order to help clients fully accept their emotions and use them to create positive change in their life, Emotionally Focused Therapy uses many different techniques. A few of them include: 

  1. Empathy-Based Techniques: Identifying and accepting painful emotions, eventually processing them into positive experiences.
  2. Relational Techniques: During EFT, the therapist and client must fully work together. They have an allyship that is based on mutual trust and understanding of the goals. If at any time the client becomes untrusting or closed off, that trusting relationship must be restored. 
  3. Experiencing Techniques: Fully experiencing the emotions of an experience either past or imagined. It might involve mental visualization, talking through the process, or chair work. 
  4. Reprocessing Techniques: Working through trauma and other upsetting actions or events. Specifically, this technique works through “meaning protest”, which is our emotional reaction to something that happened that went against our values. For example, having a baby out of wedlock and the guilt, regret, or shame that may come with it. 
  5. Other exercises: EFT therapy also uses therapy exercises like chair work, which helps a client voice their inner emotions and create a dialogue around them. For example, stating out loud how one’s anxiety feels about a situation, and responding with how one’s shame feels about it, helps create a holistic view of your emotions, which can create further understanding and acceptance, eventually moving towards change.

What can Emotionally Focused Therapy help with?

Emotionally Focused Therapy is an evidence-based approach proven to help clients deal with mental health issues such as:

  • Relationship problems 
  • Anxiety
  • Depression 
  • Phobias 
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Personality disorders 

This is not an exhaustive list, and you may find that EFT therapy works great for you. If you are interested in learning more about Emotional-Focused Therapy, talk to your therapist.

Is Emotionally Focused Therapy a Good Choice for Me?

One of the reasons why there are so many different therapy modalities is because therapy is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Therapists understand that what will work for one person may not work for another. So, will EFT work for you? 

EFT is best suited for people who: 

  • Want to work on feeling their emotions
  • Are willing to experience the discomfort that comes with processing difficult emotions 
  • Struggle with negative or closed-off emotions (you feel anxious, depressed, guilty, etc.) instead of physical or sensation-based (you struggle with impulse control, panic attacks, for example)

Emotionally Focused Therapy has a lot of merit, especially when used in conjunction with other therapies. For example, although EFT alone may not be enough to address Panic Disorder, EFT alongside exposure therapy, a very behavioral approach, creates a well-rounded experience that will leave you feeling more in control of your thoughts, body, and emotions.

Conclusion

Emotionally focused therapy is a unique therapeutic approach that highlights the importance of emotions in creating change and empathy in a therapy session. When used in conjunction with other therapy techniques, it creates a well-rounded and holistic approach. 

If you are interested in an Emotionally Focused Therapist, reach out to Lifebulb. We have therapists trained in EFT who would be happy to see you. 

If you’re already seeing a therapist, go ahead and ask them what they know about EFT. They likely have a working knowledge of the modality and would be happy to implement some of the theories outlined here. 

Above all, remember that you deserve healing. If you are struggling with your mental health, don’t hesitate to reach out. There is a vast sea of resources that therapists can use to help you feel better. If you’ve tried something else that didn’t work, there is something else out there. Don’t give up, and be proud of yourself for getting this far.

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Frequently Asked Questions

The duration of EFT therapy varies depending on individual needs and circumstances. Typically, it can range from several weeks to several months. Your therapist will work with you to determine a personalized treatment plan and timeline for your specific situation.

 In Emotionally Focused therapy (EFT), the therapist helps you explore and understand the underlying emotions that drive your thoughts, behaviors, and relationship patterns. They provide a safe and supportive space to navigate these emotions, identify negative patterns, and develop healthier ways of relating to yourself and others. Through empathy, validation, and guidance, the therapist assists in fostering emotional connection and creating positive change.

 While both cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and Emotionally Focused therapy (EFT) are effective therapeutic approaches, they differ in focus. CBT primarily targets thoughts and behaviors, helping individuals identify and change negative patterns. Alternatively, EFT is focused on exploring and transforming emotions and the underlying attachment needs that drive thoughts and behaviors. EFT places a strong emphasis on fostering secure emotional connections in relationships.

 Research shows that EFT is highly effective in improving relationship satisfaction and reducing distress. Studies have demonstrated its efficacy in various relationship contexts, including couples, families, and individual therapy. EFT helps individuals and couples develop stronger emotional bonds, resolve conflicts, and create healthier relationship dynamics. Results can vary, but many individuals experience significant positive changes in their relationships and overall emotional well-being through EFT.

 EFT typically involves three main stages:

  • De-Escalation: The therapist helps identify and de-escalate negative interaction patterns, reducing conflict and creating a safe emotional space for exploration.

  • Restructuring of Interactions: Emotions and attachment needs are explored to create new patterns of relating. The therapist works with individuals and couples to foster empathy, understanding, and emotional responsiveness.

  • Consolidation: The therapist helps consolidate new ways of interacting and relating by strengthening emotional connections, enhancing communication, and developing strategies to maintain progress made during therapy.

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