What is Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT)

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Maybe you’ve heard of Emotion-Focused Therapy before, but what you might not realize is that there are actually two similar but separate kinds of therapy that the term can refer to. One is usually referred to as Emotionally Focused Therapy and the other as Emotion-Focused Therapy, and the abbreviation EFT is commonly used for both. Confusing, right? But don’t worry – we’ll take a look at the similarities and differences between these two types, how to know if you might benefit from one or both, and how a typical therapy session might work in each theory.

Q: What’s the same between the two types of EFTs?

  • The two types of EFT started out as just one theory, developed by Sue Johnson and Les Greenberg as the two worked on a new form of couples’ therapy, so this common beginning means there’s a lot of crossover between them.
  • Both types of EFT draw heavily from Carl Roger’s client-centered therapy (sometimes called Person-Centered Therapy), which I discussed in this earlier post A quick recap: In client-centered therapy, the therapist isn’t supposed to be the “expert” with all the answers, and is always supposed to avoid judging or disapproving of the client’s thoughts/behaviors/feelings.
  • Both types of EFT also draw heavily from attachment theory, which has to do with the idea that humans need secure bonds with others as part of their growth and development. As Lisa Blum, PsyD, says, “Good secure bonding helps you be bolder in the world and feel more empowered.”
  • As the name makes obvious, both types of EFT regard emotions as central to human experience, not something that should be suppressed or overcome. Sue Johnson explained in an interview how emotions were thought of in a lot of the therapy she saw practiced around her before she developed EFT: “Emotions were really considered the enemy. They were the things that people had difficulty with. Particularly, anger and conflict were considered the enemy. So there was a lot of focus on just teaching people the skills to control emotion—to be nicer to each other.” She and Greenberg wanted to change this conception and develop a type of therapy where emotions were acknowledged and validated.

Q: What’s the difference between the two types of EFT?

  • The biggest difference is that Emotionally Focused Therapy is for either couples or slightly larger groups (like families) whereas Emotion-Focused Therapy is for individuals.
  • Each type has a different way of conducting therapy sessions (more on this below.)
  • Emotion-Focused Therapy is about getting in touch with your own emotions, learning how to access and cultivate the emotions that are most helpful to your life rather than, as psychologists might say, “maladaptive” emotions that are causing you problems. The EFT clinic explains on their website, “By accessing adaptive emotions such as healthy grief, empowering anger, and compassion, people are able to use these as resources to transform maladaptive emotions such as fear, sadness of abandonment, and shame of inadequacy that has developed from past negative learning or traumatic experiences.”

Emotionally Focused Therapy, on the other hand, is all about helping people to understand someone else’s emotions – usually a partner. Johnson’s idea is that almost any disagreement a couple might have gone back to attachment issues, fear and anxiety about abandonment and trust. Even disagreements that seem like they’re about something else really come back to those primary emotions, according to her. A husband might say to his wife, “You’re always out with your friends and I’m left here to look after our daughter by myself. It’s not fair,” but what really might be lying behind this grievance is the emotional truth of, “You’re always out with your friends and it makes me feel like I’m not good enough and important enough for you to spend time with.”

Q: How do I know if I would benefit from EFT?

If you’re thinking about starting Emotionally Focused Therapy, then all you really have to ask yourself is whether you’re part of a couple that seems to be struggling with disagreements. If the answer is yes, then EFT could very likely be effective for you, especially if you and your partner are both open to the importance of emotional honesty.

Furthermore, odds are good that EFT will yield long-term results for your relationship, according to Lisa Blum: “Seven out of 10 couples [who seek EFT] show marked improvement, move out of distress and stay there.”

Similarly, almost anyone who’s open to the idea of emotional honesty would likely also benefit from Emotion-Focused Therapy. It can be particularly effective for people who haven’t had success just trying to avoid or suppress situations that cause them emotional distress. Goodtherapy.org explains, “People who experience depression, for example, may spend a significant portion of their time avoiding, or trying to escape, situations that cause them to feel sadness or otherwise experience a low mood.” You can also find a summary of the few instances in which EFT might not be a good fit for you at goodtherapy.org’s page on the topic.

Q: What would happen in a typical session if I was being treated with EFT?

Emotionally focused therapy involves 9 steps that are spread out over 3 general stages. The first four steps, Stage 1, are devoted to helping the couple deescalate. In other words, they learn to recognize the unhealthy ways they’re relating to each other and getting stuck in cycles of guilt and blame. According to Johnson, many kinds of therapies would stop there. But in her process, the couple then moves on to the next three steps, Stage 2, where the couple and therapist work toward creating stronger attachment bonds for the couple. Finally, in the remaining two steps, Stage 3, the couple and therapist work to finalize the changes the couple has made and practice applying them to real-life situations.

In Emotion-Focused Therapy, early sessions will involve meeting goals like learning to describe emotions and learning to allow emotions to happen rather than trying to bury them.  In later sessions, goals will shift to, for example, figuring out which emotions are helpful and which aren’t, figuring out where unhelpful emotions are coming from, and learning to only use helpful emotions when it comes to guiding action.

If you want to talk about EFT for yourself, your relationship, or any other kind of therapy and whether or not it might be right for you, you can call us at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult .

Envision Wellness is a private practice that offers psychotherapy, psychological testing, and life coaching in Miami, FL.  Our team has a passion for helping others achieve happy, fulfilling, and change-making lives that make the world a better place.  Each therapist has their areas of expertise.  Not sure who you’d like to work with?  Click here to schedule a free 20-minute phone consult to help you decide.

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