Emotion-Focused Therapy

Emily Frey, LCPC

When I work with clients, I truly enjoy implementing Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT) because of the importance it places on emotion, how to regulate it, listen to it, and make it work for you.  I value how emotions help us figure out if things are going our way and how our needs can be met.  Validating our own emotions is key to accepting them and it is a large part of the therapy I provide.  In this article I briefly summarize how powerful emotions can be and describe a therapy that is very near and dear to my heart – EFT.

Research by Greenberg (2012) emphasizes how emotions are integral part in the change process of therapy.  It is recognized that neither cognition nor emotion are superior to one another, as both provide important information and influence each other.  One of the most salient points made by Greenberg (2012) is that one changes thinking with thinking and in order to change how one feels, emotion must be evoked to change emotion.  Emotions have the potential to be so powerful that they are avoided at times, become too intense, or have paralyzing effects.  Human beings often make strong attempts to control their emotions, which are not always adaptive.  This can result in over control due to feeling flooded and overwhelmed by emotion, or under regulation where an individual is driven and overrun by his/her emotions.  Research has shown that emotions provide information regarding one’s reactions to situations, action tendency, meaning, and the significance of events to one’s well-being (Paivio, 2013; Elliott, Watson, Goldman, & Greenberg, 2003; Goldman & Greenberg, 2013; Greenberg & Watson, 1998; Watson, Goldman, & Greenberg, 2007).  Emotion-Focused Therapy is an evidence-based approached that has demonstrated a connection between emotional processing and positive outcome for clients.  Emotion needs to be activated for clients to understand them, regulate them, and protect against them.  Primary adaptive emotions are the most fundamental, original reactions to situations; they are uncomplicated direct reactions to immediate situations.  However, secondary emotions usually mask primary emotions as they are defensive reactions and are not adaptive.  Secondary emotions need to be explored to gain access to primary emotions.  Maladaptive emotions are old familiar, unacceptable feelings that occur repeatedly and do not change.  It is significant to identify a client’s core maladaptive emotion scheme, as it is an important target for therapeutic change.  Emotion schemes are “complex affective-cognitive structures” that convey emotional learning and memories which influence one’s emotional experience and how one organizes the self (Greenberg, 2012, p. 698).

There are multiple approaches to emotional change in EFT and the six primary mechanisms are awareness, emotional expression, reflection, emotional regulation, emotional transformation, and the corrective emotional experience.  Emotional awareness involves symbolizing emotional experience into words so that the adaptive components of emotion can be utilized.  This allows for an individual to become more in tune with what he/she needs.  Emotional expression entails engaging bodily sensations in therapy in addition to talking about emotion.  Doing so prevents avoidance of emotion in the future.  Reflection allows the individual to make sense of the experience and create new meaning so that generate an ever-changing and growing self-narrative.  Emotional regulation consists of learning the capacity to tolerate and regulate emotion by labeling, self-soothing, working with emotions from a safe distance, increasing positive emotions, and implementing distraction when necessary.  Emotional transformation takes place by co-activating adaptive emotion with maladaptive emotion to help undue the weight it has had on the individual, not replace it.  Lastly, the relationship is the key component for change in any form of therapy, but EFT focuses on the relationship from an emotional connection and views it as a vehicle for change.  The corrective emotional experience that takes place in therapy can result in new positive feelings, feelings of success, and interpersonal soothing.  One of the most fundamental values of EFT is that emotion is not just about feeling, as the application of EFT leads to understanding emotion, regulating it, deepening it, and transforming it. 


Elliott, R., Watson, J. C., Goldman, R. N., & Greenberg, L. S. (2003). Learning emotion-focused therapy: The process-experiential approach to change. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Greenberg, L. (2012). Emotions, the great captains of our lives: Their role in the process of

            change in psychotherapy.  American Psychologist.  67, 8, 697-707.

Greenberg, L. S., & Watson J. W. (1998).  Experiential therapy of depression: Differential effects of client-centered relationship conditions and process experiential interventions. Journal of Psychotherapy Research, 8, 210–224.

Goldman, R. N., & Greenberg, L. (2013). Working with identity and self-soothing in emotion-focused therapy for couples. Family Process, 52(1), 62–82. doi:10.1111/famp.12021

Paivio, S. (2013). Essential processes in emotion-focused therapy. Psychotherapy, 50(3), 341–345.

Watson, J. C., Goldman, R. N., & Greenberg, L. S. (2007). Case studies in emotion-focused treatment of depression: A comparison of good and poor outcome. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.