Self-Soothing in Emotion-Focused Therapy

by Emily Frey, PsyD, LCPC


Emotions have the potential to be so powerful that they are avoided at times, become too intense, or have paralyzing effects.  Emotion regulation, or the capacity to label, express, accept, and soothe emotion, is fundamental to well-being.  Learning to self-soothe is a process that evolves throughout the lifespan but can also be developed, explored, and refined in therapy. “Self-soothing or self-nurturing is the affective meaning state that is characterized by fulfilling certain expressed needs oneself” (Pascual-Leone & Greenberg, 2007, p. 879).  These emotions may be difficult to regulate or tolerate; therefore, one of the important goals in therapy is for the client to learn how to self-soothe when another individual is not present. 


Pascual-Leone and Greenberg (2007) analyzed how distress can be transformed into adaptive emotion through intrapersonal tasks, or interventions, performed in Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT).  They specifically focused on participants with long-standing interpersonal grievances and global distress (Pascual-Leone & Greenberg, 2007).  Examples of this are feelings of hopelessness, self-pity, confusion, and vague self-blame.  Converting global distress was accomplished through the vehicle of advanced emotional processing.  This can appear as positive self-evaluation, meaning making, experiencing new feelings in the moment in a transparent and affirmative way, “an agentic stance with an adaptive action tendency,” or associating emotions with specific objects (Pascual-Leone & Greenberg, 2007, p. 877).  The model developed by Pascual-Leone and Greenberg showed how a client experiencing global distress in an empathic and supportive environment is both emotionally aroused and engaged, priming the client for emotional processing that can lead to a more adaptive emotional experience.  By processing emotions, an individual deepens his or her experience with feelings that are tied to specific action tendencies.  For example, fear or shame are often linked to feeling inadequate and represent deep, continuing pain while the action tendency is to shut down.  However, during this feeling state, meaning is more differentiated than when an individual is in a state of global distress.  Once feelings of fear or shame unfold, they unveil the needs of the client and core negative evaluations, which can be contradictory.  Ultimately, this paradox results in a dialectical construction that creates a new positive evaluation of the self, once the client’s needs are activated in a supportive environment.  The result is feeling lovable or worthy (Pascual-Leone & Greenberg, 2007). 


While some clients prefer to assert their needs, others will attend to them more directly, which is identified as self-soothing.  This state “serves the same function as assertion, but instead of directing the emotion outward it expresses the emotion as tenderness or caring turned inward toward the self” (Pascual-Leone & Greenberg, 2007, p. 879).  There are a variety of ways in which self-soothing can take place, comprising obvious self-soothing, self-nurturing that embodies role-playing a compassionate other caring for the self, or reflecting on current resources like social support or past triumphs.  Engaging in self-soothing underlines an individual’s healthy needs and leads to positive self-evaluation, bodily felt relief, and a sense of empowerment.  Pascual-Leone and Greenberg (2007) concluded that hurt or grief, assertive anger, and self-soothing are primary adaptive emotions and “some emotional experiences propel the client on a healthy self-organizing trajectory that reaches its completion as a meaningful, emotionally differentiated, and integrative experience” (p. 886).

According to Greenberg (2006), one of the key components of emotion regulation is learning how to endure emotion and self-soothe, which can take many forms.  Under stress, the human body activates the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems to regulate breathing, heart rate, sweating, and other functions.  Physiological forms of self-soothing, like meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, and relaxation techniques, are direct ways to regulate physical reactions to stress.  However, the first step to self-soothing involves focusing on cognitive and behavioral responses to stress by “promoting clients’ abilities to receive and be compassionate to their emerging painful emotional experience” (Greenberg, 2006, p. 91).  Being attuned to emotions, acknowledging them, enduring them, and allowing them are important parts of the process.  A therapist can provide emotional soothing to a client as well by helping the client evoke an image of a compassionate other and then assisting the client in having a dialogue with this image while performing the task of chair work.  When a therapist exudes warmth, validation, and acceptance of a client’s emotional experience, the client can learn to soothe him or herself in such a way that enables him or her to develop internal security by “[internalizing] the soothing functions of the protective other” (Schore, 2003; Sroufe, 1996; Stern, 1985, as cited in Greenberg, 2006, p. 91). 

            Intense emotions can become overwhelming to the extent that an individual desires to avoid such emotions.  There are times where intense feelings need to be enhanced or maintained as well.  By regulating intense emotions, an individual is better able to process on a deeper level so these emotions can be transformed into a more adaptive emotional experience.  Converting maladaptive feelings involves disassembling them through the co-activation of adaptive feelings.  In other words, a stronger and healthier emotion has the power to regulate, hold, and transform unhealthy and dysfunctional emotions.  An individual must go through the maladaptive emotions to find the adaptive elements embedded in the emotion (Greenberg, 2006). 

            Unveiling different emotions takes place when clients are asked what they need to alleviate their pain while they are accessing maladaptive emotions.  According to Greenberg (2006), “Raising a need or a goal to a conscious self-organizing system opens a problem space to search for a solution” (p. 91).  This allows the client to experience the feeling of obtaining the goal and “opens up neural pathways to both the feeling and the goal” (Greenberg, 2006, p. 91).  At this point, self-soothing is activated and more positive emotions are beginning to transform maladaptive feeling states.  Learning how to co-activate emotions builds the resilience to cope with stress and negative feelings.


Greenberg, L. S. (2006). Emotion-focused therapy: A synopsis. Journal Contemporary Psychotherapy, 36, 87–93. doi:10.1007/s10879-006-9011-3

Pascual-Leone, A., & Greenberg, L. S. (2007). Emotional processing in experiential therapy: Why “the only way out is through.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 75(6), 875–887.

Schore, A. N. (2003). Affect dysregulation and disorders of the self. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.

Sroufe, L. A. (1996). Emotional development: The organization of emotional life in the early years. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.