A two-phase process of arriving and leaving is proposed. When the core emotion arrived at is adaptive then it is used as a guide to action, which promotes leaving of that emotion.
In this process often the symptomatic secondary emotions, such as, feeling upset, despairing, hopeless are evoked first in therapy, then the core primary adaptive emotion such as sadness of grief or empowering anger are accessed and validated. This involves a two-step sequence of moving from secondary to adaptive primary emotion.
A more complex three-step sequence is required to transform maladaptive core emotion. In this sequence, first the secondary emotion is evoked, and then core maladaptive emotions, such as shame, fear or anger are arrived at. These are then transformed by accessing adaptive emotions such as anger, sadness and compassion and the maladaptive state is left behind. Finally once adaptive emotions have been accessed to guide action and transform maladaptive emotions, experience is reflected on and incorporated into new views of self that are used to transform personal narratives.
Prof. Lesli Greenberg, (one of the originators and primary developers of Emotion-Focused Therapy for individuals and couples, a professor emeritus of psychology at York University in Toronto, and director of the Emotion-Focused Therapy Clinic in Toronto) outlined three empirically supported emotion processing principles:
I- Increasing Emotion Awareness: The general goal of ET is to increase emotion awareness. Clients are encouraged to experience and accept feelings as opposed to avoiding or denying unpleasant affective states. Essentially, the objective is to get in touch with and articulate adaptive primary emotional responses in order to access adaptive action tendencies. Of equal importance is to identify maladaptive emotional states that paralyze the individual and prevent adaptive reasoning and behavior. For example, a primary emotional response of healthy, assertive anger may propel a person into setting appropriate boundaries, confronting others’ behaviors, and getting needs met. A maladaptive emotional response of guilt or shame originating from past traumas may render the person helpless, confused, emotionally dis-regulated, and engaged in maladaptive behavior to avoid or compensate for the distressing affect. Clients are assisted in remaining focused on feelings and in overcoming avoidant tendencies.
II- Enhancing Emotion Regulation: The second principle in ET is emotion regulation. Primary emotions such as shame or secondary emotions such as hopelessness or despair are often powerful enough to overwhelm. As the person touches on these feelings, the supportive, validating, and empathic therapeutic relationship can help bring stability and comfort to assist in emotionally regulating. Clients are encouraged to regulate breathing, visualize distance from the emotion, and learn coping self-talk and other self-calming methods to allow and accept, rather than avoid, amygdala-based emotional arousal (Amygdala is the integrative center for emotions, emotional behavior and motivation in our brain).
III- Emotion Transformation: The third principle of ET is emotion transformation. Maladaptive emotional responses are replaced by more adaptive responses. Rather than attempting to reason one’s way around or to completely avoid a distressing affect, the client is encouraged to experience the affect and then shift focus to more pleasant calming emotions. Catharsis alone is seen as insufficient in transforming the painful affect. Rather, the presentation of an opposing emotional scheme synthesizes with the maladaptive affect, producing a more adaptive, higher order level of functioning.
The effectiveness of short-term ET for individuals has been demonstrated in several research projects. ET is an effective treatment for both depression and emotional trauma. ET activates emotion during treatment to make deep change in automatically functioning emotion schemes that are frequently the sources of problems.