Heighten Emotion to Fuel Bonding Events

Jeff Hickey, Director Chicago Center for EFT

Without a doubt, the hardest part for most therapists learning EFT, even experienced ones, is heightening emotion. I’ll share a couple of thoughts about why in a minute, but first a few reasons why this key intervention is so crucial to a good therapy outcome, especially with couples. First, emotions tell us, and those close to us, what matters. Second, they communicate our inner lives in a way that words alone just can’t match – Hollywood knows this well. Finally, they serve as icebreakers that crack open protective shells, letting partners see, touch and feel the experiences that have been long buried by numbness or fear and fueling the bonding events that change relationships. It’s not surprising that substantial research in EFT and beyond has shown that a higher level of emotional expression is positively correlated with favorable treatment outcome. The challenge for the EFT therapist is that many clients don’t easily go to deeper, vulnerable emotions – even after their conflict cycle has de-escalated. Therapists can start to feel discouraged or even helpless when all their great de-escalation work doesn’t result in emotion-driven enactments in stage 2. Here are a couple of ideas to keep in mind as you work with couples to bring more emotion in the room.

  • Check your timing – Partners are especially cautious about expressing vulnerability when they don’t safe and supported in the room. Are they sufficiently de-escalated as a couple and do they feel a strong alliance with you?
  • Notice the entry points – we all know them: the word, phrase or image that conveys strong emotion. Listen and look for them and don’t let yourself get distracted by content.
  • Evoke more – When you notice these entry points for emotion, linger and ask, ‘What’s coming up now for you, inside, as you say…?’ ‘What is happening now for you as you…?’
  • Gently block or at least note their exits – how they touch primary emotion and retreat to a narrative that dilutes it, or an explanation – and refocus. Be persistent.
  • Keep your focus on emotion – It’s surprisingly easy to revert to explaining emotions to help clarify, but it takes them out experiencing emotion in the moment. I had to remind myself early on that EFT wasn’t Explanation Focused Therapy.
  • You exit too soon – You’re right on track, evoking, and the client is responding, but you just stop too soon. You just need to make sure the emotion is more vividly felt and conveyed.
  • Finally, you don’t use the heightened emotion to create interpersonal change. This is where enactments come it. At the moment one partner has that ‘holy crap, I’m out on the end of a limb!’ feeling is the time to ask them to share it with their partner. It heightens the experience even more since they’re sharing something that has often remained covered or disguised.

Next time, I’ll offer some specific suggestions for how to heighten. The words, images, etc. that I’ve found helpful with many couples.