Got Positive Emotion? Work With It!

A few weeks ago a group of advanced EFT practitioners met together to do a live supervision session using a bug-in-the-ear. If you’re not familiar with the process, the therapist conducts the session in an office with her couple as usual, but with the addition of a blue-tooth earpiece and cell phone while the rest of the group watches a video feed in another room. I was giving the therapist suggestions based on her goals for the session. She had the option to come out at some point for in-session feedback, though in this case she came out only towards the end to get the group’s affirmations and appreciations of the couple, which she then shared with them. It’s a powerful way to learn EFT: the therapist gets in-the-moment guidance and can see its impact in real time. She can also note areas to improve such as heightening emotion or deepening enactments. The therapist, by the way, did a great job: she helped the couple shift their pattern more and began the withdrawer re-engagement process.

So how is this related to positive emotions? Well, the couple – who hadn’t met with the therapist for several weeks – came in saying they’d been getting along well. They underscored their progress with examples of reduced conflict and more closeness. It was clear they felt good about the shift to more interactions in their cycle. Sounds good, right? The shift sounded genuine and although they weren’t ending therapy, they were reaping some benefits of their hard work, not to mention the therapist’s expertise.

But now what? Even though we all appreciate it, sometimes it can be a challenge to work with progress and positive emotions,. One risk is the couple and therapist don’t find a real entry point for the session – we’re generally guided by what Les Greenberg refers to as the ‘pain compass’ to help establish a focus – so while everyone enjoys the moment, there isn’t much real progress. Another, less common risk is they see themselves as finished with therapy even though they haven’t yet completed the Stage 2 change processes of Withdrawer Re-engagement and Blamer Softening. But the most common risk is a lost opportunity to help the couple see that they often deal with positive primary emotions similarly to how they deal with negative primary emotion: they don’t express it, or if they do, it’s in a muted way that doesn’t fully engage the partner.

Back to the live session: here’s what happened. We took the positive emotions and placed them in their cycle. Remember, the cycle isn’t just about the specific emotions expressed, it’s also how they engage with each other. First the therapist expanded and heightened the positive experience – joy, relief and pleasure – just like we do with painful experience. Something like, “After all this time of struggling with your cycle and so often feeling cut off, it must be an enormous relief to enjoy your renewed closeness.” Then she asked an essential question, “When you’re feeling all that warmth and pleasure how do you tell each other?” The answer, essentially, ‘Well we don’t really’.

It’s not surprising. When partners become cautious about expressing hurt because they haven’t felt safe and accepted during the hard times, they often feel similar caution about expressing positive feelings. The partner might see it very differently – that nothing has really changed; or may say, yes there’s been change, but not nearly enough, or it’s taken too long. And just as there’s risk in sharing positive emotion – think of it as a bid for connection and intimacy – the listening partner takes a risk too. They wonder if it can be trusted; if it can bear the weight of discussion and maybe a few missteps as they’re just beginning to see tender expressions of vulnerability. Why these doubts? The key questions remain: Is there enough safety to share vulnerability? Can partners trust enough to drop their guard and let each other in? Will they see themselves as weak if they talk about how much they need each other?

The therapist’s task here is to validate and affirm new, positive experiences while helping them slow down and marinate in the healthy pride of changing stubborn patterns. But she needs to also recognize the risks they face in deeper intimacy, often coming after either a single relationship-threatening event or a longer period of conflict or distance. It helps in these moments to first, note the impact of the positive changes on the couple’s cycle and then guide partners to deeper intimacy by creating enactments based on the positive experiences. This is not “EFT light” though: It can be real work for couple and therapist alike and it builds a platform from which they take further risks with each other.

Getting back to the live session, it was interesting how after twenty minutes or so of working with the positive emotions, the therapist returned to their core cycle, heightened the primary emotions of the withdrawer, created a solid enactment and processed the pursuer’s response. Working with positive emotions didn’t take away from the session – it increased access to the painful emotions that needed to be accepted and expressed.
Till next time…

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