The Four Components of Emotion

By guest blogger, Josh Marder, LMFT

Most couples have trouble expressing their softer primary emotions when they come in for couples therapy.  We know that’s where we’ve got to go… but how do we get there?

One of the things I love about the EFT model is how it guides us to create safety for the deeper softer emotions to step out from hiding.  We do this by helping the client organize and experience their emotional selves.  EFT teaches us that the emotions we experience are not limited to how we feel.  The wholesome picture of emotions includes a combination of cognition, bodily experience, limbic/pre-conscious experience, and even action.

Let’s take a closer look at these four parts of emotion.

As an action or comment by the partner is seen or heard, there is a preconscious question that is asked by the back of the brain, in the amygdala, “Is this dangerous?”  If the answer is yes, our automatic response is to protect ourselves by going into an alert state.  This alert state sends a message to the body and front of the brain, “We are entering a danger zone.  Alert!”  Through soft and reflective empathy, we help the client become aware of their assessment of distress.

The body responds to this alert danger message, usually in the stomach, chest, or throat.  Clients often sense a tight, heavy, or painful feeling in their core area.  This is the body responding to the danger signal.  We encourage the client to explore whether they have any physical reaction in moments of relationship distress and in response to this danger signal.

At the same time as the danger assessment is spreading to the body, it’s also triggering other parts of the brain.  The prefrontal cortext is racing to understand the meaning behind this cue.  What does this say about my partner and our bond?  “What just happened? Is s/he angry at me?  Is s/he leaving me?  What does this say about me and the relationship?  Am I a disappointment, getting it wrong again?  Am I losing your love, attention, affection, or acceptance?  We gently support the client in exploring their interpretations of their partner’s moves.

And in response to the cue, we are driven to take action.  The effort to cope with the danger cue is usually a hyper form of fight or flight, freeze response.  In fight form, it may look like yelling, criticizing, or other expressions of anger.  In flight form, we retreat, intellectualize or otherwise avoid. The freeze response may look like emotional shut down, numbing out, going silent.  We help the partner understand and validate their emotional process as an automatic effort to deal with overwhelming emotions.

Putting these pieces together, it may sound something like this, “When you see your partner upset (the cue), you feel you’re entering the danger zone (back of the brain danger assessment).  You begin to feel a tightness in your chest (bodily response), and you start wondering if you can ever make her happy (meaning).  You go into your shell and try to hide at that moment (action response).”  As we help a client organize their experience, they feel safer within themselves.  As the different components of emotion are organized for the client and validated, the emotional experience expands for the client.  As partners feel more understood we naturally build the scaffolding needed to access the underlying, vulnerable emotions such as sadness, fear and shame hiding underneath their reactivity, and they begin to be experienced consciously, normalized, and accepted by themselves and their partner.

Learning EFT gives us a deeper understanding of the world of emotions for our clients and ourselves.  Through that understanding, a wholesome experience of emotion comes to light.  We are able to organize and expand the emotional world of our clients, giving them an opportunity to experience themselves and their relationship through a new lens of soft tender longings for connection.

Joshua Marder, LMFT is a certified EFT Therapist and Supervisor in Training.  He is a member of the CCEFT Board and runs the monthly peer consultation group in the North Shore.  He offers 1-Day Hold Me Tight Retreats in the Chicago area with 6 CEs for therapists.  If you’re interested in joining the peer group or attending one of his Hold Me Tight workshops, contact Josh at  

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