The Kleenex Question

A talented therapist I know, one who I greatly respect, recently told me that he had gotten rid of all the Kleenex in his office. His thought—accurate and interesting—is that when a client wells up with tears, they might reach for a tissue so quickly that they circumvent or curtail their sadness. On the other side of the couch, if the partner grabs a Kleenex and hands it over to their crying partner, that might circumvent or curtail other ways of offering comfort. As in, “Tears call for tissues. Done.”

Thought-provoking and important. And true. I’m sure we can all think of times when this has been the case. And it goes without saying that as emotionally-focused therapists, we experience a lot of tears in our offices. So I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I did some research on crying (if you are interested, some of the top researchers include Lauren Bylsma, Ad Vingerhoets, Jonathan Rottenberg, and William Frey), and paid attention in a different way to tears and the use of tissues in my office these past few weeks. I’ve noticed that every client eventually wants a tissue, but at different points in their cry. If they don’t see the tissues and I don’t point them out, some hunt for one in their bags, others use their hands and even the hems of their shirts. At times, I noticed that what seemed to show up in the room first was my own impulse to point out the tissues. That was interesting too, as I am comfortable with tears, I invite and evoke them, and then I am comfortable leaning in and lingering. I don’t think that my tissue-impulse is about wanting to shut the tears down, and I can’t help but now wonder that maybe it is. I can now also see how it could land that way to my clients. Perhaps in my pointing out the tissues, some of my clients hear “Pull yourself together; clean yourself up.” So I am glad to pay attention to that impulse in myself and will continue to be curious about it.

Because Kleenex use is usually about catching or wiping away tears, I wondered whether there was any research on the physiological effect of leaving tears on our cheeks, i.e. whether the flow of tears down our cheeks–perhaps either the chemicals in the tears or the sensation of wetness on our skin–was healing or otherwise important to our brain. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any research on this. But I will keep an eye out for it because I wouldn’t be surprised. (I’m a runner, and there is interesting research out there about how smiling while you run actually makes you a more efficient runner.)

Regardless, tears are important and as EFT therapists, we not only welcome them but we evoke them, we stay with them, we cradle them. And when they well up, as EFT therapists we attend to and care for not only the personal impact of those tears but also the relational impact. How do tears affect the partner, the relationship? Tears can be a powerful signal to our partners, and can often elicit a desire to help, to soothe, and to caretake. But as we all know from the hours in our therapist’s chair, it often isn’t that simple; history and experience and especially trauma can bubble up and disrupt this instinct to come close to and to comfort someone who is crying.

This is just what the researchers have found, that it is complicated and that not all cries are cathartic. “Despite the popular idea that crying produces physical and mental benefits and the multiple theories developed to account for the cathartic effects of crying, empirical examinations of the effects of crying have actually yielded a mixed (and potentially confusing) set of results.”1 They go on to say that who you are, why you are crying, who sees you do it, and all the permutations of these pieces make a difference as to whether crying helps or hurts your emotional state.2

This makes sense right? We’ve all been with the client who cries and reports not feeling better; we’ve experienced the partner who doesn’t seem emotionally moved by the tears of a loved one, the partner who can’t move physically or emotionally closer and in fact, might move farther away in that moment. We can understand this in terms of the negative cycle, and we work to make sense of it in this way with and for our clients.

So, back to the tissues. Here is where I sit right now with the dilemma. I offer up my thoughts on this not as “right” but just as the way that feels good to me at this moment in time. I am really just thinking out loud here, and I would love to hear other people’s thoughts.

I think it is up to us, with each of our clients, to explore what the meaning of tears and of tissues is. I have pulled back with my offer of a tissue because even though it feels like a caring gesture on my part, I can also see how it could feel as if I was saying, “Wipe away your sadness.” I want my clients to know and to feel that my heart welcomes and honors their tears. And I don’t want to risk even a slight chance that my offering a tissue carries a negative message. So I no longer point out the boxes of tissues that sit patiently on either side of the couple. But I do have them there, and for now, I am going to keep them there. And I now use the reaching for a Kleenex—by either partner—as just another important moment to unpack and understand.

One of the fundamental tenets of EFT is to start where the client is. For me, to just get rid of the tissues altogether feels like I am not meeting the clients where they might be. I think many people want a tissue when they cry, and I don’t want to exacerbate someone’s discomfort or dysregulation by not having them available. If someone uses tissues as a way to protect themselves in some way, I don’t want to take that away from them; instead, I want to understand that protection, and to help them understand it.

And because I believe in being as transparent as possible with my clients, I am starting to wonder out loud with them about tears and tissues, and to share that I am thinking about this issue with all my clients. For instance, I might lean in and wonder, “When you reach for a tissue, are you trying to stop the tears? Help me with that moment for you.” Because there is important stuff—beliefs, values, fears — packed into that tiny moment.

We may have a client who is crying and who looks frantically around for a tissue at the first welling up. I want to be curious about that. I might wonder with them about what happens as they start to well up. In reaching for a tissue are they literally wanting to wipe the sadness away? Or perhaps the tissue helps them to hide in some way. Or maybe they are afraid of what they look like when they cry. Is the physical act of crying uncomfortable or even scary for them? I might ask, “Help me with what crying has been like in this relationship?”

With regard to the partner, I can certainly see that sometimes handing a tissue to their loved one precludes another, perhaps more comforting gesture—a hand on the knee, a hug. And at the same time, handing someone a tissue can be a very caring gesture too, a gesture we can unpack with them and help the partner to be explicit about. I might say, “I notice you just handed your husband a tissue. Can you help me with that moment? What was happening for you? What do you want your partner to know as you are handing him that tissue?” You can distill this down to the caretaking impulse and then create an enactment around that impulse. For instance, “Can you turn to your husband and let him know that you want to take care of him right now? And that when you handed him a tissue, that was what was in that gesture?”

Or, let’s say the client answers your gentle curiosity about what was happening in that tissue-handing moment with something you weren’t expecting (because we always have to be prepared for that!). Perhaps your client says “I handed him a tissue because I can’t stand when he cries.” Now you have something else really important to unpack and help make sense of.

Could you get all this information without tissues in your office? Absolutely. And maybe it is my own caretaking impulse that I am wrestling with. But those self-of-therapist issues are important to notice and wonder about (with yourself or with a supervisor) too.

We all know that there can be enormous value in a good cry. And let’s be honest; many (most?) of us might be at least a little uncomfortable with tears and snot and mascara all over our faces at some point during, or after, that cry. So I am keeping the tissues so that I can mine the value of the tears, while also trying to mitigate and understand any discomfort. And until there is research or at least anecdotal evidence in my own practice that leaving tears on our cheeks is important, I am going to have Kleenex and posit to my clients that there may be something beneficial in letting the tears linger without wiping them away, and would it be okay if we looked at that and noticed what comes up for them around this. Together. And with tissues if they need them.

As always, I would love to hear what you think. 🙂

  1.Bylsma, L. M., Vingerhoets, A. J., & Rottenberg, J. (2008). When is Crying Cathartic? An International Study. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27(10), 1165-1187. doi:10.1521/jscp.2008.27.10.1165.

2. Collier, L. (2014). Why We Cry, New research is opening eyes to the psychology of tears. American Psychological Association, 45(2), 47.Bylsma, L.M., Croon, M.A., Vingerhoets, A.J., Rottenberg, J. (2011). When and for whom does crying improve mood? A Daily Diary Study of 1004 Crying Episodes. Journal of Research and Personality, 45(4).

Mining for Gold: A Simple Intervention

I’ve been thinking a lot about a very simple, seemingly innocuous question/intervention—a question so simple that it is easy to bypass. I know this firsthand as I’ve bypassed it in the past—to both my and the couple’s detriment. It’s easy to skip over for two reasons. One, because it can seem like a silly or redundant question. And since we don’t often strive to look or sound silly, we might choose to brush it aside in favor of going after something else, maybe something bigger and more obvious. The second reason is that the time for the question often comes at a moment in the process when there almost always is something bigger and more obvious happening, something that is pulling at us to attend to right now—a reactive flare up of some kind or perhaps something new and different to catch and shine a light on. All very important and not to be neglected. And all of which will be right there, waiting for you (even if you wish it wouldn’t) after you ask this important question. A question that almost always gives gold.

The question is: “How did it feel to say that?” Or “How was it for you to say that?” Or “What was happening for you as you said that?”

The obvious time to ask this is right after someone does an enactment. (Partner A turns and says something prompted by you. The beginning of “processing the enactment” should be this question — “How was it for you to say that?” (*This is Step 4 of Sue Johnson’s The 5 Basic Moves of EFT, 2012; also known as the EFT Tango.) However, you can use this “process” intervention at other times throughout the session as well.

This little move can do so many important things at once. The answer alone to your curiosity in this moment can give you so much to explore. I am often surprised at the important information all three of us receive in response to this question (if my outside matched what was happening inside of me at these moments, my mouth would often be hanging open. Or I might be giving myself a fist pump as I think, “Yay! I’m so glad I asked that.”) For instance, from someone who looks calm and collected, you might hear how anxious they are or how scary it was for them to say what they said. From someone who looks anxious, they might say they found it easy or that it felt really sad to say that. For someone who says something angrily, they may say they feel good or guilty or relieved or even ashamed. For someone who looks sad and teary, they may say they feel angry or numb or good because they are finally saying something. All of which is important to process and you could park yourself right here in this moment and explore.   

In addition to the gold of the emotional information alone, there are other benefits to asking this question. Let’s imagine Partner A (Alex) has just said something to Partner B (Bailey).

It can help you slow everyone down. If you are anticipating a flare-up or if Bailey is already starting to leap in with a reaction to either an enactment or something that just happened, this question can help you interrupt and slow down. You can say, “Hang on for a moment Bailey. I just want to check in with Alex to see what was happening for her as she said that…”

You can use it to validate Alex, and if applicable, to validate the risk that she just took. This is obviously dependent on what she says in response to your “How was it to say that?” But if she says it was hard or that she was anxious, or if somehow she did something different here, you can validate that she took a risk for this relationship. This is important to highlight, especially if you can feel that Bailey may not be seeing it that way.

It can help Alex notice and connect her words to her feelings and her body in an important moment (connecting the left and right side of brain). We want our clients to be aware of what they are feeling and to send clear messages to each other from these feelings, right? Part of our clients’ negative cycle is that they are feeling one thing on the inside and showing their partner something else on the outside. We want them to start to notice and to feel this discrepancy, to notice what they are feeling on the inside (sometimes a huge task in itself) and to notice the times that they speak/show from that place and when they speak/show from a more protected place. If you can help them do that, they can start to shift and send clear messages to each other. So by asking them how they feel as they are saying something, you can help them start to notice and connect.

It can help you bring Primary Emotion alive in the moment. If she is feeling something other than what she is showing, now you have a way into that underlying emotion that you might not have known was there. And on Bailey’s side, hearing this could be an essential “lightbulb” experience.

Or it can help Alex notice if she puts her guard up in an important moment. If you think you notice it (or even if you don’t), you could ask her, “Did you feel your protection come up as you said that?” Again, an essential process for clients to be aware of so they can shift it.

It can help you turn to Bailey with additional, important emotional information. “Did you know Alex was scared to say that? What is that like to know? Is there a part of you that can feel her fear? Does that tweak or shift how you might respond?” This is especially helpful if Bailey is fired up and chomping at the bit. Your turning to him with a different question might shift him away from his immediate, reactive response. (Which, as you know, is still coming. But perhaps you’ve let everyone take a breath with your prompt.) 

It can help Bailey understand Alex better. Again, just the information alone is sometimes new and important. Additionally, sometimes Bailey is already reacting or thinking about his own feelings in response to what is happening. Checking in with Alex about how it was to say what she said can be an important pause, and an important, new glimpse for Bailey into Alex. (“Oh, you were scared to say that?”) It can also be an important moment to process how in their cycle, they often aren’t aware of what is happening with each other as they are already one step ahead and planning their response; they had already “left” the present moment/interaction.

It can help YOU to understand the couple, the cycle, the protection, the way they can or can’t be vulnerable, the risks they are willing to take.  All really important pieces to process in the moment. And this information can also help you in future moments as you will now know that Alex may be anxious or sad as she says something important; that even if she doesn’t look it, she may be taking a huge risk.

And, as we know, once we’ve done something with good results—like asking this question and receiving gold—we are more likely to do it again. So in those future moments, when you are assuming Alex may be anxious (because that is what you’ve now learned), you will ask, and you may get a new answer! And this is so important because now you can track that; you can track how her answer changes as therapy progresses. “Oh it is easier today? Wow, what is that like?”

I honestly feel like I could go on and on here, and I hope you can feel my passion for this little intervention! So, I encourage you to play with this question this week and see what happens! 🙂

Exciting News!

Good morning! I hope you don’t mind a little self-promotion. This is a copy of a text I sent my kids on Monday:

Today I’m making the scariest leap of my life. I am pushing “launch” on the campaign to sell my book. After so many years of blood, sweat, and tears, I am about to put my work out there, to put myself out there. And I’m asking for help, which is also really scary. But here’s what I keep coming back to when my heart starts pounding out of my chest and it feels too big, too hard:   I may fall down, I may not reach my goal, but at the end of it all, I will be really proud of myself. Because I will know that I tried. 

On Monday (4/16), I launched a campaign on publishizer.com to pre-sell my new novel, The Truth is a Theory.  

My goal is to pitch publishers, and Publishizer (and YOU) can help me do that. I have 30 days to pre-sell as many books that I can. If I reach 250 pre-sales, Publishizer starts pitching publishers on my behalf. At 250, they pitch Independent Publishers, and at 500 pre-sales, they start pitching the bigger houses. (*UPDATE: as of Weds 4/18, we are at 282 pre-sales!)

So every single book counts! I am writing to ask for your support. Please consider buying one, or more than one! You will get a great read and you will be giving me an incredible boost.

Here is the one-line “elevator pitch” about the book: The Truth is a Theory is the story of the assumptions we make about important people in our lives, and how these fatally flawed “truths” play out for four women friends.

You can go to either my website or my publishizer page to learn more and place an order: 

www.karynbristol.com 

https://publishizer.com/the-truth-is-a-theory/

And, if you can, please share this—or my facebook or my instagram— with your friends and family. 

Thank you so much! 

Warmly,
Karyn

Three Important Questions To Ask Yourself When You’re Lost

Hi after a long hiatus! I am so glad to be back and connecting with you. AND I’m doing so a little sheepishly because so much time has gone by since my last post. I’ve been busy editing—and editing again—a novel that I’ve written. It’s very exciting—definitely a labor of love—and it has beckoned me in almost every “down” moment I’ve had.

But I am happy to be back to EFT Tips. And as a way to re-ground us all, I am writing today about a question, or actually more of a confused place, that I often hear about from supervisees. It’s a place we’ve all been, a place we all know about. And it sounds something like: I’m lost! I’m not sure where am I in the work/in the model with this couple!

We all get lost in this challenging work. And the best tool we have when we are lost is the EFT Steps and Stages that Dr. Sue Johnson created—our EFT version of google maps. But sometimes, although we know the main road we need to take, we are somewhere in the forest and have no idea where we are even standing—are we looking north, east, west? Sometimes we need to slice it thinner for ourselves. In those times, ground yourself with the cycle. The cycle is your compass.  And ask yourself these three important questions:

The first two:

  1. Do I know the couple’s negative cycle?
  2. Do they know their negative cycle? 

(*I want to credit someone with these two questions, but I can’t remember where I first heard them, so I will credit Sue Johnson, because really, all things EFT lead back to Sue 🙂 )

And then, a third question that I like to add:

  1. Do they feel their negative cycle in session?

So, the first. Do you know their cycle? As you think about your couple, can you sketch out a simple infinity loop of their cycle—each partner’s primary emotion on the bottom; and on the top, what they each do with this primary emotion in their cycle or what their partner would see (their reactive behavior/their protection). You may have a lot of rich and complicated pieces to their cycle, but I would say, simple is better here. The fattened-up version might help you outside of session to really understand them, but when you go into session, have a simple version of their cycle in your head. Are there any holes you need to fill in? If you don’t know their cycle or if you have holes in it, this is where you need to be working. You might want to start your next session by reflecting what you know of the cycle and then inviting them to help you with the missing pieces.

If your answer to the first question is “Yes, I know their cycle”, ask yourself: Do they know their cycle? For instance, if you asked them would they be able to tell you? If you brought in a simple sketch of their cycle and showed it to them, would light bulbs go on in their heads as if this was new information or would they be right there with you? Sometimes if we pause and really think about it, the answer to this question is surprising. We often think that because we know the cycle, and because we’ve been using the word “cycle” with them, or because we’ve reflected it back to them once or twice or even several times, that they know it and understand it. Remember, “one and done” does not work when people are emotional. If you aren’t sure if they know their cycle, this is where you need to be working. You might want to start the session with your thoughts about their cycle and ask if it it resonates with them. Again, simple is better here.

A note: I don’t want to imply that we first work to identify the cycle for ourselves and then as a second, separate step we work to identify it with the couple. In session, we work on identifying and exploring the cycle collaboratively, with the couple (Stage 1, Step 2). But most of the time, we will see and understand the cycle first (because we know what we are looking for) and we don’t want to stop there and assume our couple sees it and understands it too. We need to be sure.

Because after all, if they don’t know the cycle, how can they shift it?

Finally, if you know the cycle, and you are sure your couple knows the cycle, ask yourself the next, very important question: Can they, do they, feel the cycle in session? EFT is experiential. We don’t—and we can’t—stop at the cognitive awareness of the cycle. We want them to feel all the pieces of the cycle in session, we want to slow it down and explore it with them as it is happening. We want to use a lot of “right now” language, i.e. can you feel that right now, in this room, in this moment? This will help them make sense of what happens in the blink-of-an-eye outside of session. And feeling it is an essential step in helping them to shift it. So when they dip into primary emotion (Stage 1, Step 3) can they feel that emotion? Or are they talking about it but protecting themselves? If they are protecting themselves, can they feel that? What happens if they feel vulnerable when they are talking to you and they turn to their partner to share in an enactment prompted by you? Do they armor up, does their voice get edgy, do they turn and criticize, do they go blank? Can they feel that? Can they feel the link between being vulnerable one minute and the way they armor up the next minute? Get curious, explore, help them make sense of it, AND explicitly name it as part of “the cycle”. (See my March 2017 post on working with protection: https://heartbeatsfortherapists.com/2017/03/27/protection-the-fifth-p/)

So this week, try asking yourself before you go into session:

  1. Do I know the cycle?
  2. Do they know the cycle?
  3. Can they, and do they, feel the cycle in session?

See if this helps orient and focus you. Let me know what you think! 🙂

A Plug for the Couch;and Exploring Body Language

It seems there has been a movement in EFT lately, or perhaps it has always been a thing and it’s just news to me, that in order to do the best EFT, you need two swivel chairs instead of a couch. Well, I have a confession to make. I have a couch, and what’s more, I love my couch. I know this may be a dissenting opinion, so let me just say right here, right now that I think two swivel chairs are fine and I can imagine there are pros (and cons) for wanting this configuration. But let me just put a plug in for the couch, and while I’m at it, talk about the importance of catching and exploring body language.

In EFT, noticing and highlighting our clients’ body language can be an important part of our work; we can use it to provide us with deeper/richer information about each client’s experience (that we might file away in our back pocket for later) and/or we can use it to actively, in the moment, help us explore that deeper/richer client experience. Part of what we do in EFT is help people to notice their bodies, to notice what happens in their bodies when they feel safe, when they are connected, when their partner looks at them a certain way (good or bad); we help them to notice the ways they protect themselves, what their protection feels like, to notice themselves putting their protection on, taking it off, and to become aware of what messages their bodies are sending and what messages are received by their partners in all these moments. The couch, quite literally, gives the body more space to show itself, to move, hence giving us more information and limitless ways to go deeper with our clients.

Here are some ways to do that:

Noticing changes over time: A couple comes in for their first session and sit as far apart as they possibly can from each other on the couch, they lodge a pillow in between them like a wall or they grip one in their lap, or perhaps both. Before they even open their mouths to start to tell their story you have important information about this couple, about their level of safety with each other, and you can already be guessing that the ways they protect themselves—and the pain underneath—are powerful. Many sessions later (I won’t put a number on it!), this same couple comes in and sits a little more comfortably, they aren’t pressed into opposite corners, the pillows are not bricks between them and they don’t cling to one tightly as they try an enactment. One hand of each partner is resting on the cushion next to their legs, not quite loosely, but not clenched in a fist. They aren’t reaching across the divide for each other, but it feels like a tentative possibility. Then many sessions later, they come in and intentionally sit closer together, there is a narrow strip of space in between their legs on the couch, and they are holding hands. This is all wonderful fuel for our work, and even just noticing—and helping them notice—this movement over time, can be a springboard into deeper work. “Wow, you guys, even the way you are sitting makes me think you are feeling so much more connected, is that right? Do you remember when you first came in here, you were sitting so far apart on the couch, and now look at you, almost touching. Tell me what that feels like for both of you? What does that mean to you? What does it feel like inside of you when your partner is this close?” or “I’m just wondering, as I see you guys sitting so closely on the couch together today, where is your protection right now? What feels different right now that you don’t need it or that it is really small?” 

Noticing ways they protect themselves in session:

“I notice that you are sitting as far apart as you can, which gives me an idea of how much pain you are both in, and I am wondering both about that pain and about the ways you might protect yourself from that pain right now in this room and at home. Can you help me with that?”

If a partner leans away in a moment, I might say, “I notice you leaned back a bit when your partner said ____ , did you notice that? Can you help me with what was happening for you right then?”

If a partner crosses his/her arms across their chest, “It seems like in that moment a part of you wanted a little bit of protection, can you help me with that? And I also wonder, and please let me know if I’m wrong, perhaps you were giving yourself a little bit of comfort, like a hug? Which might mean there is distress inside? Help me with that, with what is happening for you, because my guess is that a lot is happening underneath and all your partner might know/see in this moment—again, my guess—is the arms crossed.” (Unpack each piece of this slowly).

Noticing the tentative reaches, the tentative risks:

Notice, highlight, and unpack the little movements, the little reaches… the fingers that twitch towards the partner or the hand that creeps over when the partner is crying but then stops short of actually touching the partner. Catching that, highlighting both sides of that, wondering with the client about the positive intention, the risk of the reach, and also getting curious about the importance of the pause (fear?). “Help me with that. What was your hand wanting to say? If you could put words to that reach, what would they be? Do you notice that at home, the longing to reach and the worry or fear of doing it? When you are in your negative cycle, what often wins in the moment?” Wonder with the partner, “Did you notice his hand moving towards you?” (Often not). “What does that mean to you right now to hear that?”

In the same way, notice, highlight, and unpack other small movements, like the touch on the knee; the pat on the back; the hand that is draped across the top of the couch, covering the space between them, but perhaps not touching; the pillow that was on the lap but then is put down during session or during an enactment.

Noticing the body during enactments:

Notice, highlight, and unpack body language during enactments, for instance, the half-turn or the head turning but the body facing forward and not moving. “Your head turned but I’m wondering, you help me if this is not right, part of you, your body wasn’t ready, is that right? Can you help me with that? A part of you was trying, yes? But another part of you… hmmmm…. maybe was worried? Can you help me with both parts?” And then you can unpack what the partner felt, did they feel that the partner was trying or did they focus on the body staying forward… “Yes, of course, that makes sense, because we are wired to watch for danger, and so of course his body facing forward was what was bigger for you. I get that. And what happens in your body when you see that? Hmmmm, yes, which I wonder if that then confirms his worry about turning all the way. Yes? A little bit of a non-verbal cycle there, yes? So can we look together at the other part too, the part that was trying? What it is like to hear that part of him was trying in that moment?” (Again, unpack each piece of this slowly.)

And of course, notice, highlight, and unpack the full turn towards the partner (with a positive enactment!—*see note below about angry full turns). “Wow, you turned your whole body to tell him/her that! What was that like?” And (partner) what was that like to have him turn his whole body towards you and say that?”

Notice bonding moments:

This probably goes without saying, but notice, highlight, and unpack those rewarding, touching bonding moments, when a couple leans in together for a full hug, or they actively slide over to each other, or reach hands for each other and grab on… “What is it like to say this while holding your partner’s hand?” And partner, “What is it like to hear that while holding your loved one’s hand?” or “What was happening for you as you slid all the way over to him just now? Something so powerful pulled you right across the couch to him, help me with that.”

The couch gives more space for all these spontaneous and important movements to happen. *NOTE: The downside of having more space is that you might need to be more directive when they are angry and escalated and turn towards each other with venom in their eyes or on their tongue (but I guess couples can do that in swivel chairs too). You will have to be forceful, “Look at me, I want you to look at me, tell me about that, I really want to hear this, turn towards me and talk to me right now…”

So yes, I love my couch. But the wonderful thing about EFT is it lends itself so beautifully to different styles, different ways of being yourself (with your furniture!) with your clients. So whatever furniture or set up you have in your office, try to notice body language this week, and see if you can use it to deepen the moment and heighten the experience by highlighting it. 

Let me know what you think! Have a wonderful week! 🙂 

PROTECTION: THE FIFTH “P”?

Last month, in talking about the cycle and the 4 P’s of Emotionally Focused Therapy (Johnson, Susan, 2011), I wrote that I often think of PROTECTION as a fifth P. You all know the “P’s” of EFT—Primary Emotion, Present Moment, Process, and Pattern—and how we should be working in one or more at all times (or at least working on working in one or more at all times!) 🙂  Well, I would like to raise my hand and nominate “Protection” as a new candidate for the podium of important EFT P’s.

In many other models of therapy and human behavior, the ways our clients protect themselves (also called reactive behaviors in EFT) might be labeled as a Defense or referred to as defensive, which can be pathologizing. (Say to yourself right now… “He is so defensive” and notice how you say it and what you feel inside. Now say to yourself “He is protecting himself.” Do you notice any difference inside yourself?) Reframing and seeing these behaviors as protective helps us feel warmer towards our clients, helps us open to them, which helps us get curious…hmmm….what are they protecting and why? And reframing behavior as protective (part of our Stage 1, Step 4 work) can help both partners see it differently, and possibly, be the beginning of a shift in these reactions. You can often see a client’s face soften—perhaps in relief, perhaps in a lightbulb moment for them, perhaps from being seen in a more empathic way—when you label what they do at the top of the cycle as protective. (When I say at the top of the cycle, I am referring to the EFT infinity loop, first developed by Scott Woolley, an EFT Trainer in San Diego. Find a copy of it at eftcnj.com, under Therapist Resources, Forms).

Our clients often come into the first session in full protection mode, or if they don’t come in this way, they may suit up quickly as the session begins. This protection is what their partner has been bumping into and experiencing over and over again in the negative cycle. Staying curious and trying to understand this important piece of the puzzle is a crucial part of our beginning work in EFT—our clients’ protection is a front door into the cycle, into their process, and into primary emotion. If we don’t hang out and work first in their protection when it shows up in the present moment, we may not be granted access to go further and deeper. So we notice, understand, validate, and make it explicit.

Notice: First, as the therapist, we have to notice when it shows up. Sometimes this can be easy (when one partner suddenly gets angry, or suddenly clams up). Othertimes it is harder to catch; it may be subtle—a shift in tone, a shift in body language, a glance away—or it may be so heated that you get caught up in it too and in the moment it is hard to see as protective—like when there is name calling or escalating anger. Try to keep your radar out for these very personal ways your clients protect their hearts.

Understand it/Make Sense of it: Then we have to really understand this protection and make sense of it, for everyone in the room. Get curious about it. Wonder to yourself and with them how it has helped them over the years. Because while it is not working now to help them get closer to their partner, it has served an important purpose; it was adaptive at some point, and to some extent it is adaptive now. It keeps them safe, either from their own vulnerability or fear, or from their partner’s behavior (which is protective too). It blocks them from the intimacy they long for, but when the negative cycle is up and running and they can’t reach (or reach for) their partner, they reach for their rusty, trusty armor. 

Validate it!: And validate it again. Need I say more?

Make it Explicit: Whenever you notice it, make it explicit. Slow down the moment in session when their protection is up in the room and work with it experientially. And believe me, it is up in the room. It shows up in the way someone jumps in to defend themselves, or points their finger, or when they turn to do an enactment and their whole affect changes from teary (with you) to cold or edgy or mean or tongue-tied or blank with their partner. Warmly wonder with them, what just happened? It seems to me that something important just happened. Did you notice it? Was that your way of protecting yourself? I think I saw your face change right when you looked at your partner, could you feel that? What is that like for you?

This is important because the idea that they protect themselves, and the ways that they do so, may be outside our clients’ awareness.  So the more we can explicitly catch it in the room and join them in experiencing it, the more they will learn about themselves, about their partner, about their negative cycle and their individual role in it. And the more they are aware of the way they armor up in this relationship, the better prepared they are to feel it at home and shift the cycle.

Often when we are first learning EFT and we are able to help our clients into some primary emotion, we then panic, ahhhh…. now what do I do?! Think LINK. Link this primary emotion to their protection, and pass this link over in an enactment. For instance, if you have someone in their primary emotion, ask them what they typically do or what they typically show their partner when they feel this hurt, this fear, this sadness? This is how they protect themselves. You might also explore what they are protecting themselves from—their partner’s protection (reactive behavior) or their own internal feelings. (Maybe both). Then you can create an enactment. Have them tell their partner: when I feel lonely, in our negative cycle I don’t show you that. Instead I get angry and criticize you. But underneath the anger, I am missing you. This linking of primary emotion to protection is a basic and essential enactment in EFT, one that we do over and over again. 

One more thing… when you are working in protection, try not to rush to get underneath it or to get them to drop it…. not only can this be a lot of pressure for you, this can sometimes create a push/pull with your clients that can strengthen the protection, not soften it. Instead, hang out with them in the protection, get to know it, understand it, understand it’s purpose, what it is trying to do. Because although it is wreaking havoc on the relationship, this part of your client is working hard and has a lofty goal: protect at all costs. Until we can come alongside this and make sense of it with the client, that unique shield or that drawn gun isn’t going anywhere.

I hope this is helpful! Let me know what you think! 🙂 

Johnson, Susan. (2011). Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples: Key Concepts [Power Point Slides]. Slide 9. Retrieved from https://www.emu.edu/graduate-counseling/sue-johnson-training-follow-up/sue-johnsonpre.pdf.

For more on EFT, read any of Dr. Sue Johnson’s books, including but not limited to:

The Practice of Emotionally Focused Marital Therapy: Creating Connection (Johnson, Susan M. The Practice of Emotionally Focused Marital Therapy: Creating Connection. New York: Bruner/Routledge, 2004. Print.)

OR find Dr. Sue Johnson at: drsuejohnson.com or at The International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT) www.iceeft.com

AHA, HERE IT IS!! CATCH THE CYCLE IN THE ROOM AND MAKE IT EXPLICIT

Last month I wrote about trying to increase the number of times we inject the word “cycle” into our sessions, as in “Oh, so when you guys are caught in the cycle together and you explode in anger, there’s a big part of you that is longing to connect with your partner?” Instead of ““Oh, so when you explode in anger, there’s a big part of you that is longing to connect with your partner?” A tiny intervention that packs a big punch.

This month, I thought it would be helpful to talk about catching, labeling, and working with the cycle when it comes alive in the room. This experiential piece—bringing the cognitive blueprint of the cycle into the here and now, into the body, into felt awareness—is an essential and powerful part of the EFT model.

Catching the cycle in the room can be hard to do. When the cycle erupts, whether it is loud and boiling or more subtle and frosty, we can get lost in it too, become overwhelmed, confused, anxious. But if we can remind ourselves that the cycle is in the room when we get that feeling of “OMG what is going on?” then we can see the moment as an opportunity. We can say to ourselves, “Good, here we go, here it is, I’m diving in… ” and then we can say that to our clients (okay, maybe don’t say “Good”…) but perhaps something like, “Oh, I’m wondering if this is the cycle flaring up; is this is where you both often get stuck and the cycle takes over? This is so important, can we use this moment to slow down and take a look at it together?”

I know that when the cycle shows up in my sessions, I might move in to help the couple unpack what is going on without labeling out loud what is happening as “the cycle.” Maybe I forget, maybe I am focused on just leaning in there and helping them, maybe that more meta-focus isn’t where I am in the moment, but just think—if I can’t remember to highlight it as the cycle in the moment, you can bet that your clients don’t know it is the cycle in the moment. So making it explicit, “here is the cycle!” is essential so that they can start to experientially link what they are feeling to being caught in the cycle.

And then help them unpack it. There’s a lot to look at and explore together from just this one moment, and unpacking it could take the whole session. You can use the EFT 4 P’s as a guide (Present Moment, Primary Emotion, Process, Pattern). (Johnson, Susan. 2011).

Present Moment: what is happening to each of them, what are they each experiencing right now in the cycle? What else are they experiencing (Emotions rarely come one at a time, what are the pieces of what they are feeling?). Which may lead you to…

Primary Emotion: what is underneath the reaction right now in the cycle?

Process: what was the trigger—was it a look, something the partner said, the tone? How did they understand the trigger? What does that then tell them about their partner, the relationship, themselves? What is that like for them to think that, to feel that right now in the cycle? And how did they protect themselves, right here, right now, from the partner and/or from their own feelings?

Pattern: And when they put up their protection, what does the partner see/feel/experience/think right here in the cycle?

A few notes:

I often think of Protection as a fifth “P”. And in our desire to unpack the primary emotion, we often neglect to really help the client become aware of their own protection. Maybe I’ll talk about this in my next post, but for now, don’t forget to sit with the client in this very personal way of how they protect their heart.

Be explicit that you are looking at the cycle as it just came up in the room. When you wrap up, you might summarize the cycle for them. You could say “I think it was so important that we had a chance to really experience the cycle together in the room, to experience how powerful it is and how much happens to each of you and between you both in a second or a minute’s time.”

So this month, see if you can catch the cycle in the room and be explicit about it with your clients. I hope this helps! 🙂 

Johnson, Susan. (2011). Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples: Key Concepts [Power Point Slides]. Slide 9. Retrieved from https://www.emu.edu/graduate-counseling/sue-johnson-training-follow-up/sue-johnsonpre.pdf.

For more on EFT and the negative cycle, read any of Dr. Sue Johnson’s books, including but not limited to:

Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (Johnson, Susan, M. Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008. Print.)

The Practice of Emotionally Focused Marital Therapy: Creating Connection (Johnson, Susan M. The Practice of Emotionally Focused Marital Therapy: Creating Connection. New York: Bruner/Routledge, 2004. Print.)

OR find Dr. Sue Johnson at: drsuejohnson.com or at The International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT) www.iceeft.com

CYCLE, CYCLE, CYCLE

Wow, say that three times as fast as you can. 🙂 And just like that and just as fast, the cycle can erupt in the room and tangle us all up like the very best of the tongue twisters.

As EFT therapists we need to keep a handle on that destructive cycle at all times, so that it doesn’t blindside us, blindside our couple. I think that sometimes in our work (especially, but not limited to, when we are beginning to learn EFT) we can focus so much on getting to that golden primary emotion that we relax our grip on the cycle in session. I’m not saying that we completely let go of it, but if we are many sessions in and as we are working in the cycle, we might ease away from being explicit about it. Or because the cycle is so clear to us, and perhaps to our clients (we think), we might feel repetitve using the word “cycle” over and over, so we, well, don’t. Or to be honest, we might have checked off the “Stage 1, Step 2: Identify the Cycle” box and moved on, thinking that once we’ve identified it and held a mirror up to it one or two times, our clients have a solid, felt understanding of their cycle and we don’t need to keep talking about it anymore.

But just like in everything EFT, one and done just doesn’t do it, especially when it comes to the all-powerful negative cycle. This is the enemy, the villan that keeps your couples from being connected, and the only way to make that crystal clear is to keep that enemy close and in the spotlight. So even after you have identified and worked with the cycle, even after your couples have had that Aha! moment when they see their cycle and it fits for them, even after they have felt it explode in the room, we still need to keep the cycle in the forefront of the work, continuing to name it, (and name it again, and again), hold it up the light, and catch it and label it when it shows up.

Think of it like holding the reins while riding a horse. We have two reins that we hold and control; if we tighten one and ease up on the other, the horse turns. If we continue to do this, the horse keeps turning and we end up going in circles. We need to hold both, have control of both, if we want to direct the course. The same is true in EFT. We want to hold onto and use the cycle while we are working in all the other important steps of EFT.

I will talk more about catching the cycle in the room in my next post, but for now an easy and impactful way to keep the cycle in the room could be just a small change to what you are already doing—simply insert the words “in your cycle” (or pattern or dance or tornado) into the intervention you were already going to use. So instead of: “Oh, so when you walk away, underneath you are feeling defeated?” You might say, “Oh, so in your cycle, when you walk away, underneath you are feeling defeated?”

Or instead of “So what is it like for you when your partner looks at you with anger in her eyes?” You might say, “So what is it like for you in your cycle when your partner looks at you with anger in her eyes?”

Or Instead of “Yes, that is such a painful place for you”, you might say, “Yes, in your cycle, that is such a painful place for you.”

By simply adding those words you keep the cycle up and running for all of you, clearly highlighting that that is what you are all working on. It also makes explicit that these are the reactions and feelings that happen when they are in the cycle; this is so important because you are reminding them, over and over, that this isn’t just “how it is”, it is how it is when they are in the cycle. A small distinction that can provide a lot of hope.

Finally, each time you use the words, you are emphasizing that this is a dynamic. This is a crucial reminder and for most couples, needs continual underlining. This cycle is not one person’s fault; the same partner doesn’t always start this dynamic. The word alone simply reinforces that concept. Additionally, by naming it as a dynamic when working with one partner, you subtly and intentionally loop the other partner into the work in the moment. And again, by just highlighting it more often, you provide hope. Because if this is negative dance they both create, it is a dance they can change together.

So this month, notice how often you refer to the cycle in session—how many times do you actually use the word—and perhaps practice using it more.

Let me know how what you think! And Happy, Happy New Year! 🙂  

For more on EFT and the negative cycle, read any of Dr. Sue Johnson’s books, including but not limited to:

Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (Johnson, Susan, M. Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008. Print.)

The Practice of Emotionally Focused Marital Therapy: Creating Connection (Johnson, Susan M. The Practice of Emotionally Focused Marital Therapy: Creating Connection. New York: Bruner/Routledge, 2004. Print.)

OR find Dr. Sue Johnson at: drsuejohnson.com or at The International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT) www.iceeft.com

ASSUMPTIONS

Well it’s September. For those of us that enjoy summer in the June-July-August months, September can roll in with a bit of melancholy. (Did you feel mine from the big sigh in the “Well, it’s September” intro?) But the return to routine and schedules can also be invigorating. That “back to school” vibe can bring fresh energy to our work if we let it, even if “back to school” no longer applies to you or your family. For me, this time of year feels more like the beginning of a new year than New Year’s. And so, in that spirit, I am going to make an EFT resolution for myself and my work.

My resolution is about not making assumptions—specifically, not making assumptions about words. As an EFT therapist, I think of myself as pretty much assumption-free, and I used to think that I only walked into my sessions with two assumptions. The first is the assumption of a bond between the partners, even if that bond feels tenuous and thin. Jim Thomas (a wonderful EFT Trainer in CO) has said that he always assumes there is a bond between partners, like an invisible umbilical cord between them. We need to know that umbilical cord is there and hold onto it even when the partners can’t. (Find Jim Thomas here: http://www.engagingtherapy.com).

The second assumption that I enter the room with is that with my attachment lens on, everything—every reaction, every behavior—will make sense, I just need to make sense of it. Sometimes this is harder than others, but to date that assumption has never failed me or my clients. Other than that, I try not to make assumptions about my clients, and try to work together with them to unpack meaning before jumping to make it myself.

But lately I’ve realized that I do make assumptions about certain emotional words that my clients use, simple words like “sad” or “hopeless” or “happy” or “love”. For instance, in the past when a client said they were sad, I would reflect it, stay with it, and unpack it (and perhaps even feel it myself), all of which helped us go deeper, but I think my baseline assumption that I understood “sad” was inhibiting me from being really curious—as-if-it-was-a-word-I’d-never-heard-before-curious—about what sadness was like for this client. We know two important things about “sad”. The first is that sad is universal, everyone feels it, everyone uses the word, everyone knows what sadness is, it is defined quite clearly in the dictionary. All true, and yet, when even clearly defined words hit the air they become monogramed and subjective. Which brings us to the second important thing about sad. Sad is personal, it has images, flavors, and smells, it has memories and history and attachments, it has physical sensations as well as unique emotions tangled within it (I was going to write “pain within it”, but that might be an assumption). And I think that while I tried to unpack both sides of “sad” with each client, I was unaware that I was more grounded in the first “I know what sad is” side and it was inhibiting me from fully exploring the second, exquisitely personal side.

It’s like when a client comes in with a situation or story that is very similar to something that has happened in your own life, it is almost impossible—as hard as we try—not to let our own experience color how we hear and feel the story. The same is true for the words—like sad—that we hear over and over again. Words that as therapists, we hear more than most. So it is hard to hear “sad” with fresh ears and not have our own personal and professional experiences with sad color how we hear and how we understand each client’s unique sad. Especially when we aren’t even concious we are doing that.

For me, that’s the lightbulb. Being aware of it. It is easier to go slow and unpack when we are confused or when something is vague. Then we don’t have to remind ourselves to slow down and explore because our confusion cues us to do this. But when we think we know, and when all three people in the room think they know, it is harder to remember to pause, slow down, and explore.

But here’s the thing (there’s always a thing). Our own version of sad is essential in the room too. We can and should use it like a vulnerability compass, to cue us, to guide us, to help us plug into and connect with the client. The trick is to balance this with the simultaneous listening and exploring as if we’ve never heard the word before.

You can prompt this exploration by using one of EFT’s key interventions, Reflection. By just reflecting the emotion you invite the client to talk more about it, to fill in the parts and feelings of what that emotion is for them. But you can also more explicitly invite them if the reflection alone doesn’t elicit it. You might gently, warmly, invite them to “Help me with what sadness is like for you, talk to me as if I don’t know what sadness is.”

So there’s my resolution about assumptions. How about you, can you think of any assumptions you make that might be important to notice? Or do you have a different “New Year’s” resolution about your EFT work? Share it in the comments section! 🙂

WARMTH: THE FLAME THAT LIGHTS OUR WORK

Hi all! Here on the East Coast of the US, it is officially summer (hooray!). The sun is ever-present—shimmering and hot—causing people everywhere to strip off layers of winter protection and (at least physically) make themselves vulnerable.   

The heat outside dovetails what I’ve been thinking about inside my office— the power of warmth. This elemental and rich piece of ourselves, this gift of our warmth, is an essential ingredient in Sue Johnson’s EFT, just as essential as The Steps, The Stages, The Tango, and The 4P’s. Our warmth is the kindling to all our interventions; it sets the temperature in the room, providing safety, support, and encouragement for the vulnerable risk-taking of EFT. Just like the sun, the heat of our warmth has the power to help clients strip away layers of protection.

We tend to think of warmth as something that ebbs and flows naturally, without much awareness, like a smile that breaks out without actually thinking “I need to smile now”. But because in EFT warmth is an implicit foundation to all our explicit interventions, it is a good idea to be more aware of, and then more intentional with, our warmth. Consider for a moment EFT without warmth. Really, think about any intervention in the model, from Stage 1/Step 1: Alliance Building all the way to Stage 3/Step 9: Consolidation—think about Validation, Inviting Enactments, Heightening—and try to imagine doing them, and having our clients respond, without an infusion of our warmth. To be fair, because EFT is such a powerful model you may be able to get some cognitive traction without warmth, but it would be impossible to get the depth and richness and vulnerability needed to help couples restructure their bond without using this key component of ourselves. 

There are many times the flame of our warmth can falter, and by becoming more aware, we can notice and work to light it back up again. Certainly our warmth can waver if we become EFT “technicians” and we are too cognitive, too “in our heads”, or when we are anxious or disregulated as we all get in the face of this very challenging work. Our flame can flicker when we are frustrated or having a hard time understanding a client or their reactive, protective behavior. In a recent ICEEFT EFT Listserv* post, Bret Lyon, who runs wonderful workshops on Shame with his wife Sheila Rubin (I haven’t been to one yet, but hope to attend soon. Find them here: http://www.healingshame.com) reminded us that many of our clients hear judgment and criticism from us even when it isn’t there, and so imagine how loud it sneers at them if there is even a tiny part of us that is judgmental or critical in the moment. These are important moments to tune into, become more aware of, and if possible, to intentionally fire up our warmth.

No doubt, there is a lot to learn in EFT. It is simple and complicated and messy and beautiful, just like life, just like relationships. And when we are first learning the model, it can be overwhelming. There are so many things to keep track of, so many notes in our heads when we are facing a couple, (Ask them what they do with that emotion! Catch that bullet! Do an Enactment!) and it is so easy to get tangled up in our left-brain and not pay as much attention to our right, to that most important warm flame of connection and alliance.

I would argue that when we get stuck, check in first with our warmth and dial it up. (You may find that not only does it feel good to your couple, but it may help your own anxiety in the moment).

Everyone’s “warmth” style is different— we radiate warmth in our tone, in our words, in our facial expressions, in our eye contact, in our body language. It glows in our gentle curiosity, in our validation, in our coo’s and hmmm’s. It comes from the heart, it comes from genuineness, it comes from a real desire to come alongside. This month, think about your style. How do you show warmth? Can you show it in other ways too? i.e. if you know your warmth shines through your eyes, can you try letting it come through body language too, maybe through leaning in? Whatever your way is, tune into it, pay attention to how you use it, when you lose it, how it affects your clients, your work, yourself. Do some internal check-ins this month and ask yourself at different points in your work: Is my warmth coming through right now? Can I turn it up somehow? Maybe play with it outside the office, and practice turning up your warmth on the grumpy cashier or that frazzled parent in the supermarket and see what happens.

I hope this is helpful! Let me know what you think. 🙂

*To join the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy (ICEEFT) and the Listserv, go to www.iceeft.com. General membership (including access to the listserv) is open to anyone who has undertaken an approved EFT Externship. For more information on ICEEFT and EFT go to http://www.iceeft.com.