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.)