I am often asked by trainees and students how long I have been practicing Dr. Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). I could say I began to integrate elements of EFT with my first Person Centered paper in 1976; however, learning a model of therapy – what Carl Rogers called a way of being – it is more accurate to say I am engaged in a lifelong practice of learning.
My journey of learning EFT began 66 years ago when I was born into a socially conscious, nature-loving, book-revering, Canadian dairy farm family! I spent my childhood from the age of six bonding and attuning with my closest sibling – a sweet non-verbal brother with severe disabilities – and a shiny ethereal wisdom.
Learning EFT from life, from Rogers, Bowlby, Minuchin, Johnson, and from you: This is my journey. Drawn initially to the power of an empathic, genuine, accepting therapeutic relationship and the shaping of corrective emotional experiences in session, it is only in the past ten years that I am fine-tuning the essence of being an EFT therapist, across modalities of individual, couple and family therapy.
I have come to trust that my job is not to fix or to problem solve.
Rather, it is to first accept and engage intimately in getting acquainted with the unmet longings and strengths of the human being(s) in front of me.
In this process of “engaging with,” I help clients recognize and stabilize the patterns of how they shape their worlds. Then, my task is to help them own and reprocess their emotional experience. By reprocessing emotional experience, they encounter new meanings and new impulses to action, reshaping their worlds with new ways of relating internally and interpersonally. In this collaboratively created, gradual transformation experience he/she/they and I are all changed.
I don’t feel the gifts of transformation everyday! Somedays I am stuck in the weeds with clients in despair, supervisees feeling overwhelmed, and feeling I have missed the mark in my alliance.
Transformation is not the gift of everyday. Yet each day, the simplest, yet most important task – the beginning of experiential therapy – the heart of unconditional positive regard – is genuinely engaging with and reflecting present process.
Answers to some of therapists’ most commonly asked questions, are rooted in reflecting present process.
1. What are some practical phrases and steps I can use in moments where I feel stuck?
There are some practical phrases that convey acceptance and genuine interest to understand more. Phrases like, ”This is a very difficult moment,” or “ I hear how difficult this is for you. We all seem stuck here,” or “I am wanting to understand better what you are saying.” When we have enough emotional balance as therapist, we want to be as specific as possible about the struggle we are hearing from the client. We want to convey a caring, empathic invitation for the client to help better us join with them in understanding their experience. For example:
Therapist to mistrusting partner: Right now we are at an critical edge, aren’t we? You expressed skepticism about therapy – and just now you said it feels like I am taking your partner’s side. That must feel very bad to sense I am siding against you! I do not mean to be taking sides, so let’s slow way down to be clear I am understanding your experience. [Reflecting present process, therapist engagement and transparency]
2. What should I be prioritizing when there are so many different potential directions?
Therapist to partners in escalating distress: Wow – we have so many directions we could go just now! So many things you each want to say – all so important yet it’s like neither of you quite gets to finish saying your piece before something about what you’ve said triggers your partner and the tailspin takes over. (Reflecting present process). I can feel myself almost getting dizzy just now as each of you are getting revved up. Let’s slow down – to the core of what I hear from each of you. [Therapist engagement and transparency]
Lee, I hear such panic with your sense that your partner is intent on remaking you, yes?
And Qin, I hear desperate fear that Lee has totally turned away from you and left you all alone. [Empathic reflection of each partner’s process – fears and meaning making. Taking time to process one at a time]
3. How do I avoid looking stupid when I get thrown a curve ball?
[A jarring curve ball after therapist makes a culturally mis-attuned conjecture]
Client: What do you think I am – an angry black woman?
Therapist: My comment just now – that you must be angry at how many people are taking advantage of you – sounded judgmental! I am so sorry! [transparency] I hear how exhausted you are and it was wrong of me to assume you’d be angry about that! [therapist transparency, with focus on client]
You have told me, that you were raised – in fact survival depended on – ignoring your own struggle and just carrying on without paying attention to how exhausted you feel. I hear that sharing with me about how exhausted and frustrated you are – giving, giving, giving to others – is already a huge step and I was wrong to wonder aloud if you feel angry. Exhausted and frustrated – yes! [Reflecting present process, with therapist genuineness, respect and acceptance]
EFT, and perhaps all effective therapy, pivots on genuine, empathic reflection of present process.
The refreshing answer to most questions is embedded in fully engaging with and reflecting the present process. Empathic reflection is an often misunderstood and minimized element of experiential therapy. Therapist transparency and an actively engaged, empathic focus on present moment reflection (Move 1 of the EFT Tango) can open the therapist and clients to more accurate cultural attunement and begin the repair of an unstable alliance.
Returning to my opening theme about learning and practicing EFT therapy as a lifelong journey, I want to hold the simple yet precious gem of empathic reflection in the light! All the limitless possibilities of transformation, like the luminosity of a precious gemstone, begin with the simple, active process of engaging with and reflecting present process.
Are you interested in learning more about reflecting present process? You may be interested in
- my book Stepping into EFT and the accompanying training videos
- the EFT in Action on March 13, 2021, with a same-sex couple
- EFIT Level 1 training in late February 2021
- the EFT Externship beginning in late April 2021 for people in the Carolinas (please check ICEEFT’s site for externships offered in your geographic location)
- EFIT Workouts that I will be conducting with Ali Barbosa (EFT Mexico), starting April 2021.
If you have any questions, comment below or feel free to contact me!