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Emotion-focused therapy (EFT) is a therapeutic approach based on the premise that emotions are key to identity. According to EFT, emotions are also a guide for individual choice and decision making. This type of therapy assumes that lacking emotional awareness or avoiding unpleasant emotions can cause harm. It may render us unable to use the important information emotions provide.

Therapists qualified in EFT can help people seeking assistance with a range of concerns. These therapists may help people learn to become more aware of their emotions. EFT also allows people to become better at using information provided by adaptive emotions. People may be better able to cope with and decrease negative effects of maladaptive emotions. 

Emotion-Focused Therapy Theory

In this approach to treatment, the therapist and the person in therapy collaborate in an active process. Both are viewed as equal contributors. The person in treatment, not the therapist, is seen as the person most capable of interpreting their emotional experience.

EFT is founded in the idea that emotions should be used to guide healthy, meaningful lives. Its theory is based on a scientific inquiry into the human emotional experience. Scientific study of human emotion has provided information about:

  • How emotions are produced
  • The importance of emotions to human functioning
  • How emotions are related to thought and behavior

Emotion schemes is the core concept of EFT. It was developed largely from these theories of human emotion. Emotion schemes are models that outline how emotion can:

  • Be experienced physically
  • Cause physiologic changes
  • Influence thinking
  • Guide future action

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EFT helps people both accept and change their personal emotion schemes.

Techniques Used In Emotion-Focused Therapy 

EFT sessions typically center around the development of two key skills. These are:

  1. Arriving at one's emotions through increased awareness and acceptance.
  2. Learning to transform emotions and better use the information they provide to avoid negative or harmful behaviors or other effects of certain emotions.

Therapists practicing this method take a compassionate, non-judgmental, and reflective approach to listening and questioning. This allows the person in therapy come to a better understanding of their emotions. Then, various therapeutic techniques known as emotion coaching are utilized. These help people learn new ways to use healthy emotions to guide their actions. Emotion coaching may further help people transform and move on from challenging emotions.

Initial sessions of therapy focus on helping people arrive at emotions. One or more of the following goals are often included in each session:

  • Become more aware of emotions
  • Learn to welcome, allow, and regulate emotions
  • Learn to describe emotions clearly and in detail
  • Increase awareness of the multiple layers of emotional experiences and learn to identify the most direct reaction

The next phase of treatment focuses on leaving. It may include the following goals:

  • Evaluate whether emotions are helpful or unhelpful in various situations
  • Learn to use helpful emotions to guide action
  • Identify the source of unhelpful emotions
  • Learn to change unhelpful emotions
  • Develop alternative, healthy ways of coping with situations that often elicit maladaptive emotions
  • Form personal scripts that help challenge the destructive thoughts that may be associated with unhelpful or maladaptive emotions

EFT is generally thought to have been successful when the person in treatment has an increased awareness of their emotional experience. They may also have an improved ability to regulate emotions and be better able to transform unhelpful emotions.

How Can Emotion-Focused Therapy Help?

Unsuccessful attempts to control emotions may exacerbate many issues that bring people to therapy. People who experience depression, for example, may spend large amounts of time avoiding situations that lower their mood. People who experience anxiety might often feel debilitated by their attempts to reduce fear and worry. They may try to stay as far away as possible from the people or things that provoke anxiety.  Therapists practicing this method take a compassionate, non-judgmental, and reflective approach to listening and questioning in order to best help the individual in therapy arrive at a better understanding of their emotions. 

Through EFT, people may come to see their emotions as valuable sources of information instead of painful or difficult states. They may learn to experience, rather than suppress, these emotions. EFT addresses the regulation and impact of emotions. Emotions impact many mental health concerns. Due to this, EFT may offer benefit in the treatment of many psychological issues.

This method was first used to treat depression. It has since expanded in practice to be used to address:

EFT has also been found to be potentially effective in working with couples in distress. 

Limitations of Emotion-Focused Therapy

Some psychological issues, such as panic or impulse control, can be described as disproportionate responses to one’s internal experience. These parts of experience might include thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations. EFT helps people be more responsive to their internal experience. Due to this, it is generally not recommended in the treatment of these issues.

EFT requires people to be open and honest. It helps people develop a compassionate stance toward their own emotional experience. Compassion and honesty can be increased through therapy. But this treatment is generally not meant for those who may deliberately deceive or manipulate the therapist.

Finally, EFT is a type of therapy aimed at improving a person’s overall functioning. It is not meant to address specific symptoms. So it may not be as effective for people seeking treatment to reduce a specific mental health symptom.

Several research studies conducted by the developer and others have shown EFT to be an effective approach. The method is empirically supported as an evidence-based treatment

History and Development

EFT was developed primarily by Leslie Greenberg. A humanistic approach to treatment, it is designed to help people better accept, regulate, understand, and express their emotions. Greenberg did not set out to develop the approach intentionally. Rather, he studied how people change. The process of the treatment's development encompassed nearly three decades. The first related materials were published in 1979. 

EFT is an empirically-based approach that draws from principles of cognitive behavioral, person-centered, and Gestalt therapies. It also incorporates aspects of Piaget's studies on how people solve problems. When directed toward treating a couple, EFT also references interactional systemic perspectives.

EFT attempts to help people look inside themselves and better understand their own emotions. While emotionally focused therapy has a similar name, it differs from EFT. It is an intervention designed to help couples and family members better understand the emotions of significant others in their lives, and the two approaches are separate. Even so, the process of coming to better understand one's emotions may facilitate better relationships with others.


  1. Greenberg, L. S. (2004, January 29). Emotion-focused therapy. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 11, 3-16. doi: 10.1002/cpp.388
  2. Goldman, R. N., Watson, J. C., and Greenberg, L. S. (2011, June 5). Contrasting two clients in emotion-focused therapy for depression 2: The case of 'Eloise,'  'It’s like opening the windows and letting the fresh air come in.' Pragmatic Case Studies in Psychotherapy, 7, 305-338. doi: 10.14713/pcsp.v7i2.1093
  3. Van Nuys, D. (n.d.). An interview with Leslie Greenberg, PhD, on emotion-focused therapy. Retrieved from
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