Learning Emotion-Focused Therapy - Supplemental Materials

Chapter 2: Process-Experiential Theory Made Simple

2.2.1. Outline: A Concise Outline of General Process-Experiential Theory



I. Theory of Human Functioning

A. Emotion is fundamentally adaptive:

1. The way we construct reality is highly emotionally based.

2. Emotion tells us what is personally important (source of information)

3. Emotion helps us to survive by providing an efficient, automatic way of responding rapidly to important situations.

4. Emotion prepares us for action: emotions generate wishes/needs, which generate action; in other words, every feeling has a need; and every need has a direction for action.


B. Emotion schemes are complex, integrative structures of experiencing:

1. Emotion schemes integrate experiencing by giving it meaning, value, and direction.

2. Emotion schemes include various of forms of experiencing, including the following:


            •bodily sensations/expressions

            •symbolic representations (words, images; labels, metaphors)

            •wishes/action tendencies

            •emotions and integrative feelings (“felt sense”)

3. Different forms of experiencing (such as thought and feeling) are interwoven and linked to each other.

4. Emotional experiencing evolves from moment to moment; emotion schemes are continually constructed and reconstructed.

5. Emotion is multilayered: emotions can generate other emotions; emotions can be secondary to other emotions.

6. Emotion schemes are idiosyncratic (content, expression and organization are unique to each person)


C. Emotion Self-regulation

1. There is an optimal level of emotional arousal, which varies the situation/task;  too little and too much emotional arousal are both dysfunctional.

2. The ability to regulate one’s emotions and level of emotional arousal is necessary for adaptive functioning.

3. The ability to self-regulate emotion derives from early attachment experiences with caregivers.

4. Effective emotional self-regulation requires both the ability to access, heighten or tolerate emotion; and the ability to contain or distance emotion.

5. Adaptive strategies for accessing emotion include

            •attending to emotion-related bodily sensations

            •remembering previous emotion episodes

            •presenting oneself with vivid emotional cues (words, images)`

            •enacting emotion expression and action tendencies

            •monitoring level of arousal in order to maintain safety

6. Adaptive strategies for containing emotion include:

            •self-soothing (relaxing, self-comforting, self-supporting, self-caring)

            •seeking support and understanding from others

            •using containing or distancing language or imagery

            •temporarily distracting oneself with other activities

•naming and understanding emotions

            •controlling expression of emotion (letting out a little at a time)


D. Dialectical Constructivism:

1. People are meaning-creating beings who are motivated to symbolize experience in awareness.

2. When we come to know something about others or ourselves, both the state of our knowledge and the thing itself are changed; what we call a "fact" is actually a joint construction of the "things themselves" and our knowing process.

3. The Self can be viewed as constructed of multiple aspects or voices that exist in varying relationships with one another.

4. Self-aspects or voices often form conflicting pairs, such as Critic and Experiencer.


II. Theory of Dysfunction

1. Inability to access and make use of all elements of emotion scheme system leads to impulsive or maladaptive action.

2. Based on experience earlier in their lives, people sometimes experience emotions that no longer fit their current situation (=maladaptive primary emotion responses).

3. Secondary reactive emotional responses are later responses that replace the person’s initial emotional responses with a less useful emotional response.

4. In instrumental emotion responses, the person reacts to the situation by strategically planning to enact an emotion.

5. Over-arousal or excessive accessing of emotion occurs when one is flooded or overwhelmed by painful emotion; these lead to disorganization and emotional avoidance.

6. Under-arousal or excessive emotional containment includes trying to suppress or avoid emotion entirely and leads to emotional dysregulation (numbing, emotional rebound effects, and impulsive actions).

7. Disaffiliative opposition among aspects of the self causes emotional pain, blocks primary emotional responses, and leads to stuckness or impulsive actions.  Both active self-attack and more passive self-abandonment, isolation, and compartmentalization lead to problems.


III. Theory of Change

A. Dialectical constructivism

1. The client is an active change agent in a self-change process aimed at continuing personal growth and development.

2. The client’s experiencing evolves from moment to moment.

3. Interaction between different aspects of the self (especially between dominant and implicit/silenced self-aspects) generates newness/change.

4. Tolerant, friendly contact between different self-aspects fosters adaptive action and a sense of integration or wholeness.


B. Emotional learning

1. Change requires access to and exploration of emotion.

2. PE Therapy is training in emotional intelligence, helping clients learn how to use their emotions and developing strategies for adaptive self-regulating of emotion.

3. With regard to emotional learning, the general goals of PE therapy include the following:

a. Helping clients learn how to use their emotions as information to guide them toward adaptive action.  This includes the following:

•accessing, exploring/enacting and symbolizing/appreciating the full range of emotion schemes and emotion scheme elements (including affective, perceptual, bodily, symbolic and action aspects)

•reflecting on their emotions rather than acting on them impulsively

•restructuring emotion schemes which no longer lead to adaptive action

b. Helping clients learn how to self-regulate their emotions, including both

            •accessing/heightening (through self-cuing and internal attention focus)

•containing emotions (through self-soothing, seeking support, symbolizing, using containment/distancing strategies, and controlling expression)


C. Relationship Context of Change

1. Relationships that foster change function by providing safety and support, encouraging the exploration/enactment, symbolization/appreciation, and restructuring of experiencing.

2. Relational safety and support fosters client self-soothing and self-support.



Materials designed to accompany the book Learning Emotion-Focused Therapy: The Process-Experiential Approach to Change from APA Books.

©2003 Robert Elliott, Jeanne Watson, Rhonda Goldman, and Leslie Greenberg