Unlocking the Superpower of Emotion Efficacy

old-fashioned key

By Aprilia West, PsyD, MT

Some 70 percent of people who walk through the doors of a therapy office are struggling with some kind of low emotion efficacy in various forms:

  • emotional reactivity
  • emotion dysregulation
  • impulsivity
  • distress intolerance
  • overcontrolled emotion avoidance

While our clients usually have some sense of what’s not working, what they want in their lives, and/or what they wish they could do—or stop doing, they often don’t see or can’t imagine how much freedom and creativity is available to them simply in how they choose to respond to emotional experience.

There’s good reason for this. In our natural states we are programmed to move towards pleasure and away from pain.  What this means is that we can be stuck in unhelpful patterns and habits because we naturally avoid and distance ourselves from behaviors that require us to tolerate distress or stress. This also means clients have to practice cultivating responses that don’t come naturally in order unlock the door to creating inspired, meaningful lives.

People are more powerful than they tend to see themselves, and too often, they don’t realize they are stuck in automatic emotional reactions. They don’t realize that the way they relate to emotions– moment to moment–, becomes the habits and patterns that chart the course of our lives.  

A critical first step for shifting the programmed relationship with emotion is just this:

the realization that there is a template or neurological software download available that allows infinitely more freedom and creativity.

By learning they can access what’s possible in how they choose to respond, they begin to see they don’t have to live at the mercy of emotional urges. And, learning to respond from what’s possible–even when it feels unnatural— gives rise to emotion efficacy.

They can also see that living in a default mode of automatic emotional reactions keeps them stuck in constricted and predictable behaviors, which have constricted and predictable results.This hope can create the willingness and motivation to try something more effective—even when it feels unnatural.

The Moment of Choice is a foundational construct in EET.  High emotion efficacy relies on accessing the Moment of Choice—the moment between recognizing the signs of emotion activation in thoughts, feelings, sensations and/or urges, and responding to them. Ultimately the Moment of Choice represents the space where clients can shift from the default mode of automatic emotional reactions and access other possible behavioral responses that are consistent with what really matters and what they value.

See also: Fostering Emotion Efficacy in Clients

Depending on how overlearned a behavioral response is, clients may struggle to see their ability to intentionally choose their response before they automatically react.

To help increase a clients’ ability to locate the Moment of Choice, they must begin to practice observing and accepting all parts of their emotional experience: thoughts, feelings, sensations and urges. By learning to “surf” their emotion waves, they can begin to experience a spaciousness until an accessible Moment of Choice appears.

Once they locate the Moment of Choice clients use several prompts to expand their perspective, and ultimately their freedom and creativity:

  • What matters most to me in this moment and in this situation?
  • What’s possible in this situation that I may not be seeing?
  • How do I want to show up consistent with what matters to me?
  • What could I do to express or embody what matters to me?

Through this inquiry, clients allow all of the natural emotional experiences to arise while they skillfully and intentionally choose their responses based on what is most workable in context:

  1. Continuing to surf the emotion wave until it resolves
  2. Using skills to downshift and regulate emotion until they are better able to act on what matters.

In this way, expanded freedom and creativity become accessible, and the patterns that are either soft-wired, or even hard-wired, can be overridden and possibly overwritten.

By practicing new responses to emotional pain during intense or aversive activation, clients are essentially hacking their brain’s neural structure and downloading new maps by rehearsing new responses in an activated state. With practice, these new behaviors can become as easy, if not easier to access than the old ones.

Why Emotion Efficacy Therapy (EET)?

EET was developed in response to the need for a brief portable effective treatment to help people with emotion problems. Using an 8-week protocol, EET integrates ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) and exposure therapy with psychoeducation and learning theory that can be delivered in an individual or group format.

The Emotion Efficacy Manual (Clinician’s Guide to EET) includes everything you need to do EET with your client(s): psychoeducation, handouts and worksheets, therapist scripts and step-by-step instructions for how to help clients increase their Emotion Awareness, use Mindful Acceptance to surf emotion waves, use Values Based Action instead of their emotions to guide their behavior, and when necessary, Mindful Coping to downshift and regulate emotions.

Join Us. Help your Clients Increase Their Emotion Efficacy!