Relief versus Primary Emotion - a gem from the list serve

Like most of you, I imagine, I have a love/hate relationship with the EFT list serve. I find it so helpful to be connected to this incredible community of therapists, and have super stars weigh in on people’s questions. I mean, Sue Johnson responds on the list serve! But it can also feel like a part time job to manage all the emails, and so sometimes I take breaks and just delete them when it gets too much.

I’m really glad I didn’t miss one from this week, though, and I wanted to share a piece of it just in case you may have missed it, because I thought it was such a jewel. Someone had written in asking for help getting a Withdrawer down to his primary emotion. They had described the Pursuer softening a little in Stage 1, and the Withdrawer expressing appreciation that the Pursuer could speak more vulnerably instead of critically, which was their typical cycle. The Withdrawer also was able to notice his partner’s vulnerability evoked in himself some protectiveness feelings for her. The therapist had tried to encourage the Withdrawer to speak more vulnerably about what it meant to him to hear his partner do a softer reach, but hit a wall, and was reaching out for some guidance.

Richard Doleman, a certified EFT therapist and supervisor from my home state of California, weighed in with what I thought was a brilliant reply. It was so good that I emailed him and asked him if it would be ok if I shared what he wrote here. He generously said yes, so I hope I do his words justice.

He wrote, “When you seized on his reply about how nice it was that she was speaking to him vulnerably, which makes him feel protective of her, there may be some primary emotion just underneath, but it is a likely guess that this has to do more with the attachment pain in the cycle (relief that she is not critical of him??), rather than a genuine response of appreciation for her vulnerable reach (more typical in stage 2). In step 3 you are not just grabbing onto any attachment-related primary affect that happens to be in the offering, but you are eliciting the particular primary affect which has to do with the attachment pain for the withdrawer in this particular cycle. It is very likely that when you went in on his expression about her vulnerability, he felt pulled on and not ok with you, in the same way that he feels these things with her.”

Here’s the word I want you to take away from this: RELIEF. I really hadn’t thought of this concept before. Richard highlighted, for me, an important distinction: in Stage 1, sometimes the softer emotions I’m seeing from the Withdrawer are just relief. Relief to hear their partner do something other than criticize or blame. Relief to hear their partner turn more inward than constantly pointing outward. I don’t say “just” to minimize the importance of that relief, but to notice we are likely not in a primary emotion. We’re in a very important place of relief, and we can notice it, and spend some time in that warm bathwater, and see how different that is than the typical cycle, but that’s not where we start mining for gold.

When the therapist focused in on that relief and wanted to evoke more there (which is likely exactly what I would have done) she met resistance. Richard really beautifully describes that resistance when he says, “he felt pulled on and not ok with you, in the same way that he feels these things with her.” As a learning EFT-er, this really helped me. Because we hit all sorts of resistance with our clients, understandably we might categorize it as them resisting touching into their more core emotions. But sometimes it can be because we’re pulling on the wrong door. Understanding relief with their partner doing something different in their cycle as simply the beautiful thing it is – relief – helps me realize not to dig deeper in that place. The client wasn’t resisting because he’s resistant, he was resisting because there was no more there. Relief is all their needed to be.

Richard reminds us that the thing we do dig deeper into, especially as trust is built, are the primary emotions that relate to the attachment-pain for the client. I’m not enough for her. She doesn’t want the real me. She doesn’t find me worthy. That is where we evoke and explore more.

I hope this distinction was as helpful for you as it was for me. Thank you for sharing with us, Richard!