“The prophet of emotion-focused therapy” is coming to BYU. Leslie S. Greenberg will present the annual Counseling Workshop at BYU on March 8-9.
Greenberg is known throughout the world as one of the originators and primary developers of emotion-focused therapy, or EFT. Now retired from York University in Toronto, where he was a professor of psychology and director of the Psychotherapy Research Center, he spends his time in what he calls “training” — going around the world to teach counselors and psychotherapists how to use EFT in their practices.
According to Lars Nielsen of the BYU Counseling and Career Center, Greenberg is “the last big innovator” in psychotherapy and “could be thought of as the prophet of emotion-focused therapy.”
In a recent telephone interview, Greenberg talked about how he became interested in psychology. Born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, he grew up during the apartheid era of institutional racial segregation — a situation that led to his decision to move to Canada.
“I left because of the political situation,” he said. “I was involved in student politics — opposition (to apartheid).”
Before he went to Canada, he earned a degree in engineering.
“I went to a guidance counselor when I was 17 and said I wanted to be a nuclear physicist,” he said. “But I wanted to work with people. I went into engineering instead, so I could work with people.”
Once in Canada, he decided to study psychology instead of earning an advanced degree in engineering. “My wife was a psychology major. I knew a lot from her,” he said.
So how did he end up focusing on emotion instead of the widely prevalent cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)?
“When I came in from engineering, I thought that emotion was important,” he said. “I found that nobody was studying emotion. I wanted to know how it works.”
After several decades of studying emotion, practicing emotion-focused therapy and writing nearly a dozen books about it, Greenberg still sees emotion as key to helping people.
“The strange business of psychotherapy is that all the theories are related to cognition and behavior,” he said. “But both behavior and cognition are essentially produced by emotion. You can’t change behavior without working through emotions. Each of them (CBT, EFT) has something to offer. It’s a matter of trying to integrate them according to the needs of the patient.”
For the positive results of therapy to last, emotions must be dealt with, he said. “Emotions tell us what is important to us and whether things are going our way, whether our needs are being met. So they are an important source of information, action tendency and motivation.”
With behaviors such as eating disorders and drug abuse, emotion is usually at the root of the problem, Greenberg said.
“For enduring change you have to deal with the emotional,” he said. “People are usually using/abusing substances to regulate their feelings. With eating disorders for women, it has been very promising, working with their emotions.”
With emotion-focused therapy, the approach is less on helping a patient understand why he behaves in dysfunctional ways (as in cognitive therapy) and more on helping him deal with his emotions. Merely going back to one’s childhood doesn’t always help, Greenberg said. “We work with helping people change their emotional responses” to past experiences.
“The best way to change an emotion is to feel another emotion. You really can’t reason yourself out of an emotion,” he said. “People know what they should do, but that doesn’t lead the person to be able to do it. We work with people to help them have new emotional experiences. We try to facilitate the emergence of alternative emotion.”
More can be found on Greenberg's website, www.emotionfocusedclinic.org/.
Greenberg will train counselors and therapists on “The Transforming Power of Emotion” and its role in psychotherapy. More information is available at counseling.byu.edu.
Cindy Moorhead is a writer and editor for BYU Continuing Education, which administers the Counseling Workshop. This article was adapted from the same interview she used to write a series of articles for the Counseling Workshop website.