Episode 30: Emotion and Transformation with Dr. Les Greenberg

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“The best way to change an emotion is with another emotion.”

In this episode of the Numinus podcast, Dr. Joe speaks with Dr. Les Greenberg, a world renowned psychotherapist and researcher. He is one of the creators of Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT) and professor at York University in Toronto. EFT centres around utilizing emotion to transform emotion. It is a different approach from the current major schools of psychotherapy like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. He is also the founder and director of the Emotion-Focused Therapy clinic where he provides therapy for individuals and couples and trains therapists in EFT.

Dr. Greenberg is the author of 17 books like Changing Emotion With Emotion and Emotion-Focused Counselling in Action. And he has published over 100 scientific papers and has written over 80 book chapters.

Dr. Les Greenberg and Dr. Joe spoke about:

  • The role of emotions in our lives and how they’re implicated in mental health problems
  • How to transform emotions
  • How his background as an engineer influences his work as a psychologist and researcher
  • Chair work
  • The role of the therapist in EFT
  • How EFT is different from other experiential therapies

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Here are some highlights from their conversation:

You’ve spoken about the idea of the importance of using emotion to transform another emotion. Can you speak to why that is important and how that works?

My contention is that amygdala-based painful emotions like core fear and core shame are impenetrable to reason. You can’t reason somebody out of these core painful feelings because emotion is a whole embodied experience. And you’re organized to run away. You have a sinking feeling in the stomach. It’s not produced by cognition. It’s produced automatically by the activation of emotion schemes.

We have to find a way to work with these painful emotions and the best way to change an emotion is with another emotion. Spinoza was the first person to state a principle like this. He said, ‘the only way to change an emotion is with an opposing and stronger emotion.’

I think this can be thought of in primitive behavioural terms that some of the emotions are organized as withdrawal emotions. With fear, you run away. And shame, you shrink into the ground. Approach emotions like assertive anger or the sadness of grief, you really are moving forward and towards.

So if I have a client and I can take them to their core feeling of fear or shame and they’re organized to run away, then I can help activate assertive anger or the sadness in which you cry out for comfort or reach out for the lost object.

You can’t run away and thrust forward at the same time. So we’ve now got two opposing action tendencies. The new action tendency is going to transform the old one.

Hebb stated the first law of neuropsychology as “neurons that fire together, wire together.” So if you think of emotion as an emotion scheme, a network that fires. So when you fire shame and at the same time, simultaneously, you fire off anger.

Let’s say you have a drunken, physically abusive father. When you first imagine him in front of you in an empty chair, it fires off these feelings of fear and shame and you shrink and you want to run away. But then if I can help you to feel assertively angry–’I should have had a father who treated me right. I deserved to not be abused’–it generates assertive anger. ‘I’m angry at you for having treated me so unfairly.’

Now this new emotion undoes the old emotion. It doesn’t replace it. It actually transforms it and synthesizes with it to develop a truly novel experience. So your self-organizing system is re-organizing. And maybe the shame, the anger synthesizes with the shame to produce confidence or security or calm or something new. And this is a developmental process.

And rather than thinking about it in learning theory terms like exposure leads to reduction. This actually comes from a Piagetian notion that the development occurs by the synthesis of co-activating schemes.

At a more practical level, the best way to change an emotion is with another emotion.


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