Sunday, February 25, 2024

Ken Davis (22 July 1950 – 27 January 2024): Colleague, Fellow Trainer, Contributor to the Development of EFT


I learned a couple of days ago that Ken Davis, my friend, EFT colleague, and fellow trainer, has died. Here, in his honor and memory, I’m going to share some of my personal reflections on who Ken was and how I think he was important to me and to the development of Emotion-Focused Therapy.

Ken was instrumental in the development of Process-Experiential/Emotion-Focused Therapy research and training at the University of Toledo in the late 1980’s and through much of the 1990’s, and even into the early 2000’s.  He had quite a bit of prior training in humanistic-experiential psychotherapies and co-led PE/EFT trainings with me.  He was a natural group facilitator and often had to remind me to slow down and pay more attention to the relational processes in the group.  Ken was a key member of the team at Toledo that developed an EFT approach to crime-related PTSD in the early to mid 1990’s, and he went on to help me run the Friday afternoon EFT training workshops that ran for years in the sometimes-challenging environment of the Psychology Department. 


Based on these experiences and his interest in psychotherapy training, Ken was originally part of the writing team (with Jeanne Watson, Rhonda Goldman, Les Greenberg and me) for the first edition of Learning Emotion-Focused Therapy (APA, 2003).  Unfortunately, his personal circumstances made it impossible for him to take part. (This was primarily due to the untimely death from breast cancer of his wife Deb and the subsequent demands of private practice and being the single parent of their young son.) However, his interest in training group process and on how students learn EFT is part of the DNA of the Learning EFT book and in EFT today. (See in particular the last chapter of the Learning book, where we discuss our understanding of what EFT training should look like.)


Ken was both a colleague and a friend.  On the occasion of his 1992 wedding to Deb Smith (who was the great love of his life), I wrote the following little poem:

Flocking of flamingos

emergent property

as each one follows desire of heart

to take wing together.


For his PhD dissertation, Ken took on the challenging task of developing a measure of therapist response modes in EFT, analyzing a collection of significant therapy events identified by clients in the Toledo Experiential Therapy of Depression project. Probably his most interesting finding had to do with content directive responses, like advice-giving and interpretation.  He found that on average EFT therapists used these responses about 1% of the time, that is, about one per session; nevertheless, these therapists were clearly doing EFT.  However, one of the therapists in the study used these responses about 5% of the time, and it was quite clear that they were not really doing EFT at all.  Ken colorfully described this therapist as “a CBT wolf in process-experiential sheep’s clothing.” I still tell this story today when I cover the EFT therapist response modes in trainings.


Over the past two years I’ve numerous occasions to look things up in Ken’s dissertation as part of various recent projects.  If you are interested in learning more, here is the citation and a link that I hope will take you to more information about it:

Davis, Kenneth L. (1994). The role of therapist actions in process-experiential therapy. University of Toledo, Department of Psychology.


In all my many moves over the past 18 years, I have lost track of the data set Ken used for this study, so about a year ago I reached out to him to see if he still had the transcripts and recordings from his project.  I thought this might be a nice excuse to reconnect with him.  He eventually said that he thought data was around somewhat but he wasn’t sure where and was having trouble getting around to try to locate it.


I’m not sure whether my reaching out to him had anything to do with it, but I was delighted when Ken signed up for one of my zoom-based Advanced Empathy Attunement trainings last August through the EFT Institute of Southern California, organized by Lada Safvati.  I don’t think that he really needed the training, but when asked why he signed up, he said it was fun for him to revisit EFT and see what is happening with it today.  He told me that he had a neuromuscular disorder that had really slowed him down, but even so it was lovely to see him.  After that, together with his sister Carla (who is currently studying counselling), he signed up for the Level 2 that Ladan and I ran in December. However, I think he was not well enough to participate, because he had to withdraw after a day or two. The last time I saw him was the first day of that training.


I remember Ken as gentle, wise, funny, kind, determined, and as deeply grounded in the body.  He was trained in massage and worked with folks with neuromuscular conditions. I remember how one time when someone said they were having back trouble, he got down on the ground, analyzed their stance, and offered a set of useful suggestions.  I remember another time when he and I had him put his allergies in a chair and have a dialogue with them.  Certainly, working with him gave me more appreciation for the bodily dimension of EFT, so I think that’s another influence he’s had on the development of EFT.


I also remember how he supported me while I was having a hard time with some colleagues in the Psychology department, as our relationship evolved from student-professor to colleague-friend.  And I remember how in the early days of managed care he used to complain about poorly trained staff mis-managing psychologists who were working with complicated, fragile clients who needed more than 10 sessions of CBT.


Burned into my memory are also images of him and Deb and their son Josh, and then him and Josh at Deb’s memorial service.  So in looking through the remembrances on his Tribute Wall it was especially poignant to see the photo of Ken, wearing his academic regalia, hooding his son Josh at Josh’s graduation with a doctoral degree in Physical Rehabilitation. (I love the legend at the bottom: Hooder: Dr. Father. Kenneth Davis).


So I’m left with a set of memories of our time together running EFT trainings when it all felt new and sometimes like we were making things up as we went along.  It was an exciting and challenging time, and I am grateful to have had Ken’s company through much of it. I’m also left with some regret that we weren’t able to do more together, for all the time of being disconnected after Diane and I moved to Scotland in 2006, and for not expressing to him the extent of what he meant to me.


In our time together, Ken and I published two book chapters together on the crime-related PTSD study.  I’ve listed both below, with links to versions of them listed after each. The first one is only available in a pre-publication version, while for the second one there is a photocopy of the published version:


Elliott, R., Suter, P., Manford, J., Radpour-Markert, L., Siegel-Hinson, R., Layman, C., & Davis, K.  (1996).  A Process-Experiential Approach to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  In R. Hutterer, G. Pawlowsky, P.F. Schmid, & R. Stipsits (eds.), Client-centered and experiential psychotherapy: A paradigm in motion (pp.235-254).  Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Peter Lang.


Elliott, R., Davis, K., & Slatick, E. (1998).  Process-Experiential Therapy for Post-Traumatic Stress Difficulties.  In L. Greenberg, G. Lietaer, & J. Watson, Handbook of experiential psychotherapy (pp. 249-271).  New York: Guilford.


Fare thee well, Ken: my old friend and colleague.  Your kind, compassionate, gentle spirit lives on in EFT today, and exemplifies what is best about it!

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Vale Allen Bergin: Personal Reflections

Allen Bergin, one of the founders of the scientific field of psychotherapy research, died a couple of days ago at the age of 89. In the late 1960’s he and Hans Strupp got a grant to travel around the United States interviewing prominent psychotherapy researchers about where the field should go. The result was the book Changing Frontiers in the Science of Psychotherapy (1972), which I devoured as a grad student when I was at UCLA. I still remember the breathless excitement of their commentary on the process. It was one of the things that inspired me to become a psychotherapy researcher.



Allen had done a post-doc in the early 1960’s with Carl Rogers working on the famous Wisconsin Project, which had applied client-centered therapy (later relabelled as person-centered therapy) to work with clients with psychotic processes. With Sol Garfield, he began editing the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change, whose first edition was published in 1971, and which was – and still remains – the standard reference for psychotherapy research.  In the early 1990’s Allen and Sol asked Les Greenberg to do a review of research on humanistic psychotherapies for the fourth edition of the Handbook.  Humanistic psychotherapies had not been covered since the first edition, so this was a big step, and a potentially an important moment for this branch of psychotherapy.  It was also the origin of the Humanistic-Experiential Psychotherapy (HEP) meta-analysis project, still continuing 30 years later. We set to work meta-analyzing pre-post effect sizes for all 37 HEP outcome studies we were able to find. (At that time, we were opposed to comparative outcome research.) Somewhat anxiously, we submitted the draft to Allen and Sol.  They knocked it back, insisting that we analyze the controlled (vs. no-treatment controls) and comparative (vs. other treatments) outcome studies.  We swallowed hard, held our noses, and analyzed the controlled and comparative outcome effects, producing the (for us) startling result of large controlled effects and null (d = 0) comparative effects.  We had obtained a no difference, “dodo bird” effect.  We submitted the revision to Allen and Sol, who knocked it back again, complaining that we had pooled comparative effects involving both CBT and psychodynamic therapies; how did we know that CBT wasn’t more effective that HEPs?  With great trepidation, we ran the comparison between CBT and HEPs; we found CBT to be slightly but nonsignificantly more effective than person-centered, but also tantalizing indications that EFT might more effective than CBT. At that point, much to our relief, Allen and Sol accepted the chapter. 


Years later Allen was visiting Toledo, where his son was teaching in the School of Education at the University of Toledo, and he and I arranged to meet up.  He told me that Sol had wanted to reject our humanistic therapy review chapter from the Handbook; he had insisted on keeping it in the book. Given the precarious state of these therapies in the early 1990’s, I think that the history of the humanistic-experiential therapies would be quite different today if Allen had not come our defense at that point. We owe him a debt of gratitude.


As another testament to his integrity, I want to point to his outspoken advocacy of bringing scientific attention to the important role of religious faith and involvement in religious communities as factors supporting mental health and psychological well-being, published in his ground-breaking paper, “Psychotherapy and religious values.,” in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (1980). I remember him presenting a version of this paper at a conference of the Society for Psychotherapy Research around that time. He must have  known that it was not a popular topic with psychotherapy researchers at that point in history, and would possibly lower the estimation that many of his fellow researchers had of him. Nevertheless, it was a testament to his scientific integrity and his religious faith that he went ahead to make his case regardless of the consequences.  As another person of faith, I personally felt validated and inspired by his attempt to combine the spiritual with the scientific. 


Over the past 20 years, various folks in the Society for Psychotherapy Research have reached out to Allen, encouraging him to come to meetings; however, the fact is that he was happy with his mission work (he was a prominent figure in the Church of the Latter Day Saints) and with his family.  Therefore, it was heartening to read the moving account by Michael Barkham (echoed by Wolfgang Lutz and Louis Castonguay) of his recent involvement in the 7th edition of the Handbook (published in 2021). In order to write the preface for it, Michael reports that Allen carefully read and took detailed notes on all 800 pages.


Right now in my imagination I’m picturing him reading the latest version of the HEP chapter in the book he and Sol Garfield founded, pleased and smiling at the nearly 300 outcome studies of HEPs now included in our reviews, feeling glad that he put his faith in us 30 years ago, just when we needed that validation.  Thank you, Allen! Your integrity and faith live on in us.  You are an important piece in the history of psychotherapy research, and one of my personal validating elders (or “angels” or “saints” if you prefer).


For more on Allen Bergin and his life:


Lambert, M. J., Gurman, A. S., & Richards, P. S. (2010). Allen E. Bergin: Consummate scholar and charter member of the Society for Psychotherapy Research. In L. G. Castonguay, J. C. Muran, L. Angus, J. A. Hayes, N. Ladany, & T. Anderson (Eds.), Bringing psychotherapy research to life: Understanding change through the work of leading clinical researchers (pp. 101–111). American Psychological Association.



Sunday, February 04, 2024

Sneak Preview: Slowing the Process Down: Excerpt from Learning Emotion-Focused Therapy (second edition), in preparation

My colleagues Jeanne Watson, Rhonda Goldman, Les Greenberg and I are well along in our work on the second edition of our book Learning Emotion-Focused Therapy.  We're certainly more than halfway there and hope to have the draft of the whole thing to the editor in March.  I recently finished the draft of the Chapter 9, which mostly deals with Focusing. In the process to a piece of training I did recently, I got inspired to write the following text for the early part of the chapter.  Although it's not the final version, I thought it might be fun and useful to share this passage here, because I hadn't seen this written up elsewhere in the EFT literature. As my favorite vloggers like say, if you feel like, please fell free to jump into the comments section to let me know what you think about this:


Facilitating the emotional experiencing tasks in this chapter requires therapists to help their clients slow their pace down in sessions. As Gendlin (1981), Cornell (1996) and others have pointed out, emotions need time to emerge. If the client is talking fast, this generally means that their current emotion processing mode is externalizing or purely conceptual (see Chapter 5). In these modes, clients typically stay stuck in secondary reactive emotions, skimming over the surface of their feelings. This leads in turn to the client not progressing into deeper emotions, making for slow therapeutic progress at best. On the other hand, helping the client slow their pace can allow more emotions to emerge, especially deeper, more primary emotions. The greater emotional depth will enable therapy to progress more quickly. Thus, in EFT, we like to say: Fast is slow, and slow is fast!

However, EFT is in general a fast, busy therapy, with many different processes for the therapist to juggle: many things therapists might want to remember, and a many different kinds of work that therapists can help clients with. It’s easy for EFT therapists to feel pressured and rushed by all of this. Probably the most important gift that Focusing has to give EFT therapists is the value of slowing down. This slower pace enables EFT therapists to take their client’s emotional experiences a bit at time, making sure that they understand each aspect of these experiences. More importantly, slowing down helps clients better access to their emotions, especially the deeper, more painful ones.

How can EFT therapists help slow their clients’ pace down? The key to this turns out to be for therapists slow their own pace down when they are with clients (and maybe at other times also). Response matching is a well-established phenomenon in therapy (Harper et al., 1978) and includes reaction time latency (how long before client or therapist start speaking), interruption and duration of utterance. Thus, therapists tend to match their clients’ pace (Rocco et al., 2018), and clients tend to match their therapists’ reaction time latency and interruptions (Harper et al., 1978). Here are some suggestions to help therapists slow their process down:

1. Consider what your natural pace is: Do I generally tend to feel time-pressured or in a hurry?

2. Start noticing your pace in sessions, especially when you feel anxious or in a hurry; or listen to recordings of your practice.

3. Give yourself time before each session to slow yourself down and to make space for your client.

4. Leave the book/model/shoulds/supervisor outside the door and focus to begin with on your empathy.

5. Disclose to your client that you are trying to slow your pace down.

6. If you or you client appear to racing, suggest that both of you take a minute to take a breath and slow down.

7. Realize that this might be difficult for your client and you, and therefore might take concerted or repeated effort.

8. Develop a focusing or mindfulness practice.

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Shared Paths: For Greet

On 29 September of this year, Dr. Greet Vanaerschot, University of Antwerp, was honored with a special event celebrating her many achievements and awarding her professor emerita status.  The folks who organized the event asked me to write something, which turned out to be a poem.  (For more information:

 1. What is Empathy?

 What is empathy? Asked Greet.

And answered,

Letting go, tuning in, taking hold,

Letting go again.


These movements, like the children’s nursery rhyme,

Tiny spiders crawling up water spouts,

Found empathy in simple body movements,

Etched indelibly in our memories.


Letting go, tuning in, taking hold:

These images caught my metaphor-fevered

Imagination, opening up the embodied

Phenomenology of empathy for me,


Elaborated to this day as:

Letting go of our load of empathic baggage,

Entering the child’s playhouse of the person’s experience,

Tuning into what in us answers them,

Sifting through the many facets that are there,

Taking hold of what feels most important

… And letting go again.


Empathy must start here,

In this embodied place.

If not, then therapist response modes are empty,

Skill training a waste of effort,

Evidence-based treatments

so much clanging of gongs.


All else is nonsense!



2. Complementarity Is Not Just for Physicists


During my time in Leuven in 1990

While I watched, amused,

Greet and Mia argued which was greater:

Empathy (Greet) or Experiencing (Mia).


They were both right of course,

Arguing the two sides of the great complementarity,

As if we could have one without the other:

Wave or particle; therapist or client.


But I loved that there was a place in this world

Where this argument could be had,

The mystery pondered,

And could seem so natural.



3. Shared Paths


Somewhere, in an old box of photos,

Currently travelling between continents,

There is a record of a visit between our young families,

A third of a century ago,

Our small children playing together,

Though probably no tiny spiders were involved.


But beyond that

We shared other important, professional paths:


Person-centred-experiential therapy,

Process-experiential/emotion-focused therapy;

Research, practice, training;

A common mission of holding space

For these rare things,

Putting them forward, in apparently

Inhospitable places

Where the medical model dominates.

Finding a niche nonetheless.


Years later, we got to hang out again

When you invited me to teach a day on your course,

In Antwerp

To see the precious thing you were building.


Now I realise that for several years

I ran through your section of Antwerp,

From Berchem to Wilrijk and back.


Now, as we retire, our trajectories stretch away

To the horizons of our lives.

We look back and see from whence we’ve come,

All we have accomplished,

And we’re grateful for the ride

And for the company:


Letting go, tuning in, taking hold,

And letting go again.


                                    -Robert Elliott, Pleasanton, California, 3 April 2023

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Fifty Years: An Anniversary Poem

 Entry for 19 August 2023:

(Diane & Robert fiftieth wedding anniversary, with notes for our grandkids)














1. A Story of Us and How We Got Together




50 years

Watergate to Ukraine

Green youth to gray age




Grand Forks

Palo Alto


Both born in the very midst of a turbulent century

In the shadow of two great and horrid wars

Grandchildren of the Great Depression.


First-born to bright, educated, caring

But quite young parents

Themselves youngest, or almost youngest, children,

Dads still studying, arcane lore.

Moms doing odd bits of work and raising us

Your mom as short as my mom was tall

All of us learning as we went.







Raised in small, flat California towns

In the process of becoming suburbs

In the buttoned-down 1950’s.


Children of privilege

That we did not even recognize at the time:


(Note: By WASPs we don’t mean the stinging insects

but White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant;

and WEIRD stands for Western, Educated,

Industrialized, Rich, Democratic.)




Santa Cruz

Los Angeles


Wearing the privilege of oldest children,

Used to responsibility for others

But ambivalent about our power,

Proud but burdened.


Glad to escape to university

As soon as we could

We happily exchanged

The small uptight inland places

For a counter-cultural beach town

That we were almost too square for.


Looking back, it’s striking

We could have shared so much:

But it’s no surprise we immediately

During orientation week

Recognized each other as fellow refugees.


And then remained friends for years

As we grew, experimented,

had other crushes and connections,

Began to learn who we were,

And eventually, in a time of transition,

found our way back to each other.


And thence to the big city and marriage

Full of the usual sorts of contradictions

Shy extraverts

Traditionally heterosexual

But androgenous, tolerant and curious

Sheltered from major loss and trauma

But acquainted with sorrow and failure.


Optimistic pessimists (or is it the other way round?)

Blending acceptance and pickiness,

Stubbornness and flexibility.

We like a good laugh but do not suffer fools gladly;

We do not insist on our way

But do not like at all to be pushed around.


We did not imagine that our shared background

And rampant contradictions would turn out to be

Just what we needed for a fifty-year journey together.

2. Fifty Years Passes

 Like the time-lapse photos

our granddaughter Mizuki took

Of her flight here from Seattle,

Or a magical version

of our living room gliding love seat

which our grandson Yuki immediately takes to

Rocking it vigorously as he tries

to reach the land of his imagination,

We now play back the past fifty years

Since our wedding:

They flash by in our minds,

Rocking us repeatedly back

To places and people

Both remembered and (until now) forgotten.


Days, years; beginnings, endings;

A rhythm of repetition

And each moment unique:

Toledo, Sheffield,

Toledo, Leuven,

Toledo, Toronto,

Toledo, Melbourne,

Toledo, (sons to Cleveland),




Over these many years,

The elder generations pass:

The last remaining grandparents, then parents,

Aunts, uncles, teachers,

Friends timely and untimely lost,

Until we are the elders,

And our passing, still unknown

Is nevertheless not that far away.


In the meantime, we’ve been looking

Through old photos of us

Excavating the layers of the years:

We wonder at our younger selves,

When was this?

Who were those people?

Were they really us?


Yet we know the answer:

Yes, they are all still in there

Mizuki’s time lapse

Of flickering faces and places

This crowd of us

Wildly varying hairstyles

Strange, but not strangers to us,

In all these different places

Exotic and mundane

With all these different people

Who we have loved

And who have loved us.

            *          *          *

Yuki’s commandeered our rocking sofa;

It’s now a time machine

Swinging us creakily through the years.

“Don’t swing too hard!”

We tell him repeatedly

For we fear It will break us

And our old-but-young-at-hearts hearts.





















 (Link to Mizuki's airplane timelapse movie)


3. The Secret of a Long Marriage


It appears that being married for 50 years or more

Is unusual enough these days

That people want to know what our secret is.


The fact is, we don’t know

And fear to look too closely

As if that might jinx the whole thing

Like the poor centipede trying to figure

How it walks and falling

Into a ditch instead.


Nevertheless, friends have pressed us

With questions and pet theories:

One said the secret was “Inertia”;

Another, “Failure of Imagination.”

To these I’m inclined to add

“Insecure Attachment” and “Stubbornness”.


But I think all of these miss the point:

We know that close relationships

Are inherently unstable

And difficult to maintain.


Stability is either an illusion,

A skewed family system (psychobabble

for one person having too much power),

Or the result of hard work.


As in the universe itself

Entropy is the law.


We learned this in the tenth year of our marriage

When I had survived my tenure vote

(Following years of severe workaholism),

When our first child was two

(Sorry, kids and grandkids,

But having kids

Is a huge stressor for couples),

Only to face the abyss between us.


A year of couples therapy helped us through this

And from that experience

We took two essential things:

One: A microwave oven, which lasted 34 years

(we gave up on it, before it gave up on us);

Two: Not taking ourselves too seriously,

Which is timeless.


The fact is, we are both very aware of the other’s

annoying habits, limitations and emotional allergies,

Which we constantly try to correct

Even though we know perfectly well

that this is impossible

And would make the other

A perfect person,

who we wouldn’t even recognize

… And might even feel inferior to.


And we know all too well

that even though other people

Might see us as caring,

thoughtful, good-hearted and so on,

We can each at times

“In our present imperfection”

act like jerks toward the other,

Especially when stressed, ill or emotionally injured.


And so from time to time

One or the other of us

Realizes that there’s a problem:

Something’s gotten out of balance between us,

One of us has begun to disengage.


This means:

There is an unattended-to injury

That must be addressed,

Painful truths spoken,

New understandings to surprise us,

New accommodations to be forged.


The result:

We muddle through,

For better or for worse

Helped by friends and family

Deeply grateful for the time we’ve had together,

Knowing it to be completely mundane

And at the same time completely amazing,

Treasuring the times we’ve had with each other

And the times that remain to us

Knowing that it’s all temporary

And therefore infinitely precious.



















4. Coda


(Note: A Coda is a part

Near the end of something

Where you review

The main points of the whole thing,

so you can finish.)


We are two people with many similarities,

And just as many inner contradictions

As most people.


We found each other when we were still pretty young,

Thought it would cool to get married,

Then found out how hard it is

To make a life together.


If we wanted to stay together

(Which we did),

We had to figure out

How to make our little family

Work over a long time.


But we didn’t do this on our own,

Because we had a lot of support

From the people who loved and surrounded us

And who we loved and still love.


Eventually, we reached a point where

There is more happiness than pain,

And many shared moments

Of joy and connection,

Built on all

we’ve been given by life.


And we know that these moments,

Won by hard work and stubbornness,

These moments will always be

And will always have been.


For this we thank you,

Our family, our friends, our community.


                                    -Robert Elliott, 18/19 August 2023

























(Drawing by Mizuki Elliott, (c) 2023) 


 (Link to 50-year slideshow of Diane & Robert, created by Brendan Elliott)


(Link to Robert reading this poem) 








Thursday, June 08, 2023

“I’m Shy”: Emotion Processes in Social Anxiety

Entry for 8 June 2023:


Background: I’ve just recorded another episode for the Emotion-Focused Podcast, hosted by Lou Cooper of the Australian Institute for Emotion-Focused Therapy in Melbourne, Australia.  The previous episode, which I recorded with Lou in November 2022, was on empathy and whether it can be learned.  This previous episode can be found at:  I invite readers of this blog to sample the other fascinating episodes of this podcast, which is primarily aimed at lay people but is also relevant to professionals.


The title of the new episode is “I’m Shy”; I don’t know exactly when it will go up, but it should appear in the next month or so; in the meantime there is plenty to listen to on Lou’s fun podcast. As I did for my previous episode with her, I wrote a detailed script for the interview, but then used almost none of it, as I instead talked more about my own experiences of shyness and social anxiety.  If you want to hear more about that, look out the podcast.  In the meantime, here is the script I wrote:


1. Language: Shyness, Social Anxiety, and Introversion


The word “shy” originally came from ancient words having to do with fear and avoidance (“gun-shy”, “The horse shied away from the fire”).


As an adjective, shy means “nervous or embarrassed about meeting and speaking to other people”.  Synonyms include: bashful, diffident, timid, introverted and so on.  Shy specifically implies a basic tendency to shrink “from contact or close association with others, together with a wish to escape notice”.


On the other hand, being introverted can be something quite distinct from being shy or socially anxious. An introvert can be defined as “a person who prefers calm environments, limits social engagement, or embraces a greater than average preference for solitude.” Psychologically, following Carl Jung, introverts are people who are concerned “primarily with their own thoughts and feelings,” in other words, their inner world rather than the outer world of other people. A critical issue might therefore whether a person genuinely prefers their own company out of a basic inclination, or whether they do so out of fear of other people, while deep-down longing for more connection to others. For this reason, I wouldn’t want to say that introversion and shyness are the same thing, and want to hold out for the possibility a person could an introvert and not be shy.


In any case, while I wouldn’t want to say that all shy people are socially anxious, there is certainly a lot of overlap, and shyness does seem to generally involve fear and avoidance, especially of situations with other people.


So: We want to be careful to recognise the possibility that some shy/introverted folks might be perfectly happy with being on their own.  On the other hand, my experience (in my own life and with my clients) is that socially anxious folks generally long for connection to other people, and are miserable both in the company of other people and on their own.  As an emotion-focused therapist and former miserable shy person, it’s that misery that concerns me.  I’m also not interested in diagnosing people, so I want to be guided by the person’s own sense of whether their dis-preference for being around others is a problem for them, or not.


2. Definition of Social Anxiety


So what is the formal definition of social anxiety?

-It’s a fear of other people or social situations, a fear that the person finds unreasonable.

-This fear is pretty consistent over situations of a particular type, like public speaking or informal social situations, like hanging out with one’s friends.

-This fear is unwanted; the person doesn’t like being afraid of other people, because it causes them a lot of distress and/or messes their life up, that is, gets in the way things that are important to them, like finding meaningful, fulfilling work, or develop caring relationships.


Note that social anxiety can vary in severity from being miserable in social situations (that was me as a young person) to having my fear of other people essentially destroy the possibility of having a successful life.


3. Origins and nature of social anxiety


In our research and clinical work, my research team and I at the University of Strathclyde found that severe social anxiety (as opposed to more garden variety shyness) almost always involves some kind of social trauma/humiliation/degradation, at the hands of family, friends or peers. This is then internalised as a sense of being basically defective, accompanied by a part of self that continually beats us up (in internal humiliation), possibly in attempt to prevent the external humiliation from happening again.


The result of this process is a deep sense of shame over one’s defectiveness, which further results in a fear of other people and social situations, motivating the person to avoid situations in which they might again be shamed, by having their defectiveness seen by other people.  Another part of the person comes to act like a kind of guard, trying to keep the person safe for humiliation by reminding them of their defects, pushing them to prepare for social situations, and generally scaring them into avoiding those situations.  This coach-critic-guard part becomes so good at its job that it frequently overwhelms the person with fear, freaking them out or creating an anxiety attack or panic. 


This all sounds more or less straightforward, but in fact everyone’s social anxiety is unique, tied to different social traumas, experienced differently in the body, although there are common body feelings, like tightness or butterflies in the throat, chest or stomach, and fuzziness in the head during anxiety episodes.  Each person also symbolises their core defective sense of self in their own way, the thing they are most afraid of other people seeing about them.


4. Therapy for social anxiety


Common sense, including everyone from Freud to our grandmother, tells us that when we are unreasonably afraid of something we should face our fears in order to overcome them.  This is the basis of most CBT treatments of social anxiety.  The problem is, it’s not so easy to face one’s fears, especially when they are deep-seated and based on a history of trauma.  In done poorly or insensitively, this approach can easily become re-traumatising, and some clients hate such treatments. 


Instead, in EFT, we find it’s important to first create an atmosphere of safety and trust in which the person can feel genuinely understood and accepted.


Then, there is a period of exploration, in which we want to hear the person’s story of their fear of other people.  We also want to hear how they experience this fear in their body.  Going a bit further, we want to hear what is it that they are most afraid others will see in them, their core defective sense of self.


After that, we ask the person bring in examples of times when they found themselves afraid of other people, so that we can experience these episodes in imagination along with them.  As we help them unfold these times, we begin to hear the voice of the coach-critic guard scaring them, and we suggest that they show us what this inner conversation looks like by enacting it in the therapy room.  (We usually use chairs to represent the parts of self, but it’s not absolutely necessary.)


Acting out this inner conversation makes it clear to the person that their fear of other people is not primarily something that happens to them but is instead an internally-generated process that they do to themselves, with the best of intentions, trying to be helpful.  They also come to see how this inner dialogue sometimes overwhelms them, causing the very thing it’s trying to prevent. 


As we work with this process it becomes clear that there is also a harsh internal critical part of self that continually reinforces and feeds the sense of defectiveness, even now in their life.  This critical voice doesn’t soften, even when confronted with the damage it does.  So we begin to wonder with the client where this voice comes from.  Because it’s generally so obvious to them at this point, clients don’t really need our help to see the connection to past social trauma such as bullying.  From here, we can then move on to exploring the unresolved feelings left over from these past traumas, often by having clients confront the bullying others in imagination (usually using an chairs to represent these others).


This process of confrontation helps the person reach the thing that hurts the most about what they’ve been through, what we call the core pain, and once they’ve reached that we offer genuine validation and compassion to the parts of the person that still carry this pain.  At this point we can ask these parts what this pain needs; the answer turns out to be connection, validation, recognition, protection and compassion.  We then ask the person if they can offer these things to the wounded parts of themselves, which releases a set of powerful, useful emotions:  connecting sadness, protective anger, and self-compassion.


Finally, it’s important to note that it may not be enough to go back to the core pain, find out what it needs, and help the person provide that for themselves.  Afterall, the fear of others typically has become a kind of experiential habit that will often need to be worked with, using the new, useful emotions that the person has activated: The connecting sadness points to a deep hunger for connection, which motivates the person to go out and face their habitual fear of others, while the protective anger helps them to withstand their own inner critical, undermining voices and the self-compassion helps them enhance their resilience in the face of life’s inevitable struggles and setbacks.  Working together, these adaptive, growth-oriented emotions help the person get unstuck and move forward in their life.


Monday, May 15, 2023

Science My Mom Taught Me

Entry for 14 May 2023 

Note: For Mother’s Day this year, I thought it would be appropriate for me to bring back the poem I wrote for my mom for her 75th birthday nearly 20 years ago, April 7 2004. (At that time, she exclaimed, delightedly, “I get a poem… and I don’t even have to be dead!”) Although she passed on eleven years ago, in 2012, and I’ve written plenty of other pieces for/about her in the meantime, this one I think best captures what she has – and continues – to mean to me. 

Further note: I’ve been going through old files lately, and last night I found the “Robert Jr” folder my mom kept about me, full of old poems and letters, along with a few photos. Amongst all this stuff about me, on small pieces of paper, I found a series of hand-written, undated affirmations that she wrote about/to/for me at one time or another. In them she wrote that she loved me, and God loved me, and that I was going to be all right and would do good things in my life. I never saw these handwritten pieces, did not even know they existed until now. Small prayers, tucked into this folder and perhaps forgotten, but still: messages, angels, blessings down the years. 


1. Science as Love and Relationship


A good place to start is that ancient photograph,

Recently rediscovered, from 1950:


There the two of you are, the same age

As the youngest of my grad students. 

Both of you are tall, almost toothpick thin.

He is looking at the camera, tight jeans and shirt,

Like a rebel with cause to smile.


But you are looking down, through large glasses,

Your face framed by billowing hair,

With toothy grin, and your arms

Awkwardly but carefully wrapped round

A very small bundle.


The two of you look like nothing

So much as a couple of computer nerds

From half a century in the future.

Code geeks, rolling out your first promising program,

Ready for beta-testing.


But the code is genetic,

The language is life,

And the program is … me.


2. True Science is Risky


Although I learned magic from my dad,

It now seems clear to me that it was you

From whom I first learned science,

To which I have now devoted so much of my life.


But yours was never the normal, safe kind,

Digging away at the coal face

In the mines of knowledge,

Like Disney’s happy dwarves.


No, not that kind, but instead

The one that goes off to Far Tortuga,

Toward distant Galapagos unknown,

In search of the evolution of the human soul.


For you, big ideas have never been too big:

The nature of reality; the journey of the soul;

Jung’s famous paper on flying saucers;

The archetype of the Mandala: As without, so within.


Instead of Aristotle … Plato’s forms;

Instead of Archimedes … Pythagorus’s numbers;

Instead of Moses’ law … the Kabbalah’s secrets;

Instead of chemistry …alchemy’s transformations.


Oh, you did chemistry, too, at least early on:

You would disappear for hours,

Into your laboratory at the back of the house,

Full of strange smells and odd bits:


Broken glass, mosaic pieces,

Rolls of wallpaper, bolts of cloth,

Cans of precursors and catalysts,

When plastics was new technology.


And you would emerge from your lair,

To confront your family with some new concoction,

Sometimes lovely, or quirky, or primitive;

At times, a disaster, but always something new.


No, for you, science has always been risky:

Working at the edge, making something new,

You have become an expert in the peril of experiment,

And I have followed you, where I could.



3. Science as Inspiration and Passion


Your mother (my grandmother) taught me many things:

How to travel and how to be in a new place;

The importance of hard work and getting up early;

The ninety-nine percent of sweat that makes up genius.


But you taught me a far more valuable lesson:

The one percent of inspiration that redeems all the rest,

The moment of epiphany, the pattern opening,

The intensity of the new connection breaking through,


The science of cutting to the center of the world,

Of seeing what others don’t choose to see,

Of waking to awareness when others sleep,

And the flow of following the spirit far into the night.


When I see these things in myself, I recognize you.

The passion of discovery is too powerful to resist,

Even if we wanted to; the daemon must be honored;

It is ours, and we must let it speak through us or die.



4. Science as Always Starting Anew


I find it odd that I describe my dad in a series of narratives,

But you as a set of ideas, a paradigm, a model.

There is, however, one story that is always you,

The story in which you are always re-inventing yourself:


Child of the Depression with a single mom;

Big city girl; prep school party-er;

Young, anxious mother and seamstress;

Small town society woman in a flat land.


But your life makes a strange turn: You take up philosophy;

You quit smoking just because you feel like it;

You return to religion and start teaching Sunday school;

You become a small business owner and a writer.


Years pass: You’re CEO of a large and raucous family,

With the habit of taking in strays (both human and animal);

And you’ve gradually evolved into a spiritual leader

Of a small but loyal group of friends.


Then, your life turns again:  Warned in a vision

Of the impending end of civilization, you become

A gentle survivalist and take your family

Into the mountains, like Noah waiting for her flood


You seal several tons of wheat into cans,

Which are still there after twenty-five years.

Well, we can’t get everything right, but now you live

In a beautiful little valley: Murray Creek.


Now you are matriarch to three generations and 60 acres.

A combination of Ariadne, Daedalus and Theseus,

You become a labyrinth designer and unwinder

Of ritual journey spaces of stones, words and image.


Reading widely and deeply, you map the interweaving

Stories of your own and humanity’s spiritual development,

Join a religious order, become a spritual director,

And finally, start a Crone Circle of wise women.


Curiously, all these things somehow fit together:

Clearly, you’ve never stopped starting over;

For you, science is leaving behind what no longer works,

A selfsame process of adding on, differentiating, elaborating,


Just as you are always the same person,

The passionate, intellectual adventurer, the one

Who keeps transforming herself, like an endless succession

Of butterflies, emerging one from the other.