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Posted 03/05/2021 in Category 1

Emotion-focused group therapy for self-criticism to overcome shame and aloneness

Emotion-focused group therapy for self-criticism to overcome shame and aloneness

How do we deal with self-criticism? How do we overcome shame? How do we overcome aloneness? Thomson and colleagues outlined one possibility: emotion-focused therapy. Emotion-focused therapy involves changing emotion with emotion by assessing and transforming maladaptive emotions schemes (e.g., shame, fear, and lonely abandonment) underlying presenting symptoms. In the work together, the psychologist and athlete will work towards painful and avoided emotions that the athlete has not processed fully. The athlete and psychologist stays with and deepens the painful experience, helping the athlete to make new and more adaptive experiences for self and others. Self-compassion, self-soothing and assertive anger are examples of tasks to support this process. When one’s painful emotions activate alongside adaptive emotion schemes, we create and re-encode novel responses to triggers (from maladaptive emotion schemes). This process transforms the enduring painful responses to past emotional injury.

When athletes are in squads and teams, they experience deep emotion and remain vulnerable because of the challenges of training load, travel, selection, de-selection and so on. In emotion-focused therapy, deep emotion and vulnerability lends itself to connection and vicarious healing that we rarely recognise or realise. Several techniques we use in individual emotion-focused therapy form part of the work with groups. These include focusing, two chair work for self-critical splits and self-interruptive processes. We also use self-compassion tasks and unfinished business with attachment figures. After the introductory week, one participant from the group engages in an individual emotion-focused session in front of the group. For example, the individual may focus on self-criticism. The group members watch the unfolding and share their experiences and emotional reactions. This process, telling one’s story in front of others, is a vulnerable act; however, feeling compassions towards one’s peers, feeling connected to them and feeling safe in this vulnerable position allows the shift of maladaptive emotion schemes.

The group members experience maladaptive emotion schemes directly and vicariously by witnesses the processes between the individual and group, and within the group. When one’s fundamental needs are apparent and repeated, adaptive schemes towards oneself and others help restructure emotion schemes. One example might be the loss of one’s capabilities through injury. A group member shares this experience with compassion and safety. The other members experience this sharing and experience the emotion scheme vicariously – through the experience of the individual. We, as group members, hold a feeling of profound compassion for others. We understand the experience of self-criticism shown by others, and it becomes harder for the people in the group to maintain the belief that they are undeserving of compassion.

The possibilities for emotion-focused therapy in sports teams and squads seems obvious. Painful emotional schemes about loss, injury, deselection, criticism, and so forth part of sport and something that all teams and squads deal with alone or together. Perhaps it is time now for more worthwhile group work with teams and squads in sport contexts that truly test the human psyche to cope with unremitting challenges each day. We look forward to the psychologists sharing their experiences of emotion-focused therapy in their work with teams and squads in the future.


Sarah Thompson & Laura Girz (2020). Overcoming shame and aloneness: Emotion-focused group therapy for self-criticism. Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, 19:1, 1-11, DOI: 10.1080/14779757.2019.1618370

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