Sue Johnson on EFT & The Heart of the Matter

Dr. Sue Johnson interviewed by Dr. Sharon Brehm

Sue Johnson: I think, some of it is, that there are so many things happening at once. EFT is exploding, and my book I wrote last year… We are now talking about EFIT, Emotionally Focused Individual Therapy. We are doing a study, which suddenly has to go online. This is a nightmare, and this is just one little thing. So many things are happening. It is suddenly very hard to prioritize and keep your balance. And I’m aware that part of me just wants to go away… and hide under a rock, write my books, see my clients, and do what I love. I love supervision. I love talking to therapists, and looking at a piece of tape of therapy, or hearing where they are stuck. And together, we play with it, and we discover things. And we say: “Oh yes, this client is stuck here.” And: “Ah, we know how to help with that.” I love that discovery. And when I write, I discover. It is almost like, I have another person in my head talking to me. I write something down, and I look at it and think: “I didn’t know, that I knew. Where did that come from? That is interesting.” This is what I love, but sometimes these days there is not much room for that. So, we have been very successful in putting our message out. This is wonderful, and now it is hard to handle how successful we are, but I think we are helping. I hope, we are making a real contribution to psychotherapy, and to how couples can learn about their relationships. Basically, to help us all to grow as human beings, because that for me is what therapy is about.

Sharon Brehm: I can totally agree with you, and what I found so interesting, what you said was, that you’re dealing with challenges with a curiosity. That you’re so curious about how to solve problems, I love that. Where did you get that from? How did you get that curiosity?

Sue Johnson: I don’t know, that is what has always sort of led me forward. I remember, when I first started working with couples, and really there was no guidance that helped in the literature or in the studies. I felt completely lost, even though I thought I knew how to do therapy with groups, and individuals, and families. But when I started working with couples, I thought: “Oh, this is overwhelming, especially all this emotion.” And then I became fascinated. I just got hooked. “What is happening here? What is happening in this drama? What is…? Oh, there is patterns in the drama. Oh, but how do these emotional messages make sense? Oh, there is that message again.” And somehow, that whole process of ordering, and finding order. Carl Rogers, who I think, was brilliant, said something like: “I enjoy discovering the order in experience.” That has always resonated with me. I think, that is a very human thing, to say: “Okay, life is very big, right now, right here, in front of me. What is happening? And there is lots of different levels, so it is not obvious. From this place over here, it looks like this is happening, but from this place over here, it looks different.” There is some sort of joy in being able to say: “Ah, it makes sense!” For me, this is true in everything. Argentine tango is like the “chess of social dancing”. It is very difficult. It is stupidly difficult. And I did not come with any kind of talent. And I came as an older person. Most people start dancing tango at 22. How old was I? I can’t remember, but I certainly wasn’t 22. And it was very difficult, but the point was: I looked at it, I watched it,… – Ordinary tango, not “Dancing with the Stars”, that is just silly. That is just theater. That is boring. Because, it is overdramatic. – I went to my local community, and I watched these people get up, and some of them were strangers – I knew that. And suddenly move into this incredible synchrony with each other. Move together to this beautiful music. Doing all kinds of different dances – not, patterns like ballroom. And it was the same thing, I said: “Oh, how do they do that? How do they do that? That is impossible. How do they do that?” And then somehow, it looked like therapy: “How does this distressed couple move from what I saw, when they came in 12 weeks ago, to what I see now.” “And suddenly now, they are having this incredible bonding conversation. Ah…” So, I just always had that, perhaps… I have a very strange childhood, it is quite weird – no wonder I’m quite strange. I grew up in a pub, in an English pub. When other children were playing with dolls, I was standing on a stool washing glasses. In my world children worked – it was just accepted, children were expected to help. So I stood on a stool, drying glasses, and putting them on shelves. And I watched adults fight, and cry, and play, and joke, and tell stories about the war. It wasn’t right after the war, but the war is still alive in England. It is that generation of my father. My hometown was a naval town. Everyone in that town had been massively changed and impacted by the war. They were still processing it, years later. I watched all this as a child, and I think it was a strange childhood. I mean, I just got used to seeing people cry, and fight, and get drunk on Friday night. And it was from a position of safety, because my father was this kind of huge protective presence. And I knew, that everyone else knew, that I was in this sort of bubble, and that nothing was going to hurt me. So I could watch all this from complete safety, and say: “Oh, why does this man come in every evening to the pub at six o’clock, and say the exact same things to my father?” “And my father says the exact same things back, and they do this for 15 minutes.” My mind wasn’t able to say this. But basically, I think, what I was saying was: “This can’t be about information, because they do the same thing. There isn’t any information.” “Oh, it is about, how my daddy is with this man.” “And this man comes in to talk to my daddy.” “And it is all right, that they actually say the same things to each other, because it is not about that.” “It is about the fact that my daddy smiles at him, and this man looks sad, when he comes in.” “And then, when my daddy talks to him about nothing, about the weather, about…” “Then this man smiles back, and it has something to do with that.” So, I learned being very curious about human beings. I’m very curious about emotions, and how they work. And very curious about relationships from very young. I was told by a very tall, intimidating nun, that I was to go to university and study English literature. So I did. Nobody told me about psychology. I didn’t even know it existed. So I went, and studied English literature. I think that too, stories, and motivation, and how people’s lives unfold, what happens to people, how they understand their lives, how the way they understand their life also creates their life. That was part of my reality, even before I got into working with people. The first people I worked with were disturbed adolescents in a residential treatment center.

Sharon Brehm: How did it happen, that you started with literature, and then started to work with…?

Sue Johnson: Well I was a teacher, and I moved to Canada, and I needed a job, I was completely broke. This big residential treatment center was hiring counselors, and so they hired me. I had no training in counseling, they hired me. These kids, well it was just like being in the pub. These kids were yelling, and fighting, and crying, and I thought: “Oh yeah, this is all right. I can find my way through this.” Those kids taught me so much. I remember some of those kids. I often think, where they are, and what happened to them in their lives. Some of them were very traumatized, and very wounded already even at 14 or 15. I learned a lot from them, and then I thought: “Oh, I’m gonna do psychology.”

Sharon Brehm: It sounds like a wonderful, beautiful life full of adversity, and you overcome that, so there is so much resilience. That is amazing.

Sue Johnson: Oh really, I think people are very resilient, if they… – well this is my work. People are resilient, if they have at least one relationship or hopefully more, where they feel worthy and special. Where they get the message, that they are competent, and that they are strong enough to take life on. I think, I was very lucky in that I had that. Somewhat from my grandmother, but mostly from my father, who was a most unusual man. He was basically a farm boy from England, who lied about his age, and went into the British navy at 15. He had been all over the world in the navy, and had fought in the war. I was his only child. I was his only daughter. I don’t know how he managed to parent me, the way he did. It certainly wasn’t the normal way to parent a girl in England at that time. He loved it, when I was assertive. He loved it, when I argued with him. He loved it, when I said: “No, I don’t want to do that!” And he would say: “Really? Oh, and what would you like to do?” I mean, he was a very special man. I have no idea, how he knew to do that. So, I think my resilience comes from that kind of sense of secure attachment, which is how I understand… This is what we try to create in our couples in couples therapy. We don’t just want couples to be able to negotiate better, this is the booby prize. Do you understand booby prize? We don’t want that. We don’t want couples to be able to discuss nicely: “Yeah… sure… okay…” We want to build emotional bonds. We know, that these emotional bonds are the source of resilience, they make us strong. We’re social bonding mammals. Love is not just sentimentality, or a myth, or for adults some sort of mixture of sexuality and sentimentality. It is an ancient wired-in survival code, that is designed to keep a few people, you totally trust and you depend on, close to you. When we don’t have that, we start to fall apart. Our nervous system goes into alarm. Our brain doesn’t put our world together clearly, in a coherent way. We’re filled with alarm and vigilance for danger. Our bodies start to fall apart. We are like fish in the ocean, and the ocean we swim in are our close relationships. If you take a fish out of the ocean, or if you have an ocean that has no oxygen in it – no safety in it – then the fish start to look very strange indeed. But I think, I was lucky in my life to meet people and to feel loved. And it sounds so corny, it sounds so touchy feely. Well it is not touchy feely, it is science now. We have changed attachment science, which is what I base my therapy on. What I base EFT on – Emotionally Focused Therapy for those, who don’t know what it is. Attachment science has taught us so much about, who we are. It has already revolutionized our parenting. At least in many areas of the world, we don’t treat children the same way as we did 20 years ago, 30 years ago. We don’t drop them off at the hospital to have an operation, and go back pick them up a week later. If you say that to parents now, they would say: “Oh, that would traumatize the child.” People forget until the beginning of the 70s, that was actually the norm in many parts of North America. Attachment science has changed how we see children, how we see children’s needs, how we respond to children. I think, it was not applied to adults until about the beginning of this century. Which is a crazy thing. But it wasn’t, because we were in love with the idea that adults were somehow self-sufficient, grown-up. We never grow up to the point, where we don’t need other people – It is a silly idea. But people were not interested, when I first started to talk about adult attachment as a clinician. My social-psychological colleagues, were studying it. But when I started to bring it into clinical work, people would walk out of my talks. They would refuse to publish my article. They would send my articles back with long, long diatribes about how totally mistaken I was. Let me ask you, how did you find the courage to continue? It is amazing and so important that you did, but how did you find the courage? Well, I would get quite hurt by the rejections, and the sort of dismissal. It was dismissal, it was like: “No, you go away.” There was also an issue in there about me being a woman, I think. Yeah, for sure. I’m a Canadian, so I would go to big American conferences. And: “Well, who are you strange, little Canadian woman? What are you doing here, talking this nonsense about how vulnerable we are to each other? About how much we need each other, and how that is true of adults. How we create panic in each other, when we suddenly withdraw our love and our care.” I think, I would get hurt and devastated, and then I would come back. I have a supportive husband, that made a big difference – He is a rock. But what really happened is, I would go and do my clinical work, which is always the place I stand my rock. I would go, and I look at my couples, and I’d look at individuals I was working with. EFT is known as a couples therapy, but we have always worked with individuals and families. We just haven’t talked about it as much. I go and work with my clients, and my couples, and I go: “Hey, I don’t care what the big theories are out there, they’re wrong. Look at this. Look at what just happened here! This is what happened here! Well, wait a minute, am I sure? Am I really understanding this? Yes, there it is again! There is the pattern.” I remember, once I said to my husband, when it was quite bad… – probably just before the turn of the century, 1998 or 1999 or so, when nobody was interested in adult attachment. I think, I said to my husband: “Oh, I’ll give up, and just go and study depression, or something else, because I’m getting depressed.” And then I said: “No, no, I don’t really care. I don’t really care what they think. I don’t really care, what the big theories are. I don’t really care about anything. I’m just gonna do my thing, and I’m gonna say, what I think. And I’m going to believe, what I see with my couples, and my people. I’m going to say, what I think. And if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. But that is the only way I can be.” So I said: “I’m just keep doing this.” And then came the research from my wonderful social-psychological colleagues, and now from neuroscientists. I did a brain scan study, in our latest study, with a man called Jim Coan from the University of Virginia. He is a neuroscientist, who puts people in brain scan machines, and looks at what happens to them. We found that when we help them have these bonding conversations, when the person in the machine was threatened with electric shock, when their partner held their hand, after the bonding conversations, it completely changed how their brain responded to the threat of shock, and to the shock itself. It changed the pain level, it changed the threat. Their brain just stayed in a resting state, while their partner held their hand after the bonding conversations. When they were distressed, and couldn’t have the bonding conversations, holding their partners’ hand didn’t make any difference to how awful their brain responded to the shock. So neuroscientists started to look at attachment, social-psychologists started to look at attachment, and gradually now, at last clinicians – I hope – are starting to understand, what I believe. This is what I said in my book, that came out last year, Attachment Theory in Practice. This science has the ability to bring the field of mental health together, to bring psychotherapy together, to give us a map to people’s most basic needs, basic fears. This science is gold, it is the holy grail for us in psychology. And in the end, it is not all the studies, and all the elegant concepts, and it is not that attachment really sort of grabs, who we are as human beings and gives us a map to that. In the end for me, it is that this science never lets me down, when I walk into somebody’s life… individual, couple, or family, who is in pain, and who says to me: “Life is too hard, it is overwhelming.” And as a lady said to me yesterday: “I’ve lost my way. It is too hard. How did I get here? I’m losing my life. Time is going by. I don’t feel loved. I don’t feel important. I don’t feel effective.” I go in and listen to that, and even though you’ve worked with people for years, and you’ve written books, – Everyone has an own version of that. – There is a point, where there is a human being in front of you just saying: “It is too hard to be human.” And you say: “Yep, yep, yep, it is.” Attachment science, the work we’ve done in EFT with emotion, and what we learn from people like Carl Rogers, it always gives me a way to understand, it always gives me a way through with that person. When I learn from my clients – every client I see, I learn. Like my lady I saw the other day, such a intelligent lady, such a brave lady. And I said: “Could you help me, we’ve had a couple of very difficult sessions, but you’re smiling at me. You look better. Your face looks different. You’re talking to me in a different way.” And she says: “Yes.” And I say: “Well, you help me. What is happening here?” And she says: “I don’t know.” This is what people say: “I don’t know. I understand things in a different way. I feel my feelings, and somehow when I talk to you, I don’t feel so alone. Somehow we go places with those feelings, that I’ve never really gone before. I start to get, what I’m afraid of in life and what I’m really longing for. And even though, I don’t have what I’m longing for, that is easier, because I get it now.” That is a different version of what I always hear, but it still fascinates me, it is still amazing. Attachment science and understanding how to work with emotion never lets me down. That is why I’m so sure about it. That is why I like it so much, and it doesn’t let me down in my own life either.

Sharon Brehm: It sounds so miraculous, so wonderful, and I know from practicing it, it is like, if there are happening wonders. But can you explain the magic of EFT? Why does it work so well?

Sue Johnson: I can try in a few minutes. It works, because – my understanding is – it goes to the heart of the matter. When somebody comes in, there is so much going on in people’s lives. There is so many levels. There is so many issues. There is so many… I teach, so I make tapes, and I show myself working with people. I just did one with a woman called Natalie, EFIT, individual EFT. She comes in, and in the first session she says: “Wel, I got a gambling addiction. I’m clinically depressed. I’ve lost my job, because I blow up at people. When I blow up at people I weep, and then I go in my room, and I close the door, and I won’t talk to my husband. My marriage isn’t so good, and I’m a bad mom, and I’ve got chronic pain, and I’ve got fibromyalgia.” You listen to it, and you go: “Wow…” And then, if you know how to focus, you go in. John Bowlby, who is the father of attachment theory, who ironically died just as people were really starting to listen to him regarding the adult world. He had already contributed to the whole understanding of infants and mothers. What he said is: At the heart of every mental health problem or adjustment problem, there are frightening, alien and unacceptable emotions. They take us over, and that is why we’re scared of emotion. Indeed, it can take us over. It is supposed to do that. It is supposed to take us over, and orientate us. Particularly, emotions like fear, sadness, shame. What he basically said is, if you want people to change and grow, you have to go there with them. You don’t stand outside, and give them advice. You have to go into the emotion with them, and help them accept their pain, make it less frightening. Help them see it as normal, and natural, not alien. Help them see it as acceptable. And then they find new ways of putting that pain together, and growing. What I see in EFT is, that EFT works because it is on target. We know how to focus. We know how to go down into the heart of the matter. We know how to help people with these huge emotional dramas, that define who they are, that take over their life. One lady said to me recently: “Nothing has changed on one level, but everything has changed. I get that my whole life – even from the time I was very small, and now I’m 60 years old – has been an incredible fight. A fight between longing for closeness – feeling empty, alone and deprived of love – and being terrified of closeness. I feel, that the only closeness I have known resulted in someone taking me over, me being powerless, me being hurt all the time.” And she said: “I’ve just bounced between those two things my whole life.” And I said: “So now what, now what?” And she says: “Now, I just feel sad, because what is here now is: I know the fear, but what I feel is the longing.” And I say: “Yes.” If she stays with the longing and understands her fears, I believe that she can… If you know, what you want… – We’re talking about very complex things in very simple ways, but never mind – If you know what you want, and you really know, and you accept it, and you know in your body. I don’t mean a thought. If you know it in your body emotionally, you have more of a chance of finding it – this is true. People don’t know, what they’re looking for. I say to my daughter… – I have this strange family, I have a stepchild and two adopted children, all from different countries. And a young woman, who came to live with us years ago, and never left. She didn’t have anywhere to live. I have this strange sort of amorphous family.

Sharon Brehm: It sounds so beautiful and colorful, I just have to say that. It is just not strange, but colorful.

Sue Johnson: Okay, and… I can’t even remember why we’re talking about them now. I’m having fun talking to you – so why am I talking about my family? You tell me. You were talking about she is getting to the point… Oh yes, my daughter. Emotions are a compass for us, and I talk to my daughter, and she says: “Mom, I can’t do this online dating.” And I say: “Yeah sweetie, it is hard, because they’re not who they say they are. They’re not, who they say they are.” And I say: “Yeah, yeah.” So then we talk about: “Well, who are you looking for?” We play, and we use different names for this person. But what is good is, that I feel like at this point, now, she has a sense of what she is looking for. So she meets a man, and I say: “What do you think about him?” And she says: “Yeah, he is not super hot. My girlfriends don’t think he looks particularly terrific. But you know mum, I like him, because he is kind. I don’t even know, if he is interested in me. But when I’m with him I feel save. He is honest with me. I think we could be really good friends, and I start to like him.” So she talks about him, and I think: “Good, she has some sort of compass, and she is using a good emotional compass.” Instead of: “Oh, this guy is exciting.” Or: “Oh, this guy, all my friends think he is so hot.” – Let’s go with the person, that society tells us is terrific. So, I see her struggling with that and I think a big thing in EFT… For many models of therapy it seems to me that emotions are framed as the enemy. They are something you have to control, you have to meditate away, you have to create coping mechanisms. Of course, you do have to regulate your emotions. But what we have learned is, the way you do that is to go into them in a safe way. The regulation is something, that happens organically. It is not something, that you create from the outside by saying: “Okay, when you’re upset, would you please breathe.” This is useful, to teach people to just slow down and breathe. Yes, but it is so not enough. It is like: “Yeah, yeah, all right you can do…” I’ll give you a good example. Years ago, I developed an airplane phobia. Very bad idea, because I was flying all over the place. Very bad, very, very bad. So I am a psychologist, so I found every trick, every tip, every technique, every… I knew how to have imagery. I knew how to breathe. I knew how to… I tried drugs. They put me to sleep, that was no good. And I sort of reduced it, I kind of reduced it, by maybe – Oh, I don’t know – 20 percent. But it was still there, so I went to a therapist. And people don’t want to do therapy with me, because they know who I am. But anyway, I would say: “Will you do therapy with me?” And there is a long silence on the phone. Anyway, I went to this therapist, she was great. In the therapy I learned what the fear was. “Oh, so I am medicating myself, and doing these things, because the fear is about the plane crashing. No, the fear is not about the plane crashing, no it is not. What is it then?” – So for this, you have to go into it, not just cope with it. – “What is it then? It is about turbulence. Oh well, what is that? Because turbulence doesn’t last for long, and I haven’t actually had any terrible experiences. It is about what happens in my body, when turbulence hits. Oh, what is that? Oh, what is the first time I remember that? Oh, that is about this experience, that I had when I was four years old, and which was completely overwhelming.” As a four year old child, I was given to another child, I didn’t know, who was two years older. I was put on a bus, to go into it the next town, get off the bus, get on another bus. And go to this building, where I knew no one, where everyone talked in a different way from me. I was a poor child in an expensive school – let’s not go into how that happened, but it did. I didn’t have the same background. I was not from the same religion. I didn’t speak in the same way. All the people in this building were tall with black clothes on, they were nuns. And all the pictures in the building were of a man with his chest open, on a cross. I was speechlessly terrified, and my body was so agitated, that I wouldn’t eat. I wouldn’t go to the washroom from nine in the morning, until I left the school at four. Wow. Yeah wow, and I completely blocked, it was like I had… But if I listened to the emotion, and the feeling in my body, I understood, that this feeling in my stomach was about: “Ah, I’m in a foreign environment. I’m out of control. I’m going to someplace, where I don’t know anybody. I’m going to some American city to give a talk. I don’t know anyone there. I’m somehow adrift from my world. I’m feeling the same feeling.” So in other words, if you get to know your emotions, and you sit in them, you can regulate them, and order them. And suddenly, when I’m sitting on a plane, I go: “Oh, there it is again. Right, I know that one. It is okay.” And flying just changed. I would find myself sitting in the airport lounge reading my book. In fact, I nearly missed a flight, because I was reading my novel. I suddenly look around, and I’m the only person in the lounge. And they’re saying: “Sue Johnson”… “Oh, everyone has got on the plane.” If you knew how different, that was than a few years before. I would be sitting in the airport lounge wired, wired, with… So, that is a sort of example of what I mean. We work with emotion. It is called Emotionally Focused Therapy. We see emotion as our friend. We go into it. We trust it. We see it as a proces. Emotion colors everything. Emotion colors your world, tells you what matters, helps you create meanings, creates expectations. It is also the way you communicate with other human beings. It is the music of the dance with other human beings. It defines the dance with other human beings. The emotional music you’re playing in a relationship defines the dance. We change relationships by changing the emotional music: “Hey, you want to have someone dance waltz, when tango music is playing? Lots of luck.” You can teach them the steps of the waltz, until you’re purple. When the tango music is playing, they can’t do waltz. I think we’ve learned from working with couples. Particularly, when the emotion is so strong. How to work with emotion? How to make it our friend? How to take people into it? How to take them through it? I think, that we find that in our own lives. We have 70 people now, who go all over the world teaching EFT, an amazing group of people. And I think those people have all… We do research on our training. Of course, we do we do research on everything. So, we do research on whether our therapy works, and we have all kinds of evidence from that. We do research on how it works. And we do research on our training. So, what people tell us is: “Your training has helped me be a better therapist. Your training has helped me work with emotion, and turn it into a real way of creating change. Your training has changed my life. Your training has changed the way I see my kids, where I see my husband.” And we say : “Yeah, because attachment science is about understanding, who we are as human beings.” It doesn’t explain everything, of course it doesn’t. It is a theory. There is no theory in the whole world, that explains everything. But it sure tells us a lot about, who we are as human beings.

Sharon Brehm: I love your story, because you showed so many important details. You showed how we can approach emotion, or that emotion is also part in our bodies. That we can feel it. That it is actually about feeling our bodies. That is present. And you also told the story about, that even we as therapists are learning, and that we have to be nice to ourselves. That we’re not perfect, but we’re training, and learning together, and together striving for better. I love the way you’re doing it.

Sue Johnson: Yeah, and I think there is something about perfection. Our society wants gurus. Our field wants perfect gurus and magic. Especially, a few years ago there was a whole thing about: “Oh, you want a technique, where you ask just a few questions, and suddenly you create magic.” I think, that is a very bad road to go down. I’m not magic, as a therapist. I make mistakes. I get lost in sessions. This is silly this. People say to me, somebody said to me, you must be such a perfectionist. I just roared with laughter. I said: “I’m not at all. I just assume that this is good today, and when I read it tomorrow I’ll say…” I’m very critical of my work, actually. I can read something. I can read it, and can go: “Yeah, this is good.” And then I come back a week later and say: “Ah. I could have said this. I could have said that. Oh, that is a stupid way to say that. Why didn’t I…?” So, I assume, that everything is just a work in progress. And we are a work in progress. When I look at what is happening in the world. Our civilization is certainly a work in progress. If I had not done psychology, I would have studied history. I love history. Particularly, the middle ages. Don’t ask me why? I don’t know. I used to sing as a child in a cathedral, that was built in 1008. Maybe, that is why. I love that cathedral. It sung with you. If you sung a solo in that cathedral, the stones sung with you. And you knew, that there have been people in that church for centuries, who sung to those stones and those stones had sung back. When I look at history, there is no perfection. We’re a work in progress. Civilization is a work in progress. Right now, it feels like we’re in a bit of trouble, actually.

Sharon Brehm: We are. But what would you say, what would people need so that we are like at least taking the next step?

Sue Johnson: Well, I tried to talk about this in my book “Love Sense”. I’ve written two books for the public, and they were the hardest thing I’ve ever written. I’m trying to say a lot in very simple terms, and in terms that turn people on. In “Love Sense” I really struggled with what is the meaning of all this for a larger society. I’m fascinated by the idea of civilization, and what civilization means. Somebody once asked Mahatma Gandhi in England, what he thought of British civilization. And he said, he thought, it would be a very good idea. In other words, he said: “You think you have it? You think you have it? Take a look.” And I think, he would say the same. If he was alive now, he would say: “Oh yoohoo, people, who maybe, sometimes feel so superior to the rest of the world. To other states, who through the accidents of history, don’t have all the advantages we have in the west. Oh yoohoo, clever people just have a look at whether we’ve really got civilization.” Civilization is about people being able to come together, and see each other. To respond to our very basic needs for safety and care. To do that, just because we’re human beings. Attachment theory says, we are the same family. We all have the same emotions, the same fears, the same needs. The only way we’re going to survive as individuals, in families, in society, as a species is to come together, and understand who we are. And to be able to come together in that, and to connect and move together. If we do that, we can solve anything. If we don’t do that, if we stay in politics as a zero-sum game – I win, you lose. That is fine for me sometimes. But when you lose, I lose too, because we’re on the same planet, we’re the same people. This doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work, it is not right. I totally agree. But now we’re going huge here. Let’s not discuss the world. I don’t know enough to discuss the state of the world.

Sharon Brehm: So let me ask you a question. Why do you think are people afraid of connection, if that is what we all are looking for or longing for?

Sue Johnson: Because we’re very vulnerable, and because of our need to belong and to be seen. I think, it was a attachment theorist, who said: “We all want to hide, but it is a tragedy not to be seen.” I think, it was Fairbairn. We are scared, that we will be rejected, we will be abandoned. That we will feel vulnerable. That we will call and no one will come. That we will feel this aloneness. I mean, what attachment says is that aloneness is the most devastating pain of all. And the one, that our nervous systems absolutely cannot deal with, because it is the ultimate threat. So, I think we know we’re vulnerable. We know, that other people can hurt us more than anything else in the world. That we can be rejected and abandoned, and many of us have had very, very, very bad histories of people doing just that. So then, to open up, and reach, and let yourself long for love, and actually take the risk of reaching for it – because it is a risk. This is almost impossible, but then you have a dilemma, because if you don’t do that, you live your life alone. That is for me the ultimate human dilemma. Risk, and you could be hurt, and rejected, and abandoned. Yes. Don’t risk, you’re alone forever. Yes. Ah, stuck. Everyone has to go through that. So much of adult life, it seems to me, is about that. There are no answers to that. It is something we’re all caught in all the time. It is everywhere. It is just part of who we are. I just remember a lady, I worked with, who I put in a book years ago, she had terminal cancer. And her husband kept saying to her: “You’re fine, you’re fine, you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine.” He was a doctor, and he was terrified of losing his wife, and: “You’re fine, you’re fine. And he thought, he was trying to support her, but she turned to him and said: “Look, you can’t deal with me dying. I can deal with me dying, but I can’t stand beside you, when it means I’m dying alone. If you can’t be with me, I have to go away. Because standing beside you, when I know I’m dying, while you stand there and tell me I’m not, is too painful. So I can deal with dying. I just can’t deal with dying alone.” He was a big doctor, who couldn’t cure his wife, and he was depressed. Was he? No, he was just a human being faced with overwhelming loss, and trying desperately to deny, what was going on. You could see him. He was just going [waving hands in denial]. Is that depression? Well I don’t know. You can call it anyting you want. Whatever we call it, that is the most human thing in the world. And when he understands, that he is actually abandoning his wife by doing that, not helping. And that they can weep together, then everything changes. It goes to the heart of who we are as human beings. At least how I understand, who we are as human beings. And if you don’t struggle with that, if some of us say: “I’m not struggling with that. I reject it. I don’t need. I won’t need. I’m going to control other people. I’m going to be in charge. I’m going to shut other people out. I’m going to numb out.” Well guess what? That is just another rabbit hole, because sooner or later, then you’re all alone again just in a different way.

Sharon Brehm: How can EFT or EFIT, help us or help people to take that risk? To say: “Yes, I’m here, and I’m present, and I’m facing all my fears and sadnesses.”

Sue Johnson: I think that is what we’ve learned to do with couples. Couples have shown us how to do that. To have what we call a “Hold Me Tight” conversation. We’ve taken the “Hold Me Tight” program based on the book, and it is online now, it is www.holdmetightonline.com I think, we show people how to do that. Number one is to recognize how you dance together in a way that freaks each other out and leaves each other alone. In my own marriage, it has been amazingly helpful to realize, that we are both amazingly strong people. And when we get into a fight, we terrify each other. So first of all to see the dance we get caught in, and how we can hurt each other. And then to be able to recognize how vulnerable we are, and what we long for, and there is nothing wrong with that longing. It doesn’t mean, we’re weak. It just means we’re human, and to be able to… What we do is we really help people to accept those longings and fears, share them. And find ways to ask for what they need in a way that pulls the other person close. That is what we do. And, wow! You know what? After 30 years, and I think every EFT therapist would say this: When a couple does that in your office, therapists come out of their office and go “Yes!” And the therapist goes “Yes!” It is like this incredible thing, where you see these two people open up to each other. We know that what defines love relationships is emotional accessibility and responsiveness. That is what defines: “Are you there for me?” – A.R.E. “Are you emotionally accessible, responsive and engaged?” We know that this process of opening up, sharing vulnerability, responding to vulnerability, holding each other, that this creates a positive, loving relationship, and that grows people. All the clichés, “Love Grows People” – Oh God, if you saw that on a bumper sticker, you would say: “Ah, how nauseating.” It is actually true. “Love” – but we know what that means? Now wait a minute, infatuation doesn’t grow people. Sort of weird Hollywood love? No, no, no, wait a minute. What are we talking about? We’re talking about this here: “Oh, these conversations grow people.” We know how to walk people into that. For me, when we first started in EFT, I didn’t know why we were getting the results we got. In my first study, I went through the data three times. I ran it through the computer three times, because, I didn’t believe it. I thought: “No, no, no, this is wrong. This is baloney. This is too much. I must have made a mistake.” So, we went through it again, and again, and again. What happens here, what happens? This is a basic bonding conversation that your whole nervous system is wired to respond to. So suddenly, after I had done the study I thought, I don’t know what we did and why it was so powerful. And then suddenly I realized, wait a minute this is John Bowlby. What we did was create bonding conversations. Oh, my God! Then the whole of attachment, which was most unpopular – it was just about mothers and infants at this point. When was this? I don’t know. This was way ago. It I suddenly hit me. My God! These are bonding conversations. This is all about attachment. This is John Bowlby. Why aren’t people talking about adult attachment? They weren’t talking about it. Even the social-psychologist at that point. I think, there was one study. They weren’t. So, things have changed a lot, and I am as passionate about attachment science, as I was back then. I feel, like I found my holy grail, and nothing has changed. I’ve never seen anything, that is richer, deeper, more profound, more useful for us as human beings, more useful as a basis for psychotherapy. So, I’m still on this journey.

Sharon Brehm: What would you tell your younger self? What you’ve learned since the beginning – of being a therapist?

Sue Johnson: You ask fascinating huge questions lady.

Sharon Brehm: Well, I’ve learned that I’m going deep with EFT, so I’m here for all the deepness and depth.

Sue Johnson: What would I say I’ve learned? Oh, I don’t know how to answer that. I feel like I’ve learned from all my clients, and all my wonderful colleagues, and research, and from attachment. I feel like I’ve become clearer and clearer about who we are. If we’re going to survive as a species, and certainly, if we’re going to build any kind of civilized world, we have to know who we are. Are we predators? Are we just for ourselves? Is man selfish, predatory, aggressive, competitive? Is unbridled capitalism the way to go then, because that is who we are? Is sex about getting the best orgasm, and finding the person who can give you the best orgasm? So, is it really a person as an instrument to an orgasm? Is that who we are? No, that is not who we are. We can be those things. But no, in essence that is not who we are, those are distortions. We’re bonding human beings. We’re stronger, and healthier, and more complete in safe societies within bonded relationships. Sex could be many things. It is a commodity now in our society. It is used to sell everything. Sex can be recreation, and… But in most people’s lives the essence of sex is, that it is a bonding activity. Do we teach people about that? No, of course we don’t. Sex education is a joke. We just teach people about how the body works during the sex act. Well, give me a break! That is like teaching tango, and just teaching the first four steps. It is like: “Duh!” I think, if we know who we are, and we understand that empathy is wired in. If we understand empathy is wired into us as human beings, the question is: What blocks it? Not: “Well we’re just not that way, we’re aggressive, and with this… So forget it, you have to train empathy for a thousand years, or it is just never going to happen. Just, accept that we’re aggressive, and competitive, and deal with that.” No! We’re wired for empathy, so then the question is: What blocks it? Oh, that is manageable. That is a manageable issue. Of course, what blocks it mostly is fear. What blocks it is overwhelming emotions. If I’m just dealing with overwhelming emotions, a tsunami inside me, I don’t even have the energy to look into your face, and tune into what you’re feeling. I’m fighting for my life inside my own chest here. So, I think, if we understand ourselves better, solutions are… We find things that fit for us, and we have ways forward, but if we don’t understand who we are…

Dr. Sue Johnson – https://drsuejohnson.com/
Dr. Sharon Brehm – https://lovemoves.de/

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