If you look at the Oxford Dictionary entry for the word ‘emotion’, you will find it is a noun, a thing, described as follows:

  1. A strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others: she was attempting to control her emotions: his voice was shaky with emotion.
  2. Instinctive or intuitive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge: responses have to be based on historical insight, not simply on emotion.

The word originated in the mid-16th century, and is from the French motion, derived from mouvoir (meaning ‘excite’) which is based on the Latin emovere, from e- (meaning ‘out’) plus movere (meaning ‘move’).

So emotion is a feeling, not a thought, and involves movement. This makes a lot of sense when I think about my 7-year old. If you ask him why he did or said something he shouldn’t have, my son would tell you that he feels his feelings in his body, and his body made him “do it”. This might be his explanation for all manner of things, but usually it’s about feeling hurt or angry and acting out as most kids do.

From an Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) perspective, emotions are central in the experience of self, in both adaptive and maladaptive functioning, and in therapeutic change. Therapeutic change focuses on emotion; change occurs by means of awareness, regulation, reflection, and transformation of emotion. This change is believed to take place within the context of an empathetically attuned relationship (Johnson et al., 2005).

Of course, if we look at the common models that underpin cognitive therapies, we can also see that emotion takes a central role. Generally speaking, these models posit that we experience events and interpret our experience of these events. Our interpretations, or thoughts, about these events generate feelings and emotions. These feelings and emotions give rise to actions that we then take. These actions may be functional or dysfunctional.

Emotion is central to the overall goal of cognitive interventions; the aim is to reduce emotional distress, and maladaptive behaviours that are a result of this distress by altering thoughts, perceptions and beliefs (Hackney & Cormier, 2012). According to Cully and Teten (2008), the basic premise of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is that emotions are difficult to change directly, so therapy works to change thoughts and behaviours that contribute to the emotions in order to improve feelings and well-being. Emotion and action is also the focus of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a third-wave behaviour therapy. However, the premise around emotion is different from this perspective. Rather than fighting or avoiding or changing the feeling attached to a behaviour or situation, a person can observe oneself as having the feeling and is still able to take alternative action (Mattaini, 1997) through the identification of values. The goal of ACT is to help clients consistently choose to take action according to their values, even in the presence of difficult cognitions and emotions (Dewane, 2008).

So yes, emotion is all about movement and action, just as my son would explain. And no matter what therapeutic approach taken, it would seem that emotion is seen as central to our experience in the world, and is therefore central to therapy, albeit in different ways.

It is not surprising then that research shows the therapeutic alliance to be the most significant factor in positive client outcomes (Wampold et al, 1997). If emotion is core to a client’s problematic experience, and core to therapy, then it is the creation of an environment where people feel safe to observe their emotions and explore the actions these emotions generate, that gives our clients an opportunity to make sense of their feelings and make choices about behaviour.

Emotional safety is created and sustained by the key elements of the therapeutic alliance: empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard (Hackney & Cormier, 2012). Just like emotion, these three things involve motion or action. For example, empathy may be defined in the dictionary as a noun, but it is not simply a ‘thing’; it is something one needs to display, to actively demonstrate to the client. Emotion in motion.

Written by Dr Debra Bath B. Arts (Hons), PhD (Qld.), MAPS


  • Blackledge, J.T. & Hayes, S.C. (2001). Emotion regulation in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 57 (2), 243-255.
  • Cully, J.A., & Teten, A.L. (2008). A therapist’s guide to Brief Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Houston: Department of Veterans Affairs South Central MIRECC.
  • Dewane, C. (2008). The ABCs of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). Social Work Today, 8 (5), 34. Retrieved fromhttp://bit.ly/1t6Zb5h.
  • Emotion. (n.d.). Oxford dictionary. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1lE5vT4.
  • Hackney, H.L., & Cormier, S. (2012). The professional counsellor: A process guide to helping (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
  • Johnson, S.M., Bradley, B., Furrow, J., Lee, A., Palmer, G., Tilley, D. & Woolley, S. (2005). Becoming an Emotionally Focused Therapist: The workbook. New York: Brunner/Routledge.
  • Mattaini, M. A. (1997). Clinical practice with individuals. Washington, DC: NASW Press.
  • Wampold, B. E., Mondin, G. W., Moody, M., Stich, F., Benson, K., & Ahn, H. (1997). A meta-analysis of outcome studies comparing bona fide psychotherapies: Empirically, “all must have prizes.” Psychological Bulletin, 122(3), 203-215.