Leslie Greenberg: Feeling Your Way

By Rob Lutes

By identifying emotions as key to identity, this renowned psychologist changed psychotherapy.

One of the world’s foremost authorities on working with emotions in psychotherapy, Leslie Greenberg conducted pioneering research into how people change that altered the landscape of psychological practice.

Born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, Greenberg immigrated to Canada in 1967 to pursue a master’s degree in Engineering at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. After a meeting with renowned humanistic Psychologist Laura Rice at Toronto’s York University, he embarked on a Ph.D. in Psychology under her supervision. There, and later as a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Greenberg applied an observational approach to client-therapist interactions and a growing understanding of empathy and the neuroscience of human emotion to develop, with others, emotion-focused therapy (EFT), an approach based on the premise that emotions are key to identity and that avoiding unpleasant ones can cause harm.

The author of more than 20 books and 100 peer-reviewed papers, Greenberg has received numerous awards, including the Distinguished Research Career Award of the International Society for Psychotherapy Research. Now retired from teaching, he is in high demand globally for his workshops on EFT.

Can you describe your upbringing?

I was born in Johannesburg in 1945. My memories of childhood are of a house with a third of an acre of land and running around in bare feet—a carefree life. We had three servants: a nanny, a cook, and “the garden boy”—a grown man who tended the garden. I had a positive relationship with our servants, but as I grew into adolescence, I started understanding that these people were persecuted and suppressed. But my early childhood was very good. Then I had family trauma.

What happened?

My father was a stockbroker. About nine months after I was born, the market crashed and he got into financial diffi- culties. Then when I was 10, he had a nervous breakdown and the whole thing collapsed. He was hospitalized for a little while. My mother and sister and I had to sell our house and go live with an aunt. That was a traumatic period.

And your mother held things together?

Yes, although she had a lot of stress. Because I was a very strong-willed child and difficult to manage, I was taken to a psychologist—Arnold Lazarus. He became very famous afterwards. The story goes that after seeing me, he brought my mother in and told her that I was fine and she was the problem. Of course, we never went back. And my mother used to tell that story with love.

Did that first visit to a psychologist affect you later in life?

Yes. Lazarus gave me a test where they show you pictures and you tell stories about them. He showed me one of a man lying in bed with this younger man sitting on the bed and there’s a rifle on the wall. I remember thinking, “If I say this is his son on the bed, he’s going to interpret that as the son shot the father.” So I told a different story. This formed the basis of my not believing in psychological tests. People make up answers to suit who they want to be.

After high school, you went to the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

I wanted to be a nuclear physicist. I went to a counselling psychologist for a vocational assessment and he said I could do whatever I wanted, but given that I liked working with people, it would be better to become a nuclear engineer rather than a nuclear physicist. So I went into engineering because I liked working with people.

After your undergraduate degree, you came to Canada to study at McMaster.

Yes, I had a professor who left my university to go to McMaster. He started recruiting people from our department. I wanted out of South Africa. I’d become active in anti-government politics. My wife and I had just married and we left as semi-political refugees, under police scrutiny.

What was that journey like?

We were terrified of the weather. We landed in Toronto in August, and I think I was wearing long underwear. It was as hot as hell. But then we had an outstanding experience. I had to make a call to McMaster. We were entering as immigrants and the customs officer gave us a quarter to make the call. Wow! That made such an impression. It was a very touching moment.

How did Hamilton, Ontario, compare to Johannesburg?

It was amazingly free and open. We felt liberated. I completed my master’s in engineering, but I was trying to understand what I wanted to do. There was the hippie revolution going on, and everything was about exploration. So psychology became an attractive possibility.

How did you get into the field?

My wife was a psychologist. I had contacted York, and they said I would have to do three years of undergraduate psychology to change into that field. I had heard about an influential professor there named Laura Rice. I was at York one day with a friend, and I knocked on her door, and she was there. And I had research skills that she saw as potentially helpful. Ten days later, I was accepted into a Ph.D. program in psychology. I mean, this is a story of serendipity.

You did your Ph.D. under her supervision?

Yes, and that was like a marriage made in heaven. Since I’d come from engineering, my approach was: observe your phenomena. And Laura already had a bent for observing what was happening.

Between therapist and client?

Yes, it was listening to tape recordings of sessions—she wanted me to analyze the impact of therapists’ voices on clients. And I said: “Well, it depends. Are you talking about the weather or are you talking about your mother? We’ve got to know when these voices happened.” And we started observationally describing different events in therapy.

Was there a breakthrough that led you to found emotion-focused therapy?

I don’t think there was a moment. As a therapist and researcher, I saw a lot of therapy and emotion, but nobody had a theory of emotion. I always thought emotion was important, but other traditions in psych- ology regarded emotion as an epiphenomenon – something there because of something else.

Your work led you to view it differently?

Yes. I wrote a book in 1986 called Emotion in Psychotherapy, and that was the beginning. When I was an engineer, I thought of emotion as the feeling inside me, but really the most fundamental thing about emotion is that it’s an action tendency— it orients us to the world and is our primary means of processing. We see a snakelike object on a path—our emotional brain reads that in a 50th of a millisecond and organizes us to run away before we ever see the snake consciously. Emotion tells us how we’re reacting to this snake. It’s an intelligent system that speaks through the body. It developed evolutionarily to help us survive, to tell us whether something is safe or dangerous.

So we should listen to our emotions as a guide to understanding our world?

Yes, emotions are a good guide, but I came along eventually and said, “Not always.” You can form painful emotional memories, which we’ll call core wounds. Those lead you to react to danger in the present when there isn’t any. If you’ve been abused and you have a partner who reaches out to touch you, you might shrink away. You want to be close, but you feel it’s dangerous. So you have these maladaptive emotions that don’t allow you to experience that intimacy. And your body reacts. You become stressed. Your thinking starts to be influenced, and you become unhealthy.

Along with these maladaptive emotions, people also develop secondary emotions, which are reactions to more primary emotions. You want to experience intimacy, but your body is reacting to hurt and fear, and a secondary emotion arises: you get angry and push the person away. That was a crucial observation that nobody made. And it’s been one of the most impactful clinical ideas. EFT is about getting to that underlying primary emotion to feel it and make it amenable to change. It’s based on the notion that you have to arrive at a place before you can leave it.

How has your work with emotions affected how you live your life?

I was married for 45 years. Had I remained an engineer, I’m not sure our marriage would have lasted, as I didn’t know how to handle my emotions. My wife was killed in a tragic car accident about 10 years ago. And when she died, I was able to grieve in a way that was deeply influenced by my professional understanding of emotion. At times, I used to wish I was this rational engineer who didn’t react emotionally. Emotions are not easy. Shame is not easy. Fear is not easy. There’s a tendency to not want to feel them, but you have to face your feelings in order to get through them. There’s a phrase: “The only way out is through.” A metaphor I use is that emotions are like the red light on the car’s dashboard. When the light goes on, it tells you something’s going wrong in the engine and you’d best pay attention.

Are there specific benefits of therapy for older people?

It’s been shown that emotional intensity and reactivity reduces as we age. We get
more balanced. But I have had a number of older people in therapy, and it can be very successful. I think to die a good death, one needs to not have regrets. There are many people in old-age settings where unresolved bad feelings come up. They can benefit by working through these.

In your experience, what are key components of good psychotherapy?

I think responsiveness is important. That means I change what I do according to what you do. It’s hard to measure the effects of a good relationship, but I think responsiveness and compassion are very important. You shouldn’t be a doctor in a white coat—your concern is a true, loving concern for the other.

Finally, you’re known for your gentle demeanour. Is that hereditary or learned?

Well, my father was quite gentle. So I think it’s partly inborn but also strongly learned. My late wife once attended a training I gave, and the greatest compliment she gave me was that the facilitators I had trained had developed this manner. So I believe it’s trainable. And my face helps.