Emotioncubes: A New Psychotherapy Tool
Brendan Murphy; counsellor, supervisor, and trainer living in the West of Ireland
About eight years ago I had an idea for a new tool that I thought might help when working with emotions in therapy. I’ve developed it since into (what I think) is a good working prototype and have had some very interesting and fruitful sessions with clients when using it. I consciously tried to design something that could, potentially, be used by therapists from any school of therapy. My thinking at that time was that as all therapies focus (at least in part) on working with the causes, experiences, or difficulties related to clients’ emotions. I came across pluralistic psychotherapy in 2016 when I read Mick and John’s book Pluralistic Counselling and Psychotherapy and was pleased to discover that by valuing all approaches I had been loosely operating from a pluralistic perspective (who knew?). However, it also threw up the dialectic that by focusing on emotions as a common problem area for clients I was automatically not focusing on other common areas such as cognitions, relationship, behaviours, etc. So, while I haven’t managed to fully translate my pluralistic perspective into a pluralistic practice yet, I do derive some comfort from seeing how the tool helps clients reflect on their individual goals, tasks, and methods.
I’ve called the tool Emotioncubes and that’s because, as you can see from the photographs, they are a set of twelve solid wood cubes (about 3″ x 3″ x 3″ each) displaying information about typical aspects of human emotions. The information on the cubes is designed to act as a prompt to help clients articulate what they are experiencing. Eleven of the cubes refer to emotions: Anger, Disgust, Envy, Fear, Guilt, Jealousy, Joy, Love, Pride, Sadness, and Shame. The twelfth cube, the Discussioncube, refers to emotions in a more general way. Emotioncubes are designed to be used by therapists to help their clients find ways to access, understand, accept, or transform their emotions. I’ve tried to design them so that it is possible to work directly with the client’s emotions. They seem to have the potential to help clients to recognise, articulate, and manage their emotions so that they can respond effectively to the world around them. In short, Emotioncubes appear to help clients both understand and shape their emotional experiences.
With the exception of the Discussioncube, the other 11 Emotioncubes map out various aspects of an emotion and give the client prompts that they can accept, reject, or tailor to see if they fit with their current experience of the emotion. At some stage during a counselling session (I don’t have a rule as to when), I open the lid on the case of Emotioncubes and ask the client if any of them ‘seem like a fit’ for what is happening for them at that moment. I’m frequently amazed at what clients choose. I might be certain that they are going to select the Sadnesscube and they often pick something else.
The first face of every Emotioncube is titled ‘Words’ and this gives a selection of words that express that emotion to varying degrees of intensity. This usually begins a conversation where the client starts ruling in, and ruling out, words, until they can identify the degree of emotion they are experiencing. The conversations often flows from there and the therapist can guide the client to consider the statements on the following faces of the cube that include Causes, Thoughts, Urges, and Body Sensations. As the client works their way through the Emotioncube they choose what best represents their experience thy invariably add their own descriptions to it to fully articulate their experience. The final face on each Emotioncube is Choices, which prompt the client to consider how they could sustain, develop, or lessen that instance of emotion.
The Emotioncubes are designed to fit nicely in your hand and because they are solid, they have some heft to them which seem to add to their appeal. As you can see, I tried to make them look attractive/appealing/engaging and most clients say they really like the look and feel of them.
When asking clients about their preferences for therapy, I often refer to the Emotioncubes and, as you would expect, clients are usually pretty clear on the types of emotions that they want less of! As the conversations unfolds and become more nuanced, clients often uncover and express what it is that their emotions are signalling to them that they need and this often leads to them asking for what they want to get from a therapeutic encounter that day, or from therapy in general.
A typical cube has approximately 32 prompts on it, spread across its six sides, and a client can select any combination of these to help them articulate what they are experiencing. When an Emotioncube is used effectively, clients appear to go through a four-stage process: (i) identifying the emotion, (ii) comprehending the emotion, (iii) experiencing the emotion, and (iv) choosing how to respond to the emotion. The identifying stage correlates with Face 1 of the Emotioncube and involves the client putting words on the emotion they are experiencing, thereby differentiating if from other emotions. Faces 2 and 3 take the client through the comprehending stage, as they examine the causes of the emotion and the thoughts that arise within it. Faces 4 and 5 guide the client through the experiencing stage, where clients feel the urges and body sensations that accompany the emotion. Finally, Face 6 of the Emotioncube enables the client to select their preferred responses to it and begin to plan how best to put that response into practice.
Emotioncubes are designed to give physical form to the internal felt experiences of clients’ emotions. Each of the faces on an Emotioncube focuses on one part of an emotion at a time, so that in a step-by-step way, the emotion becomes more understandable and less disturbing for the client. Clients routinely find their emotions to be more manageable when they hold a cube in their hands, as it reflects the different aspects of what they may be experiencing inside both their mind and body. This is particularly noticeable when using Emotioncubes with clients who find it particularly difficult to tolerate their emotions. Emotioncubes appear to work equally well to help clients manage short-lived emotions such as anger in the face of an obstacle, and more persistent emotions such as the long-term sadness that often follows a significant loss or bereavement. The experience of holding an Emotioncube also appear to help clients temporarily externalise their emotion so that they can better comprehend it and choose how to respond to it.
More recently, I’ve completed the first draft of a handbook for therapists and have conducted some research with therapists on their impressions of the cubes (which is currently under review). I’ve also made some videos of me using the Emotioncubes with clients and you can see a snippet of one here. While the final version are not ready for sale just yet (I hope they will be by the end of the year), I have a few prototype sets that I would be willing to give to people in return for some regular, structured feedback about using cubes with clients. If you are interested, please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org