DEFT is a shame-sensitive, compassion centered, attachment oriented, inter-subjective, relational psychodynamic, experiential, spiritually integrated, somatic and emotion-focused therapy.

Bearing the intensity of emotional states, both pleasurable and painful, challenges everyone throughout the lifespan. Yet the sense of feeling emotionally connected and not alone is a powerful mitigating force that provides relief and freedom from anxiety, psychosomatic symptoms and defensive positions. Importantly, this refers not only to creating secure relationships with others but also includes an active relationship to oneself… one in which we become a caring, attentive friend to the person we are in this present moment.


The challenge facing every therapist is how to catalyze deeply felt connection within THREE relationships at once, in order to optimally alleviate suffering: that between the therapist and client; that between the client and self; and that between the therapist and self.

Regarding the relationship between the client and himself, one man told his wife with a mix of grief, hope and joy, having had over a decade of non-productive therapy, “I have never had therapy like this before. It goes straight to the heart of what I've been doing to myself all my life and it gives me hope.” In this comment, we see the birth of a visceral, non-judgmental and empowering awareness of the self.

There is an exquisite sense of risk and shame for most people just walking into a therapist's office, anticipating exposure to a stranger of flawed, frightening and unknown parts of the self. And yet, psychological healing relies on a process of uncovering in the presence of a caring, empathic other. This involves facing and integrating intensely painful emotions, as well as feelings of love and joy. A man asked his therapist, “What is the point of feeling my anger?” The therapist answered, “What is the point of feeling love and grief and joy?” He thought awhile and said, “Emotions give us life.” She agreed and asked, “Is there a point to feeling alive? Is there a point to embracing the forces that live within us?” 

Carl Jung has said, “The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely,” Yet such a love carries us through life in a way that nothing else can. Many clients describe accelerated therapeutic relief from a range of symptoms when such radical self-acceptance becomes possible. 

DEFT'S Emphasis on Shame:

In DEFT, shame is seen as a primary, inhibitory affect that is body-based and often accompanied by devaluing thoughts. Unfortunately, shame often skates under the radar in psychotherapy and is given insufficient attention. It frequently arises around attempts at emotional closeness and also shame-insensitive interactions, often triggering the transference of a critical parental figure as well as defensive projection of self-judgment and loathing onto the therapist. 

Shapiro & Powers: “It is only when shame reaches the light of day that the healing process can begin.” DEFT theory shares this observation. With permission and sensitivity, The DEFT therapist will bring both shame and anxiety reactions to awareness so they may be explored and moderated. These affects are often linked and the reduction of shame can lead to a reduction in anxiety as well.

A doorway is then opened to begin a process we refer to as the “therapeutic transfer of compassion for self,” which we consider to be a significant antidote to shame and a gateway to the safe uncovering of trauma-laden, buried affect. “Is it not terribly sad that such a cruel devaluing force has lived inside you for so many years?”

Shame is a state that can also affect the therapist, especially when inevitable errors and misalliances occur. It can also trigger countertransference, (e.g. being overly attached to a treatment cure leading to pressure on the client to “cooperate.” It can be very curative for the therapist to own these occurrences. Shame will be an obstacle to treatment success until it is given the caring attention it requires on both sides of the consulting room.

Signature Principles of DEFT:

Advances the theoretical concept of the “Therapeutic transfer of compassion for self.” This occurs through:

1.  The therapist's capacity to not only feel compassion and caring but to embody it. (Note to therapists: Do not be intimidated by this. This takes ongoing personal work and practice, which the DEFT Institute aims to support. It is normal for this state to fluctuate from one client to the next and to be impacted by numerous factors. Awareness and will are key factors in developing a more consistent experience of self/other compassion).

Embodied compassion involves genuine sadness for the suffering caused by the client's need to develop defenses against closeness and also empathy for the pain caused by unwarranted shame, guilt and fear of separation.

2.  The therapist's use of prosody, non-shaming language, and engaged, physiological attunement.

3.  Attentiveness to inhibitory and distancing defensive process and the cost it carries.

4.  A sustained focus on underlying feelings, such as sadness for a lack of compassion for self.

5.  Identifying when the client rejects the therapist's compassion. It is through such awareness that a choice to receive and direct compassion towards the self becomes possible. DEFT theory posits that such a transfer significantly impacts outcome. Becoming aware of this reality can be motivating to the client.

Highlights interventions that build sense of self. The DEFT therapist frequently inquires, non-rhetorically, into permission to use its interventions and approaches. Decisions regarding areas of treatment focus and creating meaning in the consolidation phase and throughout the process is accomplished through a non-authoritarian and collaborative approach.


Encourages therapist authenticity, creativity and spontaneity with careful observation of responses to interventions. Retaining that which makes the therapist unique and real, e.g. self-disclosure in the interest of the client, is highly valued.

Supports a therapeutic relationship in which both client and therapist are learning from one another and are engaged in self-reflection, mutual vulnerability and personal growth.

Validates therapist intuition (instinctive knowing) based on observable and sensed phenomena. Reference: Clinical Intuition in Psychotherapy: The Neurobiology of Embodied Response by Terry Marks-Tarlow, Ph.D.

Recognizes that many clients hold their spiritual beliefs to be central to their lives and healing. As a spiritually integrated therapy, the DEFT therapist is willing to explore feelings related to this aspect of a person's life experiences, thereby enhancing emotional closeness.  

Employs play and humor, which can help reduce defenses and build connection.

Emphasizes strengths and views defensive process as both resourceful and survival-oriented in nature. Therefore, DEFT draws emphatic attention to the courage to do therapeutic work.

Considers all new and difficult types of self-disclosure as "breakthroughs to intimacy,” e.g. revealing a shame-laden incident of childhood molestation for the first time or revealing to the therapist that cognitive disruption is occurring (“I keep losing my train of thought.”) When significant obstacles of toxic shame, anxiety or guilt are overcome, DEFT views these moments as entering new states which are worthy of recognition. Acknowledging such risk-taking contributes to the building of hope, the engine of treatment. And hope is a 2-way street between client and therapist!


In summary, the traumatized individual is a guarded individual.  Affects that are buried do in fact continue to live within the body, tying up energy and creating toxicity for self and others. When they are allowed to move through the body to conscious awareness, they generate connection to self and others, unleash creativity and guide one's direction. DEFT is a partnership effort to penetrate and reroute layers of inhibitory affects and defenses in order to allow for the emergence and working through of underlying intense emotional states.

There is cross-fertilization in most therapies, including DEFT, and it can become artificial to try to absolutely separate them. Thus, DEFT is a non-linear, integrative treatment that operates from principles rather than uniform agendas, which can restrict awareness of treatment possibilities and impede optimal healing for a unique individual. There are many valuable tools and techniques to help manage symptoms. DEFT supports the integration of any such tools within its approach.

DEFT views trauma as a universal experience and a condition of being alive. It emphasizes self-actualization over pathology.

As psychiatrist Mark Epstein's said, “Trauma … does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence.” He goes on to say that “we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster.” DEFT views recovery and resiliency in relation to trauma as a lifelong process and not an absolute destination. Who we are and how we behave must also take into account the ultimately incomprehensible, complex forces that brought both nature and mankind into being. This is why our understanding of the psyche will always involve emergent phenomena and never be complete. Hence, DEFT places great value on healthy humility deriving from our recognition of the limitations as well as the strengths of theory, of those who practice and teach it, and those we try to help. 

Read Susan's handout, "The Curative Process" on the resources page for more detailed information on central aspects of the therapeutic process. Also, see the video on the Supervision Page for a sample of the therapeutic interaction as it might occur in a session.

"It is not physical solitude that actually separates one from others, not physical isolation, but spiritual isolation. It is not the desert island nor the stony wilderness that cuts you off from the people you love. It is the wilderness in the mind, the desert wastes in the heart through which one wanders lost and a stranger. When one is a stranger to oneself, then one is estranged from others, too."            

                                ---Anne Morrow Lindbergh