Elyse Harper, LMFT, is an EMDR Consultant-in-Training and in private practice in Waukee, Iowa. Here is what she came up with when I asked her to contribute some of her EMDR wisdom to post on the website:
Assisting Clients in Joining the ‘Emotional Bandwagon'
Before going through EMDR training, I had a very rudimentary understanding of the connection between a client’s emotions and their bodily experience. However, I quickly recognized how important it was that both my client and I acknowledged this essential component of EMDR processing. Despite my newfound enthusiasm for recognizing and clearing emotions and associated bodily sensations with EMDR therapy, some of my clients required a fair amount of convincing to hop onto my emotion and body sensing bandwagon!
Here are some strategies I use before and during processing to help clients trust and befriend their emotions and bodies and ultimately be successful during EMDR therapy and in their daily lives.
“I feel fine, why would I want to feel that?!”
When a client presents with the above belief, I often start with the gentle reminder that they aren’t in therapy to enjoy the comforts of my office and my sparkling personality ;). More often than not, my clients come to therapy previously diagnosed, either professionally or self -diagnosis. My clients also come to my office with identified “bad” emotions and “good” emotions.
I first make sure clients have connected their emotions with their body. I help them recognize that we refer to them as “feelings”, which implies we feel them somewhere. I then have them identify in their bodies how they can tell they are feeling anxious versus irritable and so on. Some clients are unable to do this, so they need to be “reintroduced” to their bodies through gentle experiencing exercises. Resourcing is a great place to start, as it gives them a mostly positive experience as they familiarize themselves with their body sensations.
I have also found a handout I received at a Sandra Paulsen training to be very useful. This handout refers to what most would consider “bad” emotions (fear, disgust, guilt, shame, sadness) as life-preserving emotions, and “good” emotions (love, hope, happy, joy, lust) as life-enhancing emotions. Using this framework helps my clients understand that all of our emotions are ultimately for our benefit. Working WITH them as opposed to against them will not only help the therapy, it will help them lead a healthier and happier life. I then place their current symptoms into the AIP framework with this newfound understanding of their emotions as their allies instead of their enemies.
EXAMPLE: “When you get triggered at the grocery store, we have identified that it gives you the same feeling you got when you were a child and your mother was cooking dinner and you knew your angry Dad would be home any minute. Because that experience was very emotionally overwhelming and outside of your scope of understanding then, your brain essentially set that memory with all of its associated thoughts, feelings and sensations aside until you would be ready and able to handle it.
Meanwhile, our body sends us reminders of our unfinished business- sometimes in the form of anxiety or other information related to the event (images, sounds, or smells). This is because our brain wants to make sure we finish that business and heal that emotional wound! Our brain will work for YEARS to make sure we heal our emotional wounds, and it uses life-preserving emotions as messengers to boost us into action!”
“I don’t feel anything. I feel blah.”
In the case of depression, I make sure to explain that it is likely that their depression is a “coping skill gone wrong”. Depression is often presented in the popular media as feeling very sad. However, although depression can present itself in this way, generally it is the LACK of feeling that is uncomfortable/distressing for clients; their reports sounding something like “I just don’t care about anything”, “I don’t have any energy”, and “I just feel dead”.
Many of our clients probably felt many overwhelming feelings without any support for far too long, so they learned to “shut down” or “shut off” their feelings in order to get a break. However, our feelings are not so kind as to selectively shut off- if we shut off the unpleasant/uncomfortable end of the spectrum, we also shut off our pleasant/comfortable emotions. Therefore, I tell clients that once we clear the traumatic emotional material, it will be safer to turn their feelings back “on” and slipping into depression will be less frequent.
“If start feeling ______ I won’t stop!”
I ask my clients to recall the best feeling they ever experienced and remind them that that feeling didn’t last forever! The same principle applies to our worst feeling, no feelings last forever. Feelings come and go without our permission and that is good news! An added bonus with EMDR is that it helps the feelings move through us much faster!
I also show clients the below clip, as it demonstrates very well the concept that our feelings will keep pestering us, but once we give them the proper attention, they will know the message was received and will be on their way! It also demonstrates that our emotions will morph (scared to angry, angry to sad etc.) if showing up in their original form is not working. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOLxQGLJouI
“I know the feeling is there, I just don’t want to feel it!”
Invite clients to consider what happens if they eat food that is expired and/or bad for them. They will usually respond with “I feel horrible! I spend the next few hours in the restroom!”. I then ask them what would happen if we didn’t let nature take it’s course and didn’t allow our body to expel the bad food. “Well, I would get REALLY sick” or “There’s no way to stop that! It’s coming out whether I like it or not!”.
I then have them sit back, close their eyes and think of one of their negative cognitions that we previously identified. I ask them to notice how their body reacts to simply thinking that thought. Nine out of ten times clients will respond with something like “Ugh, I get a pit in my stomach” or “My whole body just tensed up”. I then refer back to the expired food analogy, explaining that our body knows what is good versus bad for us, and if something is bad for us, our body wants it out!
EMDR helps your body get rid of that expired/toxic thought and emotion! Then throughout processing, when they are working on particularly difficult emotional material, that becomes one of my go to interweaves- “Just breathe and let your body get that poison out”. Another interweave that I have found extremely helpful is “If you are feeling, you are healing”.
Thanks for reading! Happy healing (and feeling)! 🙂
Elyse Harper LMFT
It really can be difficult to invite people on this part of their healing journey! As one of my clients told me with humor after she had been successfully processing for a while, “This getting in touch with your emotions isn’t all it is cracked up to be!”
Thanks, Elyse, for sharing these helpful strategies for convincing our EMDR clients that emotions can be felt, tolerated, and processed through for their healing. Contact Elyse at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information or consultation.