Spiderman and the Search for the Negative Belief


One of the biggest challenges new EMDR therapists face is learning how to talk about and identify negative beliefs with clients, yet it is an essential component to EMDR Therapy. If you are newly trained here’s the good news: It gets easier! Let’s face it: it feels counterproductive when we first learn in EMDR therapy to actually say to a client, “So that horrible thing that happened to you — would you say that what you believe is, I am responsible?" There is a point in EMDR basic training where some therapists think of their most wounded clients and the thought of verbalizing a negative belief is enough to send them on an unplanned break. So take the break and read on!

What is a Negative Belief?

Shapiro uses the term Negative Cognition and Roy Kiessling uses the term Negative Belief. Kiessling believes this term is user friendly and perhaps encompasses the true intent of Shapiro's Negative Cognition. Shapiro (1995) describes the Negative Cognition as held as affect, so the negative believe is a deeply felt (right brain) cognition. Unprocessed memories contain the affect, sensations and thoughts encoded at the time of the event that overwhelmed one’s ability to cope. In her book, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, Basic Principals, Protocols and Procedures (1995) Shapiro suggests that you can say to clients, “State what you think of yourself in your worst moments even if you know it isn't true”. (p. 131) Or “ What words best go with the picture that express your negative belief about yourself or the experience.” (p. 131)

Many clients completing EMDR therapy have reported, “When you first repeated my negative belief, I could not stand it,” or even “I wanted to vomit” “. They go on to say, "But now [after full three pronged processing] I think of it and it seems strange that I ever felt that way.” Some clients report that they know they believed it powerfully but that they cannot even get in touch with that belief anymore. Imagine that! The child abuse survivor who has spent 30 years believing I am bad, truly believing I am good! Can you envision all of the ways that changes one's life? Hopefully, by this point I have persuaded you to jump courageously into the search for the negative beliefs your clients hold.

Seasoned EMDR therapists will tell you finding the Negative Cognition is an art and the more you practice looking for it, the easier it gets to find it. In order to make this process easier, it helps to know why it is important to find a Negative Belief.

I once heard Ana Gomez say, “The Negative Cognition is the story your client tells themselves to understand their trauma.” Bonnie Mikelson will often say,“The Negative belief is the theme song of someone’s challenges in life.” I often explain to clients the negative belief is what you told yourself about the trauma and now you may use that belief as lens to interpret other difficult life events. The problem is the lens is distorted and irrational.

A hypothetical example

A way to conceptualize how one would form a Negative Belief and how it could impact life events is with a hypothetical story. Imagine a young girl physically abused. She may try to be very good to stop the abuse and that does not work. She may try to fight back in some way to protect herself and that doesn't work either. So as a result, based on her young age and developmental phase she begins to believe about herself I am powerless. Of course this is true in this case for the young girl. She cannot stop the adult from hurting her. That’s the thing about Negative Beliefs. They are not always completely irrational when they originate. Sometimes they carry the sting of truth in some way.

As the client ages, she gets to middle school and is bullied. She doesn't tell or defend herself in anyway because she already believes that she is powerless. Later in life when her partner physically abuses her, she does not respond to offers of help. Why? Because she believes I am powerless. This negative belief also is now irrational because she isn't a small child dependent on her abuser for survival and this NB continues to disrupt her life: the Past is Present. Using AIP theory we are always working within memory neuro networks and asking, as the therapist, how the symptoms the client has are connected to unprocessed memories. Finding the negative belief will help us connect with the dysfunctionally stored memory.

The 'good, bad and ugly:' In search of the Negative Belief (NB; Shapiro's NC)

Most clients are showing and telling us their negative belief as soon as they walk in the therapy room. It sounds like this: "I don't know what to do. My boss is such a bully but I have no choice but to put up with it because I need the job.' (NB: powerless?) “I have been to so many therapists and someone told me I should get EMDR therapy but I don't know. Do you have a magic wand or something haha?” (NB: permanently damaged? “All I want is for the kids to follow the rules and my husband to start coming home when he says he will. It would also help if just once Starbucks would get my order right” (NB: I need to be in control?)

l suggest that consultees practice searching for the NB in movie characters. Spiderman: "I am unloveable." This is probably due to his attachment trauma and shows up in the symptom of pushing Mary Jane away. Superman: "I am different." This shows up with his DID symptoms. Bridget Jones: "I am not good enough." Hers shows up in her self-talk and romantic partner choices. Don't even get me started with X-men!

Of course we view our actual clients holistically and not with the myopic approach I describe to use for practice. Also, we work with our clients to help them become aware of and communicate the negative belief to us and to themselves.

Listening for Negative Beliefs at First Contact

We want to listen to clients from the onset of therapy and begin searching for, as Bonnie would say, their theme song. Is it in the Survival, Responsibility, Safety or Choice category? Once we have a good idea which category the NB is in, we can hone in on the most deeply felt one with the client. When we have a general idea, we are in a much better place to offer suggestions.

It is helpful to practice listening for negative beliefs because it will allow you to more accurately suggest negative beliefs to your client. When you, for example, have a client that has made many statements about control (over-control or lack of), you can begin the process of identification of the NB by suggesting some NB’s from the control category.

Here are some examples for really honing in on the NB.If a client makes a general statement such as ‘I guess I will just stay in my job and put up with my boss,” we can ask "what do you believe about yourself when you say that?" Or, if a client shares a belief about others rather than self, “The world is just not safe” we could say "what do you believe about yourself when you say the world is not safe? Maybe you feel 'I am not safe'?"

We can also search more directly. "So when you recall the memory of the car accident what do you believe about yourself?" It can be more challenging to find the NB with clients that are very cerebral or clients that have had a lot of cognitive therapy. It is helpful to keep in mind with these clients that the negative belief is all about affect, or the 'felt sense." It was encoded in the mind at the time of an adverse life experience as a belief about oneself. Therefore, we are not looking so much at what the mind believes as we are looking for what the heart, perceptions and body believes.

With these clients it can be helpful to explain, "I know your great thinking brain or highly adaptive brain is going to disagree with negative beliefs about yourself but I want you to listen or ask here, {pointing to your heart}." Another way to approach this is when the wounding was years ago say, "I know that you, Spider Man, do not believe that you are unloveable. I mean, you do amazing things! You rescue people for goodness sake! You saved a bus full of children. It seems that everyone loves you! But if you look inside- does little Spider man believe he is lovable?"

Sometimes when you land on the negative belief your client might respond with an intense emotion. Congratulations newbie you found the theme song! Go with that…

Amy Terrell, LMHC
Clinical Director, EMDR & Beyond
Approved Consultant
EMDR Consulting Basic Trainer
Agate Institute Facilitator and Trainer in Training

Bonnie MikelsonComment