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Mastering EMDR Techniques:

Six Practical Tips and Strategies for Therapists in Training

Katie Quinlan, CMHC, Center Faculty and EMDRIA-Approved Consultant

When one of my consultees looks at me with that pained expression on their face and says, “What am I doing wrong?”, I feel an instant surge of empathy because I have been in those shoes!   


Whether you are coming out of EMDR Basic Training or have been practicing EMDR therapy for years, there are six practical strategies and tips to enhance your practice.   


Please believe me when I tell you that as an EMDR Consultant and practitioner, I have learned most of these techniques the hard way!   


Let’s dig in on some common pain points or areas of confusion focused in three general areas:   

1) Our focus on the cognitive 

2) Fear that we are doing something wrong 

3) Struggling to redirect sessions, especially during reprocessing 


Our Love Affair with Cognition 


Tip #1: You can love the Negative Cognition, but you don’t have to marry it! 

Consultee: “I don’t think we have the right negative cognition.” 

As ‘The Artist Formerly Known as a Talk Therapist’, I lived in the world of cognitions.  Many consultees, regardless of EMDR therapy training backgrounds, also gravitate towards the cognitive.  Beliefs, thinking distortions, and perspective-taking are clearly important and, for many of us trained in cognitive modalities, were the main game in town!   


But as EMDR psychotherapists, we know that cognition is just one part of the picture and equal emphasis is placed on emotional and somatic experiencing during reprocessing.   


Many clients avoid the emotional and somatic because they are also more comfortable in the cognitive world.   


Ensuring that your cognitions are aligned with the clinical theme you are approaching and prioritizing (Safety/Vulnerability, Power/Control, or Responsibility/Defectiveness) is important, but the client’s healing experience in reprocessing is not exclusively contingent on arriving at the perfect negative cognition.  



Tip #2:  No need to offer the Full Menu of Negative Cognitions 

Consultee 1: “So I presented a list of negative cognitions and asked them to pick out all of the cognitions that they found relevant.” 


Consultee 2: “So when I checked back on the negative cognition during the next session, it had changed.” 


While it is important to obtain the Negative Cognition, it is only needed in Phase 3: Target Assessment of the reprocessing.   


So rather than flooding clients with every possible NC under the sun, I encourage consultees to work relationally by staying curious with the client and reflecting what they are describing to see what resonates.   


Once reprocessing has commenced, the negative cognition often changes or is eliminated, so there is no need to go back to it.  We let the process move how it needs to move without getting stuck on the cognitive.   


Tip #3: There is more to the Cognitive Interweave! 

While I am on the topic of the ‘cognitive,’ let’s talk about Interweaves.  Francine Shapiro, the developer and originator of EMDR Therapy, introduced interweaves as “Cognitive Interweaves” because she was referring to the therapist’s use of words to offer an intervention.  But as EMDR has developed, master clinicians Deany Laliotis and Deborah Korn have introduced the notion of “Clinical Interweaves,” which speaks to the therapist’s use of clinical judgment while offering guidance and support as well as help our clients get unstuck during the reprocessing.  


With complex developmental trauma it’s not enough to stay out of the way.  We need to co-create an experience of being held in the pain of what happened and didn’t happen, as well as to fill in what’s missing by way of information and experience.  As Deany often says, “the absence of the negative doesn’t automatically translate into the positive.”   


With many of our more severely traumatized clients, we need to ensure that the adaptive information gets on the train so it’s available at the destination point. 


What Am I Doing Wrong? 


Tip #4:  Just because things are stuck, it doesn’t mean you did something wrong 

We have all had that moment.  We complete a set of BLS.  The client stares at us.  We stare at the client.  They say, “I just don’t feel anything.”  (Cue the therapist panic response).  And, if you are like many clinicians, the first thought is. . . “What am I doing wrong?” 


Wow.  What a question.  It is interesting that we would hold ourselves wholly accountable for someone else’s experience (or lack thereof as in the above example).  As Deany has often tasked me, a better question might be, “What just happened here?”   


As EMDR psychotherapists, our job description never included waving our magic wand (except for BLS, of course!).  Client avoidance, looping, inability to access their felt experience, people pleasing, performance anxiety, perfectionism and, of course, doing in reprocessing what they do in life is just part of the work.   


However, none of those aspects of reprocessing are the responsibility of the therapist to fix, but instead, to invite curiosity and an openness to do something different. 


Problem of the Week 


Tip #5:  Hold the AIP Focus 

Consultee: “We started reprocessing but every time the client comes in, I find it hard to get back into reprocessing.  They want to focus on what happened that week and we get derailed.  How do I get them back into the reprocessing?” 


Many clients we work with are warriors of talk therapy and perceive therapy as the space where they can air their grievances or “vent” about their week or their most recent problems or stressors.   


With a clear AIP case conceptualization and treatment plan, an EMDR therapist is always listening for how current stressors are related to the presenting issue in treatment planning and the past/present confusion that is causing stress in the present.   


So, when working with a client whose presenting issue is that she feels responsible for everyone at work and is exhausted by overextending herself, I might notice her feelings of overwhelm and tie it into the identified familiar issue of feeling overly responsible for others.   


I would then connect it back to the work we did last session in reprocessing the memory of when she was young, parentified, and had to take care of her younger siblings before she was developmentally ready to take on that level of responsibility.   



Tip #6:  Don’t be afraid to offer direction when needed 

Another focused strategy is to start reevaluation with the global question of “What have you noticed over this week as it relates to our work together?”   


With that question, the therapist is leading the conversation rather than following the client’s problem du jour.  EMDR psychotherapists are not comfortable having the same session over and over, which is why it is often necessary for us to support the client by reminding them of the work we have structured together to maintain the momentum and move towards growth. 


If you have found these techniques helpful, please forward them on to other EMDR clinicians.  


The Center for Excellence in EMDR Therapy would also love to know what your areas of confusion or stuck points are as we continue to support growing EMDR psychotherapists.  Because one thing is certain – you are not alone in the struggle!  Reach out to us at https://emdrtherapy.com/contact-us.