Relational EMDR Therapy℠ combines symptom relief with emotional repair.
One of the cornerstones of EMDR therapy is the importance of staying out of the way and “letting whatever happens, happen.” That makes sense when you consider that EMDR was originally developed as a desensitization technique with the primary objective being to reduce or eliminate the client's subjective level of disturbance (SUD). We target past experiences that are still disturbing, long after that time has passed and you keep focusing on it until it's no longer disturbing. Relational EMDR Therapy℠ takes the process to a whole new level both in and out of reprocessing — transformational healing beyond the resolution of symptoms by co-creating a parallel experience in the room, moment-to-moment that is beyond the absence of the negative.
Relational EMDR uses the relationship between therapist and client as creating the conditions that make it possible for our clients who struggle with pervasive difficulties with self-esteem, relationships, and self-regulation for most of their lives to embark on a healing journey with a kind and competent "other." Unlike clients who suffer from PTSD, these clients suffer from complex, developmental trauma that is rooted in early, formative attachment experiences where they were abused and had no one to help them with it. They missed their developmental milestones, often because didn’t get the kind of guidance and support they needed. So, in addition to being hurt, they don't have much of a road map to navigate the ongoing life challenges we all have to face over the course of a lifetime. These templates are missing and need to be filled in. For them, while staying out of the way is still important, it’s not sufficient.
When staying out of the way is not enough.
Imagine you grew up with a mother who was depressed and spent a lot of time in bed. When it was time to get up in the morning and go to school, you had to find your own clothes, get your own books, and make your own lunch. You not only had to figure all that out yourself, you missed out on the important experience of learning to identify what you need and then asking for it. You incorrectly assumed there was something wrong with you that your mother wasn’t helping you and instead, was "resting" in bed. So, not only did you not learn how to negotiate getting your needs met, you didn't have the experience of someone anticipating your needs because you are special. Instead, you learned not to know. You learned not to ask. Not to want. Not to feel. Not to need. It was what you learned to do in order to survive your situation.
How do you help the client put words to their feelings with their own voice, rather than allow the voices of the past to keep them silent? You can’t help by simply staying out of the way. Relational EMDR provides the way.
When this is your client’s childhood memory network, often they don't remember much and they don't feel much because that's what they learned to do. So how do you get this client to begin to approach for the first time what they couldn't deal with at the time? It's that unapproachable territory of one's inner life that we have to approach...often, without much of a map. For this client, it's about trusting us and the process enough to have the experience for the first time so they can recover the emotional life they lost. So, it's never just about the client's readiness to "go there," it's about our readiness to go with them into this unchartered territory that is uncertain at best, but it's the only way for them to become whole.
We have to fill in what’s needed.
Now, people will argue with me about using interweaves to facilitate the client's experience moment-to-moment. “Well, you know, you really shouldn’t say anything until and unless the client gets stuck.” That is certainly one way to work with people, and their clients will likely get symptom relief and feel better. But will they grow and thrive beyond that symptom relief? Francine used to say that it is important to know that the client has access to adaptive information so the resolved memory has other, more adaptive memories to attach to, potentiating the treatment effects. That's the variable we're talking about here. How many experiences has the client had that made them feel safe enough, lovable enough and was supported to have enough agency to act on their own behalf as they navigate the demands of being in relationship with themselves, others and the world??? And when something bad DID happen as it always does, what happened next? Did someone make it better? Did the situation change? More often than not, it was the same, if not worse.
It is about the relationship because it's about what's happening now.
So, regardless of where the client is on the continuum of trauma, why not help them with the unfolding of their experience, moment-to-moment, and make what’s implicit explicit? For example, all of a sudden there's a shift and the client starts to feel better. Of course, we ask, "What's happening now?" which is mostly to ensure that processing is taking place. But the client may not be able to put words to it and to understand the nuances of what they may actually be experiencing. So, a next question might be, “Can you put words to what you might be experiencing now?” You ask, not because the client is stuck, but because it helps them lean into their felt experience, which is something they learned to avoid. And, perhaps in doing so, they get to discover that they can actually handle it now. Or, perhaps they get to know now what they couldn't know before because the betrayal, for example, was too much to handle at the time, but even though it's painful, they can deal with it now. Why? Because they're not alone in it. We're in it with them.
Stay open and curious and make it a shared experience.
As their therapist, I would like to help my client have a little curiosity about their inner experience, to help them approach, to help them discover their capacities and how they’re different now as an adult than they were as a kid. For clients who spent much of their time surviving as a child, they lost the child's curiosity about themselves, others, and about life. They gave it up in exchange for certainty, which is understandable, but not growth-promoting. If we can help our clients recover their inherent capacities to thrive and live life in the moment with a sense of future that is open with possibilities, we have more than done our job. We have been gifted with the honor of being part of another's healing journey. And that gift allows us to continue to grow too, to lean in more fully, to be as courageous as we're asking our clients to be, and to hold up that beacon of light as we travel through the darkness, not knowing exactly how we're going to get there, but knowing that we will. And finally, it's about making it a shared experience that co-creates a new memory for therapist and client that is the synergy of what can happen between two people that makes it more than the sum of its parts. For some, that will definitely be a first, but it won't be the last.