Relational EMDR Heals Complex Trauma

Building the Bridge from Healing to Transformation

Relational EMDR Combines Symptom Relief with Emotional Repair

One of the cornerstones of EMDR 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. You brought a past experience to mind that is disturbing, because it is still disturbing long after that time has passed and you kept focusing on it until it was no longer disturbing. Relational EMDR takes EMDR healing to a new level— transformational healing that lasts.

Relational EMDR  comes into play when we work with clients who struggle with relationship problems, self-esteem issues, and self-regulation difficulties over the course of a lifetime. These problems are not due to discrete, single-event traumas. They have deep roots in early formative and often pervasive attachment experiences where people were hurt and wounded. Developmental milestones didn’t get met and these clients, as children, didn’t get the kind of guidance and support they needed. Those things are missing.  We refer to these clients as suffering from complex trauma. For them, our staying out of the way is still important, but it’s not sufficient.

Relational EMDR—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 missed out on the important experience of identifying and asking for what you needed. You incorrectly assumed there was something wrong with you that your mother wasn’t helping you. So, you didn’t learn how to negotiate to get what you needed, never mind having the experience of someone anticipating your needs because you are important. Instead, that little boy or girl learned not to ask. Not to want. Not to feel. It was what they learned to do in order to adapt to their 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.

When this is your client’s childhood memory network, often they’re not feeling their distress because they learned not to. So how do you get this client to begin to approach the unapproachable territory of their inner life when it’s been treated like a forbidden territory?

Or 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? Relational EMDR provides the way.

Relational EMDR Fills in What’s Needed.

Now, people will argue with me about that. “Well, you know, you really shouldn’t say anything until and unless the client gets stuck.” You know, that’s one way to work with people, and they’ll get as far as they can get, but why not help them make what’s implicit explicit? All of a sudden, the client starts to feel better. Why shouldn’t the therapist ask, “Can you put words to what you might be experiencing now?” You ask not because the client necessarily needs you to ask, but because it helps them know now what they couldn’t know before: how to approach their inner life safely and in the context of another. Their habit has been to avoid their inner life because it was too painful and overwhelming. As their therapist, I would like to help them 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. And finally, of course, be in touch with their experience in real time, not in retrospect; to find their words, gestures and impulses, and to have the experience of sharing it with me without my judging them or being overwhelmed, but by meeting them in the moment.


How Do You Fill In What Your Client Needs?

Please take a minute to let me and your colleagues know about a recent example from your own clinical work. Tell your story. Ask your questions. We all benefit when we share our examples of. Tell your story. We all benefit when we share our thoughts and comments.


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"The best training I’ve attended in my 14 years with EMDR! I had huge insights into my clinical work as well as my own self."