The Pivot Point in EMDR Therapy: From Passive Witnessing to Active Joining

How is EMDR therapy different from any other type of psychotherapy? Because the technology that we use gives the brain the opportunity to access experience as it was encoded at the time, bringing it into conscious awareness so the brain can reprocess the experience. The dual awareness that the memories are in the past while being aware that you’re in the present allows for something else to happen now that couldn’t happen then. And it’s happening in real time, not trauma time. For example, I’m not in that car accident, I’m actually looking back on it. I can feel the fear because it’s coursing through my body but at the same time I know I’m not in danger. I know I’m safe, I know I’m in my therapist’s office, I know I can tolerate the fear. It’s the de-arousal effect. As you down-regulate, the brain starts to access all the information it didn’t have available at the time. All the therapist needs to do is act as a kind, attentive and attuned witness. Often, nothing more is necessary.

I’m not disagreeing with the EMDR fundamentalists. There’s brain magic that happens with very little assistance on our parts. But often, there’s more. When you can have a shared moment in therapy—in the literature it’s referred to as moments of meeting—it changes the experience just by having it be a shared moment. These moments inform the client’s, as well as the therapist’s, implicit relational knowing and being. As therapists, we, ourselves can be incredibly touched by the client’s experience, so why not consider it an invitation to share it? For many of our clients, having someone there for them and with them is happening for the first time, rather than being alone in it repeatedly in trauma time. So, in addition to getting relief from a painful experience, there’s also someone there who travels with you in your journey towards healing.

By way of personal example, my brother died in a car accident when he was 20 and I was 26. My brother was the middle child; my youngest sister was 18. He was driving too fast and he lost control of his car. As the oldest, I completely mobilized around taking care of my distraught parents. I took care of everything. I identified the body in the ER, I made all the funeral arrangements, I took care of my parents, because they were both hospitalized. My sister was away at college, so she had to come home. I did all of that, but what I didn’t do was process my own loss. I was too busy taking care of what was needed at the time, and I know I would do it the same way again if I had to.

Fast forward six months later, I’m driving my car really fast, and I’m thinking, what is going on here? I embark on my own EMDR therapy, and not only was I able to access those memories and bring them into awareness, but I was also able to grieve my own loss for the first time with a therapist who could allow for my grief and be with me in a way that others couldn’t at that time. That’s part of what’s transformative about EMDR as a therapy. So, whether it’s about grieving the loss of a loved one or it’s feeling the pain of childhood abuse and betrayal, the moment of meeting occurs between two people in real time. The therapist emerges from the antiquated role of neutral observer. The therapist can also be the human being who joins the client in their experience and can say, “I’m so sorry.” These moments of meeting are the art of what we do.

Find out about upcoming programs with Deany Laliotis at Kripalu.

This post was originally published on Deany's website,

Deany Laliotis, LICSW, an international trainer, clinical consultant, and practitioner of EMDR therapy, specializes in treating traumatic stress disorders and attachment issues.

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