Challenging Automatic Thoughts with EMDR
“I’m not good enough.” “I’m powerless.” “I don’t matter.” “It’s not safe to show my emotions.”- do any of these thoughts sound familiar? As an EMDR therapist I’d argue that we’ve all had some variation of these negative beliefs cross our mind at some point or another and without much challenge accepted them to be true.
In Dr. Francine Shapiro’s book, Getting past your past : take control of your life with self-help techniques from EMDR therapy, she opens with a thought experiment. It goes a little something like this: think of the first phrase that comes to mind after you read the sentence below.
Roses are red.
Odds are that the thought that you heard was: Violets are blue. Regardless of race, age, or socioeconomic status- the majority of people in the United States would respond with that same phrase almost automatically: violets are blue.
For most people their most recent occurrence of hearing this nursery rhyme was in adolescence or even early childhood. If we slow down any bit to examine this phrase further we’d consider that roses are not always red- they are pink, yellow, white, etc. and violets, those are actually more purple than blue. How is it that so many of us have this verbatim thought response? How many thoughts pop up automatically that we blindly accept to be factual?
I love using this example to help clients conceptualize the power of automatic thought. Yes, not everything ties back to early childhood as heavily as Freud once led us to believe, but, to be fair- a good bit often does. Cognitive researchers speculate that many of our negative core beliefs took root before the age of seven! For example, oftentimes when we are kids and we experience rejection for the first time and we don’t have the wherewithal to rebuttal the experience by saying “it’s their loss” or “I think you’re projecting”.
I grew up in a pretty traditional catholic family- I attended mass each Sunday, recited a list of prayers before bed and told my priest in confession about how I was a jerk to my little brother (even if I totally thought he deserved it). More recently, in EMDR training I had to determine what some of my own negative beliefs might be. A big one that came up for me was “It’s not safe to show my emotions”. I think somewhere along the way I intuited the unspoken rule, “children should be seen but not heard”. I was praised for being able to sit still through a church service and rewarded for only speaking in class when being called on.
It’s our experiences that lay the foundation of our emotional and physical reactions. In training, we were instructed through our own EMDR processing sessions- if we are going to put our clients through this experience it was imperative that we know what it feels like. We built our timelines with distressing memories of both big T and little t traumas. We selected three memories to explore further. I won’t go into too much detail now but one of my memories came from early adulthood. It was an experience in which I stayed in a situation longer than I wanted to because I was avoiding “making a scene” or hurting someone’s feelings. I was handed the list of negative beliefs and determined that “It’s not safe to show my emotions” was once again a front runner.
Past is present.
Somewhere along the line we had a negative thought about ourselves- I’m not smart enough, I don’t belong, I can’t trust anyone, etc. and we felt our bodies respond to the experience. Another situation comes along a few days, months, or even years later and our body reacts in a similar way and our mind thinks a similar thought about ourselves. We begin to write our own narrative.
This is the frame we start to believe to be true and soon I’m not good enough becomes as automatic as “Roses are red and violets are blue”.
Our negative beliefs are often lying to us. There is great utility in having automatic thoughts and responses. They help us navigate the world and keep us safe. It is of the utmost importance to take inventory of beliefs that might have slipped in along the way that are not continuing to serve us today.
Victoria Blair, RMHCI
Hi there name is Victoria Blair, RMHCI. As a mental health therapist I work with a variety of clients who are primarily adolescents/ teens, young adults, women and LGBT identifying individuals. My approach is compassionate and nonjudgmental. My goal is first and foremost to hold space for you to voice your concerns and express yourself authentically. As a therapist I take a biopsychosocial-spiritual approach often in tandem with EMDR to understand each client from a holistic viewpoint.