Are Blocking Beliefs Holding You Back in EMDR Therapy?

businessman builds a stairsI find myself looking at this person; I feel for him, knowing that he is tormented by his anxiety and sense of isolation. While he has made amazing strides in therapy, especially through eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), there is something that keeps “blocking” him from reaching the point of accepting that the past is truly “over.” There is something that pulls at him, drags him down into the murky depths of his sadness, telling him that he can’t reach that positive belief that he is “good enough.”

His story is not unique. He is like many of the people I work with in therapy who struggle to loosen themselves from the hold of trauma. He is like many who walk into my office wanting to feel free of the past, to fully integrate what they know “logically”—that they are “OK, lovable, worthy, safe, here now”—with their emotional selves, who are just not buying it.

As you are reading this, perhaps there is some aspect of your healing work that you feel “stuck” in. It’s a common theme; folks do amazing trauma healing work and perhaps might find that they have hit a wall. They want to feel healed, but on some level it just won’t budge. “I don’t know why” is a common statement. What we often find is that there is some next layer of the person’s experience that is revealing itself. In EMDR therapy, we call it a “blocking belief.”

Why does this happen? Why is it that, on the one hand, we can know that the past is behind us, and yet there is also a sense that it is not? We can begin to explore this question not only through the perspective of trauma therapy, but specifically EMDR therapy.

A blocking belief essentially blocks us from shifting our core beliefs about ourselves. For example, in processing deep-rooted trauma through EMDR therapy, the person I described was working through a core belief (EMDR therapists call it a “negative cognition”) of “I’m not good enough” and then, right when it was getting to a decreased intensity, found another layer—a blocking belief that “I shouldn’t get over this.” That same blocking belief kept the trauma from decreasing in intensity from a 10 (most disturbance) to a zero (neutral/no disturbance). It wasn’t until we shifted that blocking belief—“I shouldn’t get over this”—that the core belief of “I’m not good enough” could release its hold as the trauma was processed.

Blocking beliefs can come up often in EMDR therapy when we ask about the SUDs (subjective units of disturbance scale). It’s a scale we use to find out how the person’s distress about the event has shifted. Keep in mind that it doesn’t mean that the event is not disturbing. That it’s disturbing doesn’t change. It will be a disturbing event as a trauma, by its nature of being a trauma. But the person doesn’t have to continue to feel disturbed by it.

When we start to explore our core beliefs about ourselves, and the traumas that have driven them, be sure to explore any blocking beliefs that may show up. It may just mean that you are that much closer to healing those traumas than you may have thought. It may just be that deepest layer waiting for you to discover it.

Believe it or not, it is possible to get to a neutral or zero about traumatic events and the disturbance we feel about them, even for the most upsetting and distressing experiences. But there may be some reason we hold on. Unconsciously, perhaps we think we need to keep some fear, just enough, to help us feel safe and prepared for next time. Perhaps we think it’s “impossible” to heal from those experiences. Perhaps there’s a mistaken, unconscious belief that it’s not “something we should get over,” that it’s not OK that we heal this event: “It’s just too painful; if I feel neutral or no disturbance, then I am not honoring the experience(s) and the impact on my life.”

The fact is, and this comes up a lot for folks when they do EMDR, it is possible to heal trauma.

It is possible to feel differently about our lives, whether it be to feel safe, calm, or even feel and know that the past is over. Yes, it can change; I’ve seen it. I’ve also experienced it. That said, it can take time, even with EMDR therapy, especially with multiple of types of traumas, and when traumas span across the developmental stages of our lives.

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  • simon

    simon

    January 8th, 2015 at 3:16 PM

    we all have some sort of blocking event that could be holding us back, keeping us from being the best us that we can possibly be.

  • Grayson

    Grayson

    January 8th, 2015 at 4:27 PM

    Do you ever find that there are people who are simply looking for a way to hold onto the attention that they may receive because of this so that is why they hold on? I don’t know that they honestly actually want to hold onto the trauma, I very seriously doubt that, but they could want to hold onto what that event gave to them, someone caring about them or something like that.

  • Bree

    Bree

    January 9th, 2015 at 3:41 AM

    Any time you are in any kind of therapy then there has to be a part of you that is then willing to become a little more vulnerable than what many of us like, you have to drop the walls and the pretenses if there is to be any real healing that occurs.

    For many of this this is the scariest thing that we have ever done. We have done these things for a long time in an effort to protect ourselves so the thought of laying it all bare for someone else to see is scary at best.

  • Richard

    Richard

    August 18th, 2016 at 9:12 AM

    What is EMDR Therapy

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    August 18th, 2016 at 9:54 AM

    Hi Richard,
    Thanks for your question! You can read about EMDR in detail here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/eye-movement-desensitization-and-reprocessing

    Best wishes,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • logan

    logan

    January 10th, 2015 at 10:56 AM

    It is only natural that we have these things that we believe about ourselves that can hold us back form years, keep us from achieving everything that we could achieve. I think that a big part of therapy is learning to fight against those stumbling blocks and to leave those behind.

  • Carson

    Carson

    January 12th, 2015 at 3:53 AM

    Assuming that talking with your therapist about your therapy and how things are going, it would then become more evident if this is something that is really hindering your movement forward ion the process?

  • Sarah Jenkins

    Sarah Jenkins

    January 12th, 2015 at 8:19 AM

    Grayson – thanks for the question about seeking “attention.” To me, and remember this is just my opinion, your suggested example is still about an unconscious belief. If one would “need” to hold on to an event, to feel cared about, then there is a still block there and trauma to process re: the traumatic loss of not feeing nurtured – attachment related trauma etc. Bree – Agreed! Take a look at Brene Brown for some amazing talks on that topic – especially her Ted Talk and books on The Power of Vulnerability! Logan – great point and so true! To become present in NOW often requires us to be able to change our neurology and unconscious beliefs from the past. Great comments and feedback everyone!

  • Amy H.

    Amy H.

    January 19th, 2015 at 6:48 AM

    Excellent article. I often have patients with blocking beliefs and we spend some time talking about how they can honor their story in a positive and productive way instead of holding onto the negative.

  • Hilber N.

    Hilber N.

    February 11th, 2015 at 4:22 PM

    Excellent reminders of the sometimes layered complexities of defense mechanisms employed to ensure inner safety. It has been my experience that blocking beliefs are rooted in phobias of attachment or attachment loss.

  • Sarah Jenkins

    Sarah Jenkins

    February 12th, 2015 at 11:48 AM

    Thanks so much Amy and N. Hiber. I completely agree with you N. Hilber – truly the phobia of the attachment and attachment loss IS so primary. The phobia of the traumatic material contributes to dissociation and the need to block the feelings associated with the depth of trauma. I appreciate the feedback and am glad that the article resonated with you both!

  • Crow

    Crow

    October 30th, 2016 at 11:14 PM

    I think I have blocking beliefs, perhaps….”If I heal then my abusers will think it is OK to abuse me cause I’ll get over it” and “They need to see how much they’ve hurt me” and “I’ll lose the only affection I ever had if I get well” and “My Therapist just wants rid of me” and “How can 6wks of EMDR possibly cure a lifetime of pain?” I also have great difficulty using my imagination to find a “safe place” and so my brain blocks going into the trauma in any way. My Therapist then changed jobs and I got a bad therapist who was cold & distant and who lied to me and so I got angry (no raise voice or swearing but I told her she was cold & unprofessional) and she told me to leave and I now have nothing. The UK is so different from the USA as the NHS does not train its staff in any kind of trauma therapy except brief time-limited or Psychodynamic (cold & distant nurses). We have no choice of therapist. I have a history of rape and was given a male psychologist who looked like my rapist. I was terrified for 2 yrs but too scared to give up as there was nothing else on offer. “First do no harm” does not apply any more in the NHS.

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