I 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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