Oh, the myriad ways we manage our pain. We can numb with food. We can keep ourselves busy as a means of avoidance. We can engage in addiction to substances. We can people-please and fail to set good boundaries. We can be hypersensitive to the needs of others while ignoring our own. We can be bulldozers, getting what we want no matter who we hurt. These are all part of our armor, ways of adapting to our pain. Although they may not be good for our health, they (at least in some way) allow us to maintain a sense of safety, a sense of power, and/or a sense of connection with others.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy can be a powerful way of working through past wounds and traumas. Although it is generally used for the treatment of posttraumatic stress (PTSD), it has also been shown to have great results with anxiety, phobias, and depression (Hase, et al., 2015). As a certified EMDR clinician, I am continuously inspired by the work done by people in therapy, their bravery in looking at the past, and their ability to be authentic. It has become more and more apparent that an important part of the process is to look at how people dealt with their pain at the time and to honor that with compassion. This happens not only with trauma, but with those seemingly innocuous experiences in childhood that we have to find a way to adapt. These adaptations are usually a way of making us feel safe and in control or of keeping us feeling attached and connected (Kennard, 2017).
For example, let’s say as a child you spilled some water over your dad’s computer. Your dad is normally a relatively composed guy, but this sent him through the roof and he lost his temper and yelled at you. In the best-case scenario, you and your dad were able to talk this through. He attempted to repair the rupture, figuring out a fair way to hold you accountable for the incident but still keep the relationship and the attachment intact. This repair effort helped you to process this difficult experience of being yelled at by a caretaker and helped that memory integrate into the system.
But perhaps this didn’t happen. Perhaps this memory was never really processed and all of the pieces of the memory—the sound of your dad’s voice, the way you felt in your body, the beliefs you had at the time—are still stored in your brain in the exact same way in the present moment. If unpleasant memories are not sufficiently processed, all pieces of the memories cause fragmentation. We feel parts of ourselves being pulled in different directions. Perhaps there is internal shame that you made a mistake in spilling the water, but also anger and defensiveness at your dad’s reaction. Along with the pieces of the memory, the way you adapted to it is also stored. Perhaps you went numb or checked out. Perhaps you cried and felt a great sense of shame that brought on some comforting. Perhaps you got angry back and came to your own defense. Notice how all of these responses help to keep us safe/feeling powerful or keep us attached/connected.
EMDR is such a powerful way of getting unprocessed and stuck wounds to move through the system. It literally changes the way that the memory is stored and integrated in the brain and body (Pagani, Hoberg, Fernandez, & Siracusano, 2015). I am coming to realize the importance for EMDR therapists and people in therapy to not only address the wounds, but to address how the person in therapy adapted and coped with the pain at the time of the memory. When we can see these coping skills in a compassionate way and honor that they were helpful at the time, it may allow maladaptive or out-of-balance coping skills to soften (Kennard, 2017).
When we can radically accept all parts of ourselves, including a compassionate understanding of our (perhaps maladaptive) coping skills, we become more empowered to change them and to show up in our lives as the “real us.”
Often, what we did at the time becomes the issue(s) we present in therapy. A tendency to numb out can lead to self-harming or addiction. The tendency to “do more” and stay busy can lead to anxiety and a sense of overwhelm. The tendency to go to anger and come to one’s own defense can lead to violent behavior. The tendency to feel a lot of shame and beat yourself up can lead to being emotionally dysregulated.
It is easy to become frustrated with our armor. All the skills we used to survive have been so useful. In many ways, they weren’t even a choice; these reactions are often automated responses to our situations. It is important to hold our armor in a place of curiosity and compassion because as soon as we try to distance ourselves from these parts, they may rise up stronger than ever.
We also have to hold ourselves accountable for our actions. This battle with the different parts of ourselves become softer when we can see how our armor has protected us or maintained a sense of attachment and connection, even if it is at the expense of our health. We can then choose to do things differently, to set better boundaries, to feel our feelings without numbing, to attend to our own needs and the needs of loved ones, and to authentically be who we are. When we can radically accept all parts of ourselves, including a compassionate understanding of our (perhaps maladaptive) coping skills, we become more empowered to change them and to show up in our lives as the “real us.” Instead of trying to connect with our armored selves, we are able to have connections as our authentic selves and to feel a sense of freedom from old survival skills that no longer serve us.
If you’re struggling to process trauma and move forward, consider contacting a qualified therapist, ideally someone with EMDR training.
- Hase, M., Balmaceda, U. M., Hase, A., Lehnung, M., Tumani, V., Huchzermeier, C., & Hofmann, A. (2015). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in the treatment of depression: A matched pairs study in an inpatient setting. Brain and Behavior, 5(6), e00342. http://doi.org/10.1002/brb3.342
- Kennard, D. (2017). EMDR Therapy basic training manual. Retrieved from https://emdr-training.net/
- Pagani, M., Hoberg, G., Fernandez, I., & Siracusano, A. (2015). Pretreatment, intratreatment, and posttreatment EEG imaging of EMDR: Methodology and preliminary results from a single case. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 5, 42-56.
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