I have personally experienced the benefit of EMDR over the recent few months. Here I want to share my experience and show my gratitude to my fellow clinician Melissa Martinez.
EMDR has been around for decades. Many have passed the technique on, revised it, or added to it. I have been practicing it in my work for a year. In both my training and practice, I have found that its impact is more obvious for clients who have been through complex and severe trauma. I was not clear how it would work for stabilized and functional individuals like myself, and for many of my fellow clinicians, who have had stable even if imperfect caregivers and have not been exposed to complex or shock trauma. We, perhaps like most people, have experienced developmental trauma that is more subtle and impacts us in less obvious, even if not less profound, ways.
My attachment wound had stemmed primarily from my father. When I think about my father, his fragility appears in my mind. He is 71 and still quite agile and sharp. Even though his memory is not what it used to be, he is still a very functional man. He had always been smart, book smart to be exact. He studied his way out of poverty, into the university, into the city of China, and then into his Master’s in the States. He has had very little at the outset of his life. Even though his family was not classified as the poorest of the poor, he experienced much deprivation. During the famine China experienced in 1960 and 1961, he starved during crucial developmental periods of his life. It is no wonder he is shorter than his younger brother. During this period, he had to suffer the pangs of an empty stomach frequently. There was even one point when all they had to eat was boiled tree bark.
As I write this, I feel immense tenderness for my father. I feel his pain and fear, and even more sharply his shame. Whenever his fear is stirred, he always fails to set boundaries and always tried too hard to please everyone(with the exception of my mom maybe, that was just his chauvinism at work). The fear can take a break when his environment does not trigger his amygdala’s protective response. However, the shame is unrelenting. He carried that with him all his life, into his interactions with me. The shame of being poor drove him to his professional heights. While he never reached a leadership position in an American company, he transformed himself from an agricultural farmhand to a programming engineer in an American company. While there should be no shame in having an agricultural origin, there was a clear hierarchy where he grew up, and rural residents were at the bottom of that. His emotional circuits were scarred by fear earlier on, and they were not stable enough to allow him to acquire a better sense of internal safety. The path he saw for himself and for me was that of academic excellence. His biggest pride was that I made it into Harvard.
Due to the kind of nurturing I had, while I was physically and academically able to manage, I was not emotionally mature enough to make the best of my journey. My mom was socially intelligent but had no sense of self-worth or self-confidence. Her upbringing deprived her of higher education and society, along with her husband, habituated her to the feeling women are less important. I grew up in that. Even when no one ever said explicitly women were less, I lived and breathed it. I had the tools to function as a professional cog in society. Yet part of me is not happy with that kind of existence. I ran into people along my journey and developed those emotional tools on my own to shift my perspectives on life. Even as my new lease on life grew stronger and firmer, I was still processing the traumatic impact of growing up with a predominantly negative self-belief and fear-based parenting style. While physical violence was rarely used, emotional violence was pervasive. I grew up like many highly functioning individuals who had the tools(know-how in the left brain) but limited software(emotional road map in the right brain). My confidence was limited to areas I knew I could accomplish. My self-esteem was always set at ground zero because I was constantly returning to the baseline of “if I do not already know then I am not good enough”. Mom and dad repeatedly cemented that concept when they showed no satisfaction with any result other than a perfect score. My life was an empty vessel that served the attainment of mathematical symbols whether on report cards or income slips. This is what children who grew up relying on external validation feel like; this is the formula for creating successful and deeply unhappy people who can’t stop striving for more to fill an invisible hole inside.
I have known this and analyzed all this for over 25 years, either as an amateur psychologist or a professional counselor. I often returned to a few key memories that lingered in my conscious that represented the type of anxious attachment I had with my fearful(toward the world) and fearsome(toward me) dad. Yet, when it was when I was doing EMDR that I realize how much the more subtle nonverbal experiences have impacted my perception of life. I especially benefited from connecting with the preverbal memories in the womb, the memories of the birth process, and the first couple of years of my life. Of course, none of these were derived from conscious memories but a combination of somatic sensations and sentiments surrounding the memories adults have shared with me. Yet, the process zoomed in on that entrenched feelings of being unwanted(I was almost aborted), ugliness(I was born with a twist in the neck due to a medical error), and inability to get what I want(not being able to drink my mom’s breast milk). In addition, clarity came through further research about the impoverished environment I lived in and the shortage of milk formula during the first 2 years of my life. All of which added to my sense of deprivation and helplessness at getting what I want. It was through the eye movement, the flash, and the gentle shifting of the negative cognitions that I was able to rewire some of the deeply rooted parts of my brain to a different perspective on the whole of my life considering both the then and now.
It helped me with the first 2 steps described in my own Secure Attune Guide Embody steps. It helped me realize I am Secure now. By acknowledging at a deeper level my past experience, or giving more pixels to the vague memories, I can now separate my present from the past. It helped Attune to my feelings of shame that I had felt but dodged acknowledging most of the time. Once the first 2 steps are done, primarily accomplished in the right side of the brain, my left brain naturally took over to Guide me toward the next steps in embodying my true belief about myself and my true potential. I find myself making new connections and discovering new opportunities after those powerful yet subtle sessions. For example, I would feel empowered to advertise myself to more people, and not worry about how I might be perceived by others, especially those I traditionally perceived to be in different social circles and only have seen certain aspects of me. I no longer projected the shame I felt onto them and feel more confident about being accepted by all. Anyone who would not accept me has roots in their own subjective limitations not caused by who I am. Another time, I find myself being able to look at my Chinese friends’ faces more calmly. I lost an edge to the anxiety I normally felt when I was with them. It was as if I stopped feeling the shame of looking at faces that more closely resembled mine after living amongst predominantly non-Asian communities my entire teenage and young adult years.
My healing is still ongoing. I am very lucky to have both a dedicated and skilled partner. It helped me understand more how EMDR and other traumatic memory process techniques are completing my S.A.G.E. steps, which also resembled the 3 phase trauma resolution model by Judith Hermann: establishing the feeling of safety(S), Retelling of the Experience(A) and connection with the present (A). I find that there are also plenty of “collateral” changes during the resolution: I am more aware of the feelings that will float through me, such as shame, anger, release, and lightness, then repeat until the emotional waves simmered out about a particular memory; I am also able to set boundaries more easily without activating my own fear or shame about what I might or might not deserve from others. I also began to have new insights about how even as I struggled to heal from my childhood negativity, I had done well in a world, that my education did not prepare me for, where people of my skin color and gender had to work harder to be heard. Even as I was trying to reestablish my voice, I was losing more of it in the different set of reality. I might have become more embodied within myself even as I become more muted toward the outside world as an Asian woman. There is still significant growth waiting for me. I am excited.
I have been an emotionally stable person for several years, and before that, I was only inwardly tumultuous while managing to stay just above the water inside. The improvements I have described above are felt primarily within me as subtle shifts and gradually more by those around me—sometimes only after a while as they are not dramatic shifts. Life is an unending journey of discovery. EMDR could be part of it. To serve clients the best, I do not believe any technique should be exclusively used. The mandate to meet clients where they are requires that we respond to their needs and not insist on using any particular technique unless it is the client’s choice. Most clients, like many of us, have not felt sufficiently seen by their caregivers. It will only serve to re-traumatize them if we insist on using our way rather than what they are ready for. Over time, it will be the quality of the rapport we build that determine if we are able to employ their techniques at times with their full buy-in. My story only illustrated what could happen with a technique like EMDR, even in the absence of complex or shock trauma, when there is trust in the technique as it was in my case.
I will continue to explore this and many other techniques in my own healing and healer path. I will share along the way. I feel secure and confident as I continue this journey with my partner Melissa Martinez.