Author: Mark Brayne, Parnell Institute Training Facilitator and Director of EMDR Focus.
Half-way through a demonstration session at an Attachment-Focused EMDR (AF-EMDR) workshop in London last year, it was becoming clear that my volunteer client and I were getting worryingly stuck.
We’d identified where George was being triggered in his present life – a row with his partner – and we’d bridged efficiently to him sitting alone and forlorn on the kitchen floor at the age of four or so, as his
mother, her back turned, busied herself at the sink.
As she had always done.
As an EMDR therapist reading this, you’ll know how familiar this kind of story is in our work with clients.
We had identified George’s emotion – despair – and where that was felt in his body – his heart.
His opening NC had been a classic “I don’t exist” but also,interestingly, “I should have been born a girl”.
Using knee taps rather than EMDR’s officially-preferred eye
movements (I generally find that the younger the ego state with which we’re
working, the more useful it is to work with eyes closed), George’s levels of
emotional activation – his SUDs in the jargon of EMDR, his Subjective Units of
Distress – had started to come down, as you’d expect. But on returning
repeatedly to the kitchen target, things had stopped moving.
There was more to this than just George’s kitchen
experience. And with 25 or so workshop attendees looking on, we couldn’t just
leave that little boy on the kitchen floor to be continued next session. We had
to get this one concluded.
As an EMDR therapist steeped in the transpersonal and the
psychodynamic, I knew of course that as well as being George’s own developmental
trauma, this was mother’s stuff.
But what I’d never previously considered doing, or seen
anyone else do (not even Laurel Parnell!), was to take the structure of EMDR’s
standard procedural steps and – using Melanie Klein’s understanding of internal
objects – work not just with a client’s own subjective memories and experience,
but directly on the internalised parent, inviting into our work the
intergenerational narrative trauma inherited from the beyond-personal past.
After all, as Francine Shapiro has outlined in her manuals,
what we’re addressing in EMDR is dysfunctional memory networks – with affect,
somatic sensations and cognitions having their being and purpose in the past.
To that extent, a childhood emotional part (EP in the language of Internal
Family Systems) and a parental introject are in neurobiological terms the same
So, with agreement from George (and a nod to the group that
we were going to try something rather unusual), I asked him to focus on the
mother in the image of his target memory, and invite her in his imagination to
sit down opposite me in that kitchen as if she and I were doing the therapy,
and as if she were experiencing the knee taps.
With George as my interpreter, reporting back to me her
words and responses, I asked his imagined mother to connect with what had been
going on for her a moment ago as she worked at the sink with her little boy on
the floor behind her.
She felt cut off, sad, and lonely, and she felt it in her
Continuing to use George’s imagination as our therapeutic
tool, and bringing to bear Laurel Parnell’s Bridging Technique (a proactive
version of EMDR’s standard Floatback) I invited his mother (let’s call her
Mary) to drop back into her own childhood and to note the very first scene that
came to mind.
Mary was four, evacuated from London during the Blitz in
World War Two to a farm in the country where she was the only little girl,
miserable and lonely, longing for a sister to play with.
The scene was very clear in George’s mind, and as he
reported back, I think we both had the same insight at the same moment – one of
those exquisite <em>I-Thou </em>moments of EMDR therapy.
Even now, 50 years on as George struggled with the
relationship with his wife, he was unconsciously carrying his mother’s grief at
never having had the little-sister playmate she had longed for as a little
girl, burdened throughout her life with the disappointment of George being a
boy rather than the daughter who might have soothed that childhood emotional
From there, as our workshop attendees looked on smilingly,
George and I had an easy, even delightful processing ride.
“What does that little girl need?” I wondered, in true
Mary-through-George: “A sister of course, to play with.”
“Would you like to imagine that?”
“Oh, yes please.”
And we were off.
Within a few sets, that piece of trans- or intergenerational
trauma was healed, and little Mary-in-George’s-imagination was happy, playing,
As a result, in this
demo session and still in George’s imagination, we could return to
Mary-the-client in the kitchen, check how she was now doing with her little
boy, and find that the previously dysfunctional maternal introject was now
available, and able to soothe George’s little-boy ego state.
Of course, with good-enough mothering this should have been
what happened nearly half a century earlier, but that’s the joy of Laurel
Parnell’s AF-EMDR. We really can rebuild the past, even the more ancient past,
to change the future.
In the year since that demo, I’ve developed this approach
into more of a structured protocol, and together with other colleagues in the
UK, we’re finding it to be astonishingly useful and effective.
It’s an approach that complements Laurel’s core AF-EMDR,
allowing therapy to work right up into the collective past, sometimes even right
out into group and collective memory through the parental generational, back to
grandparents and beyond.
There is of course much more to this, including the role of genetics, culture, narrative and the transpersonal, and I’ll be looking into some of this at the October Conference of the Parnell Institute in San Francisco..