Attachment-Informed EMDR

This is a rather long blog post, so if you’re squeamish, look away now.

Today, Friday April 16, 2021, is the 500th anniversary to the day of the great German reformer of religion Martin Luther appearing before the Holy Roman Emperor in 1521 in the town of Worms on the Rhine to defend his new Protestant approach to Christianity

Noting the day, I thought it might be useful to post here for wider view some thoughts about what one might call Attachment-Informed EMDR, which I’ve been sharing with AI-EMDR therapist colleagues on our eponymous Google Group in the UK.

Let me begin on a slightly scurrilous note with an observation that will make sense only to EMDR therapists.

The Church door in Wittenberg, visiting with Jutta 1978 in old East German times.

There is a little-known fact about Luther’s theses pinned so famously to the Church door of Wittenberg in 1517 (see right), alongside far less important stuff about Papal Indulgences.

That is that Luther’s Thesis Number One was in fact, and remains, You Don’t Always Need a PC and VoC in Phase Three EMDR Evaluation.

Which is followed by thesis number two, that It’s OK too in Phase Three to start with the emotions and then go to the body and the belief.

Did you know that? I didn’t, but this is surely a perfect day to remember.

Luther lost the debate at Worms, by the way, leading to rather nasty religious wars across Central Europe lasting many many decades and killing many millions of people. The Diet of Worms wasn’t, as was observed on Thought for the Day this morning on BBC Radio 4, just a bad food day.

With cheekiness over (and PLEASE let no-one be offended by the occasional, necessary, deflating p*ss-take about how seriously we therapists sometimes take ourselves…), a couple of points up front in response to the week’s really good email group discussion about the future of our (closed, btw) Google Group and its name Attachment-Informed EMDR.

First, taking stock of the rich range of suggestions from colleagues on the thread, we’re going to stick with the term Attachment-Informed as a descriptor for this group, AI-EMDR for short.

Doing this, we remember that Francine Shapiro herself, the founder (Founding Saint in many eyes, to stay with the religious theme) became somewhat irritated with herself for having first called EMDR “EMDR”, wishing she hadn’t emphasised the Eye Movement bit so strongly given how effective other forms of Bilateral Stimulation are, such as sounds and taps/buzzers.

But, as Shapiro might have said, and as several noted in the week’s discussion, as with the very term EMDR so with Attachment-Informed. If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It.

While there’s much more that gets discussed in the Google group than just Attachment, childhood stories are after all so often at the heart of what we do, whether that’s suffixed with -Informed or -Focused or -Driven or -Inspired or -Anything-Else.

Attachment, with thanks to John Bowlby, is a term that belongs to us all as psychotherapists, not to any one individual or group.

The title Attachment-Informed seems to have garnered reasonably wide acceptance since we changed language a year ago from Attachment-Focused, so we’ve resolved to celebrate AI, not as in artificial intelligence, but as EMDR Evolution at work, built on the Adaptive Information (another AI) Processing capacity of us all, as complex and often cantankerous human beings.

Before summarising some of the thoughts contributed by colleagues to this week’s debate, I would like again to acknowledge Dr Laurel Parnell‘s immeasurable contribution to EMDR, which remains for me (with apologies to Ad de Jongh) the deeper and richer EMDR 2.0.

Wherever individual journeys take us in future, Dr Parnell’s simplification and focusing of EMDR on what so often really matters, and WHY EMDR works, especially with her 2006 book A Therapist’s Guide to EMDR and then in 2013 with Attachment-Focused EMDR, has been of extraordinary value to trauma therapy, as of course was Shapiro’s brilliance when she with colleagues assembled the Standard EMDR Protocol at the back end of the 80s.

Dr Parnell’s distillation of EMDR’s essence has been, in its way, like Luther’s challenge to the Catholic Church in 1517: revolutionary, yet staying, as I (although not everyone) would argue, entirely compatible with the core beliefs of the relevant Faith.

Where appropriate and with complexity – and let’s be honest, that’s over 90% of our work – we as good EMDR psychotherapists use imaginal resourcing, proactive target identification upfront with bridging (a better term than Floatback), and Dr Parnell’s simplification of Phase Three to keep the left brain in observer mode (Image, Emotions, Body, Belief in that order rather than Image, NC, PC, VoC, Emotions, SUDs, Body).

In AF- or AI-EMDR, we use session structure and creative interweaves, with a strong emphasis on therapeutic relationship rather than rigid protocol.

And it works, often in ways that colleagues on the point of giving up after sometimes years of despair at getting EMDR “wrong” find truly liberating.

In all therapies and in all areas of human endeavour, there has to be room for, and enthusiastic encouragement of, safe innovation.

It’s tragic that the EMDR field has for so long continued to struggle with the personal, political and ideological conflicts Dr Parnell’s ideas have generated.

It’s time to move on, yes, but there remains a toxic legacy which needs in my view to be challenged, reflected in a continuing implicit and sometimes explicit pushback from some colleagues that working in a Parnellian AF-EMDR way or now with AI-EMDR is not compatible with the Standard Protocol, and must not therefore be practised by colleagues at all on their journey towards accreditation/certification.

I know there are many good folk in our community, some of them not necessarily keen to join in this discussion, who will argue that there either has never really been, or is no longer now, fundamental hostility to Parnellian ideas, as long as newbies to EMDR focus to start with on the basics of the Standard Protocol.

To those who don’t see an issue I just recall that only a few years ago, official CPD points were at one point denied by the Powers-the-Be for Parnell’s trainings in the UK as incompatible with Shapiro’s core text.

The hostility was very real, and very personal.

As many of us know from many conversations, there remains nervousness bordering on fear among at least some new EMDR trainees that, if departing in any way from the Standard Protocol as scripted, they are risking being judged as heretics, with attendant threats to the prospect of accreditation.

Yes, it’s critically important that new EMDR trainees internalise and indeed learn off-by-heart the Eight Phases and Three Prongs (Past Present Future) of EMDR, the very Nicean creed of the Standard Protocol, building on a shared understanding of how the human brain and nervous system process, or fail to process, past traumas according to what Shapiro helpfully termed the Adaptive Information Processing model (AIP).

It’s critical that for accreditation/certification, applicants are able to demonstrate full and appropriate competence with the Standard Protocol.

But getting hung up longer-term on the exact sequencing and exact wording of the SP in all situations, even in the early phases of learning this therapy, agonising endlessly with clients about the “correct” Negative and Positive Cognitions for example, is not only not good, but can be profoundly deskilling and demotivating – one of the reasons so many therapists who train in EMDR don’t go on to integrate it into their practice, let alone to accredit or certify as registered Practitioners.

Recognising that we all need to know the Standard Protocol like the proverbial back of the hand, right from the get-go after Part One basic EMDR training I introduce all my supervisees and consultees to how to work with complexity and attachment, and modify the Protocol where necessary (which it so often is).

The AI- or, yes, AF-EMDR approach is, in my book (and although I’ll admit to having argued differently in the past, noting that when facts change, I change my mind) not only consistent with the Standard Protocol, but is also equally supported by all existing research into Standard EMDR.

That’s the argument that now needs to be made. And if EMDR colleagues hear anyone saying that AF- or AI-EMDR is not supported by research, my invitation is that they be corrected quietly but very firmly.

I agree with Parnell that core EMDR training leaves much to be desired, and should embrace complexity from early on.

But while respecting everyone’s need to do this in their own way, I don’t believe at this point that turning one’s back on the EMDR establishment’s existing accreditation and certification processes, however tempting (and boy, have I been tempted at times), is at this point helpful.

That’s why I wanted to be certain that the terminology we use for our Google Group, and for my own workshops (Unleash your EMDR/Release the Magic), is such as to embrace rather than alienate.

There is nothing in the explicitly Attachment-Informed or indeed Attachment-Focused (a term of which Dr Laurel is personally proud and protective) way we work which is fundamentally any less consistent with EMDR’s Standard Protocol than the teachings of Jim Knipe, of Dolores Mosquera, of Derek Farrell at Worcester University, the Blind-to-Therapist protocol and many, many other individuals and approaches/protocols who and which remain unquestioningly accepted within EMDR’s global fold.

So, after that brief but very satisfying rant (again, please, let no-one be offended), allow me (if you’ve read this far, you must be in a very permissive mood…) to summarise some of the comments that struck me in the week’s discussion of AI-EMDR terminology.

For this public forum, I’ll use just initials, but you know who you are.

A number of colleagues wondered why we were coming back to the question of nomenclature after a survey we completed just a few weeks ago.

O – a colleague always refreshingly to the point – captured the appropriate answer when she wondered whether my initiation of further discussion was, as she put it, “part of an endeavour to recognise that [this] approach is distinct from that of Laurel Parnell, and to remain within the EMDR mainstream,” noting how “many in [that] mainstream feel irritated by being cast in a non-attachment mold.”

Spot on, O, to whom thanks for putting it so succinctly.

As to names for our group, many suggestions brought smiles to my face this week.

These ranged from ACE-EMDR (as in Adverse Childhood Experiences) to EMDR for Complex Childhood Attachments; from working with complexity, developmentally-informed, relational, compassion-focused, integrative, creative, transpersonal, enhanced, relational-unresolved childhood, CPTSD, developmentally-attuned EMDR, childhood stuff, to EMDR- A (for attachment), EMDR-R (for relational), EMDR – CAT (for childhood attachment trauma) and EMDR-CT (for complex trauma)….

And yes, we toyed with the slogan Beyond the Basics – which I may find myself using in EMDR Focus marketing – but the arguments against using it for the group were pretty powerful.

As F commented, it doesn’t feel politically savvy to indicate other approaches are basic, and more important as she put it to “respect and honour the diversity of imaginative and excellent practices that are out there alongside the AI approach in which we all find such great value.”

O also observed that we need to “avoid anything that suggests that mainstream EMDR is defective in some way e.g. implying that it is not relational, not ‘informed’, not attachment focused, not integrative.”

C made the VERY powerful argument that what we do and advocate is nothing more than “EMDR, plain and simple, without any added acronyms.”

C added that in trying to define a particular approach, we risk erecting unnecessary fences, implying (inadvertently) that other EMDR therapists don’t take an integrative, attachment-informed or whatever-else approach.

Getting finally towards a conclusion here, I can perhaps now acknowledge that I set up the closed AI- (originally AF-EMDR) Google Group some years ago in pain and frustration at how unsafe the main EMDR UK email discussion forum going by the title of JISCMail felt to me.

Colleagues like myself posting and responding there as they/we struggled to get to grips with EMDR would often find themselves put down, made wrong and feeling humiliated.

On one occasion (I’ve had to resist the temptation here to pick at old and very personal wounds) a senior colleague known rather well to me was suspended without notice or due procedure from the EMDR UK Association altogether, and had to threaten full-on legal action to be readmitted. Not good.

I have seen the AI-EMDR Google group therefore as a kind of safe space to connect, discuss, liaise, gather around the water cooler as it were, with openness, kindness and courage but also discipline, especially during this time of lockdown.

I guess it’s a similar dynamic that inspired others to set up a Facebook group for EMDR discussion, and is now prompting our good friend Justin Havens on the Association Board to explore ideas for a discussion forum within the Association website to parallel at least, and maybe take the place of JISCMail, which has its value for research but sadly carries for some of us older hands a certain legacy of past intolerance.

So, my own invitation, going sort-of public here with a blog post on the EMDR Focus webpages, is to lean in to our shared community, stay with what works, stay – for all our occasional (frequent) frustrations – with the Standard Protocol broadly defined (I do HATE the very word protocol, by the way), and recognise that ultimately what we’re doing, really and quite simply, is EMDR Therapy.

And as to the group, as well as Attachment-Informed, we could after all go with (to use a well-known phrase or saying) Carsten’s suggestion of BEEGG.

The Best EMDR-Ever Google Group.

Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.


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