EMDR and Christianity

Guest Blogger: This post was written by guest blogger Lesley Goth, PsyD of Denver Family Counseling Services.


In my EMDR practice, I often run into clients who identify themselves as Christians.  It is important not to assume what that means as there are many denominations and belief systems within the Christian faith.  I find it helpful to explore what someone’s faith means to them in the history taking phase as well as the rapport building part of any therapeutic relationship.

Often in the Christian faith, it is taught to simply believe, to trust, have “faith” that God is “out there” and is loving.  Christians are taught to trust in the intangible, thus the definition of faith (Hebrews 11:1 Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen).  It’s about believing what you can’t see and choosing to believe it anyway.

Often in the Christian faith, believers struggle in their relationship with Jesus Christ because of their wounds, the lies they believe, and the negative beliefs that have hindered their ability to trust in His love and grace.  In other words, the wounding that can happen by humans can hinder one’s connection to God.  The tendency is to allow the wounds of the past and the people who have done the wounding to be equal to or the same person as God.  In other words, if my dad was harsh and abusive, the tendency is to assume that God is harsh and abusive too.  I find this most in my clients who are diagnosed with complex post traumatic stress disorder. These clients have had so many traumas in their life that it strongly impedes their ability to see any authority figure as good, protective and loving.  These clients, in particular, have a very hard time separating out what people have done to them and how a loving god could allow it.  Therefore, the mistrust and lack of protection they feel from people is assumed that god has treated them and will continue to treat them the same way, with more abuse.   Ironically, Jesus can be a very powerful and healing ally within the context of healing and working through trauma.  So how do we help these particular clients work through the lies that keep them from trusting in the lord to be that ally in their process?

Some common lies and negative beliefs that these clients tend to believe about themselves is that God is angry with them (they must be bad which is why God allowed the abuse or trauma to happen in the first place), that God is not a protector, and sadly, that God loves everyone else except them.   It is also common for these clients to feel so horrible about who they are as a person that they struggle with constant shame and low self worth that keeps them from feeling acceptable and lovable to anyone, but especially to God.   The message that is common is that if our own parents couldn’t love and accept us, or if the people that were supposed to love, protect, and accept us didn’t, then God, the Creator, can’t and won’t either.  The process of separating the people that wounded the client from the person of God is important.  This can happen with talk therapy, exploring the client’s history, family of origin dynamics, and of course, exploring the attachment wounds that happened at the hands of people that may be equated to the character of God.

In the preparation phase of EMDR, a therapist will be able to assess that God is not an ally and need others to fill in for that very important role.  When gathering important resources for the client, the therapist should never push or encourage any ally that the client is not comfortable with, but especially God if it is evident that the client sees God as another abuser.  As the client goes through the phases of EMDR that I will describe below, emotions and negative beliefs about God, the abusers, and self can shift which then allows God to be re-introduced as an ally.

I’ve noticed that in the phase of desensitization in EMDR, these clients start to see their abusers for who they really were and that what happened to them was not their fault, it was not right, and finally, was not God’s intention. Clients begin to separate out the real abusers from God.  I often see this transformation happening, and in so doing, see that the client becomes more open to God, not as another abuser, but perhaps different then what they had always thought.  In other words, they are free to relate to God in truth, allowing Him to be the loving, merciful, grace filled God that he is.

When I observe negative beliefs about self shifting to the truth that their wounds aren’t their fault, the abuse and neglect was wrong and never should have happened, etc, I am able to gently introduce God as an ally to help them continue processing the abuse and reinforce their new positive belief about self; I’m worthy of being cared for and loved.  In the installation phase of EMDR, God can be a friend and ally to help clients live without the shame, see themselves more positively and more free to receive god’s love as they move forward in the healing process.   If there is resistance to bringing in God as an ally that is ok and should never be forced.  The process can be trusted to allow God as a safe ally to happen naturally.

Once the client feels safer and more trusting of who they see God to be, Jesus frequently shows up in human form as an ally in EMDR and touches the client in a way that brings the intangible to the tangible. This is where I’ve observed a healing that is different from regular talk therapy.  Let me explain.  Going back to the definition of faith, believing in what you cannot see, so many Christians are frustrated feeling as if God is out there somewhere, but can’t really be seen or touched.  Touch is a basic human need that we all have and desire.  I’ve seen time and time again how Jesus shows up in human form and he goes from the intangible to the tangible, a place where faith and healing join together.   To feel touched by God, to feel His love and grace, to truly see it and feel it in their bodies, brings deep, deep healing.  I’ve noticed a new found joy and hopefulness in my clients, a depth of healing that I’ve not noticed in talk therapy and a depth that comes as God is seen and experienced an ally.

For more information about Lesley, please visit her website.

[image source: “sun through clouds” by baboon]