When therapists are first learning EMDR Therapy, they quickly realize that single incident traumas easily reprocess, and more complex cases do not respond using the standard protocol without learning more skills to recognize the underlying Attachment trauma. In order to successfully navigate Attachment Trauma, EMDR Therapists need to learn how to work with Ego States, which I will refer to as “Parts.”
In Robin Shapiro’s new book “Easy Ego State Interventions: Strategies for working with Parts” she defines them as “…bundles of neural connections that hold consistent patterns of information, affect, attention, behavior, and sometimes identity, which belong to specific developmental ages or situations.” In other words, things that happen to us shape who we are and the brain/body develop accordingly. These neural pathways hold the answers to how we feel and behave in relationships. Essentially, as different experiences happen to us, we either develop neural pathways of strength, safety, and competency, or we develop pathways that are based in trauma which can lead to feelings of abandonment, anxiety, fear, depression, etc.
These experiences influence our thoughts and behaviors and can happen in different emotional developmental stages. Our bodies continue to grow up, while our emotional bodies are stunted at an earlier age. Have you ever had an experience where you feel like you are acting like a baby, or a child, or maybe even feel like a teenager? Then you may have experienced what I’m calling a “Part.” A “Part” of you took over how you were feeling and behaving, even though you know you are an adult.
These “Parts” can start developing as early as ages 0 – 3. In Daniel Siegel’s audio book, “The Neurobiology of We,” he goes into detail about early attachment with our primary caretakers and how it impacts the neurobiology and the development of the Self. He states that when a baby’s signals are respected and the parent’s respond in an appropriate way, it will influence the development of the baby’s sense of autonomy. The baby learns that it has a need and that if the need is met, it allows the baby to feel taken care of, protected and safe. This process creates what is called a “Secure Attachment.” The baby has the feeling of a secure bond with its primary caretaker because the caretaker is consistent with their responses. The baby feels attuned to and a neural pathway is laid down that is resilient.
When a parent is unable to provide this for their baby, there is a lack of attunement and a neural pathway is developed where the baby may feel anxious, scared, frustrated causing the baby pain. Shapiro states in her book that this can occur if the parent is overwhelmed, grieving, stuck in addictions, responding to the baby’s cues inappropriately, and can include abuse. Babies can grow up feeling: “I can’t get close to you because you might hurt me”, “it’s not safe to express my emotions because emotions aren’t welcome here,” “my needs never matter,” etc. Through this process the baby gets stuck in these beliefs and ways of relating which can impact relationships later in life.
Let’s take a look at an example of a 30 year old female who felt abandoned as a baby and it’s impacting her current relationship as an adult. Whenever her boyfriend goes out with his buddies, she feels very alone and anxious, afraid that he will leave her to find someone better than her. She rationally knows that he is loyal to her, and yet she is flooded with these emotions, irrational thoughts and fears. She doesn’t understand why she is feeling so out of control. In this example, a young wounded “Part” of her gets activated when her boyfriend goes out. Something happened to her in her childhood where that “Part” of her hasn’t grown up and is stunted in the trauma of the childhood experience.
Through further exploration, the therapist finds out that her mother was overwhelmed taking care of other children when she was a baby, so she wasn’t very available to attune to her needs. Her father was traveling for work a lot, so he just wasn’t around a lot. So as a baby she felt all alone and abandoned by her parents. This early imprint has become the template for her adult relationships. When her boyfriend goes out, the baby “Part” of her gets activated and all the original emotions come flooding in and taking over her rational adult self.
With this understanding of Attachment, you can see how “Parts” may develop through this process of bonding or lack of bonding. In EMDR Therapy, the therapist has to recognize that the client may be struggling with a “Part” that is stuck in the past with the same emotions that are causing them pain now as an adult. Once the “Part” is recognized and named, for example, this is the “Baby Part”, the therapist has to help the client resource that “Part” by creating a team of allies. This team can consist of nurturing, protective and even wise figures. These figures can include spiritual figures, animals, characters from movies or books, trusted mentors, etc. The more the client has, the more secure and safe they feel. When the client has enough safety and protection, their nervous system relaxes and reparative experiences can occur. What was missing for the client then, can now be imagined to take place with this team of allies. It repairs the experience for the client, shifting and changing the neural pathway. It doesn’t change what really happened, but it changes the neurobiology so the client may find a new neural pathway to travel down.
In EMDR Therapy we can work with these early experiences even when there isn’t a clear memory. Learning how to work with Attachment Trauma is an essential skill to incorporate into EMDR Therapy treatment. Resourcing “Parts” can take some time in the Preparation Phase of EMDR Therapy and therapists sometimes get impatient with the process. But when a “Part” can have the correct resources, processing can be much gentler and more effective way with this earlier wounding, Once the “Part” renegotiates that earlier trauma, the “Part” begins to integrate into the Self and the client feels more whole and less triggered as an adult. They are able to stay more present in their current relationship. So the woman we talked about earlier would be able to see her boyfriend leaving, understanding that he is coming home and that she is okay. The fear, anxiety, and overwhelm dissipate allowing the client to feel more at peace in their life.
In our EMDR Advanced Workshop, “EMDR Therapy Tools for Attachment Trauma,” Dr. Arielle Schwartz and I created experiential exercises that EMDR Therapists will actually practice in the workshop, so that therapists can implement these tools immediately with their clients. The exercises include how to recognize when a “Part” is activated in therapy, as well as, how to resource that “Part” to have successful EMDR reprocessing. Therapists walk away with a deeper understanding of Attachment Theory and how to apply it to EMDR Therapy. Clients will feel more integrated and feel changes that are deep and lasting.
Arielle and I hope you can join us in “EMDR Therapy Tools for Attachment Trauma” to learn more about working with “Parts” and Attachment Trauma.
About Barb Maiberger, MA, LPC
Barb Maiberger, MA, LPC is the founder of the Maiberger Institute, and the author of “EMDR Essentials: A Guide for Clients and Therapists“. Barb Maiberger is an EMDRIA Approved Consultant, and an EMDRIA Certified EMDR Therapist. Barb Maiberger is the CE Program Administrator for the Maiberger Institute. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado and has a Masters degree in Somatic Psychology. Barb’s knowledge, experience, keen sense of empathy, and a strong presence have motivated hundreds therapists to incorporate EMDR Therapy into their practices.
[Image Source: “Boy, Toddler, Ceo, Child, Kid, Cute, Happy, Baby” by Courtany via Pixabay (CC)]