EMDR Therapy: A way to work with negative core beliefs

Alex Sellors MSW,RSW EMDR Therapist Brantford, ON

EMDR is a form of psychotherapy developed from extensive research about how our brains process information and store memories. It was initially developed to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,  however has now been found to effectively treat a variety of issues, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, chronic pain, body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and performance.

EMDR works by focusing on distressing memories that are unprocessed or “stuck” in the brain. It involves recalling a distressing or traumatic memory, identifying the negative belief associated with that memory, noticing the associated emotions and bodily sensations, and then engaging in bilateral stimulation (back-and-forth eye movements, auditory tones, or tapping). This allows the brain to fully process this distress and the memory is stored as happening in the past. Therefore, the emotional charge of an experience is reduced; it doesn’t remove the memory, but it can change how you feel about it.  This is how negative beliefs about the self can shift into more positive beliefs.  

Even without a major traumatic event, negative life events can still create negative beliefs about the self. For example, we are not born thinking “I am not good enough” or “I am worthless” – we have learned to think this about ourselves based on different experiences. This negative belief then becomes a filter through which we view ourselves, our relationships, and our experiences in general.

Here is a common list of core beliefs that can be targeted in EMDR. Negative beliefs are identified along with more positive, adaptive beliefs that the individual would like to believe about themselves. They can be grouped into different “clusters” of belief systems:

1)  Self-defectiveness

  •       I am not good enough
  •       I don’t deserve love
  •       I am inadequate
  •       I am defective

2)  Responsibility

  •       I should have done something
  •       It is my fault

3)  Safety/Vulnerability

  •       I am not safe
  •       I cannot trust anyone
  •       I cannot protect myself
  •       I am abandoned
  •       I am helpless
  •       I am not in control

It is normal to have multiple negative beliefs – many of these are related to the same life experiences. It can be helpful to identify what feels the strongest and go from there. If you feel like your beliefs about yourself are holding you back, EMDR may be a good fit – especially if traditional talk therapy hasn’t worked for you.

EMDR International Association. (2021, December 13) About EMDR therapy. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/ 
American Psychological Association. (2017, May). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing 
Griffioen, Brecht & Vegt, Anna & de Groot, Izaäk & Jongh, Ad. (2017). The Effect of EMDR and CBT on Low Self-esteem in a General Psychiatric Population: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Frontiers in Psychology. 8. 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01910. 


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