Does love need to be tormented to be ‘true love’?

We can’t ignore the fact that we live in a ‘no gain no pain’ society and this has influenced many aspects of our ordinary lives. So it is not surprising that the same rule applies to love. We often get persuaded into believing that in order to access true love, there needs to be torment and tears

Think of films and books, where the most mind-blowing and captivating love stories are the ones where at least one of them suffers and chases; or when the partners are so ‘passionately’ in love that they fight and make up (insert your imagination here) all the time. 

But what happened to that kind of love that makes one feel safe and nurtured? That kind of love that makes one thrive and develop as a deserving human being? Of course, to maintain love we have to work hard and commit ourselves, but this does not mean that we have to sweat and cry blood; or plague ourselves at night, tossing and turning in nightmarish scenarios of abandonment and despair. 

At a societal level, we know that we get affected by media and mainstream narratives, but I think that we need to pay closer attention to the personal level as well. Usually, people who subconsciously look for difficult relationships are the same ones who have barely ever experienced safe and unconditional love. Maybe their first relationships with friends and partners were very turbulent and chaotic. Or they witnessed their parents fight and argue, or they had to chase their own parents or caregivers in order to get their needs of safety and nurturing met. 

Can we change things? Can we actually review our love imprinting and build relationships, be they romantic or platonic, based on mutual respect and encouragement to become better people? I believe we can. Sometimes realising that we fall into the same patterns (for example, becoming infatuated with someone who is emotionally unavailable) can be a good enough realisation that helps us to stay clear from similar occurrences. Some other times, we might need profound, repairing and healing therapeutic work in order to challenge deeply rooted beliefs that suggest that we are unlovable or not deserving space in people’s lives and minds. 

Photo by Jonas Vincent on Unsplash

So I believe that love does NOT have to be tormented. A loving relationship is an essential space for us to grow, heal and thrive. If we feel stuck, drained, fatigued and distraught when we are around specific people, we ought to review our position and take ourselves out of these difficult scenarios. It is an arduous task, but it is nothing less important than eating the right food or getting good quality sleep. It is about self-care and survival. 

bunch of tulips in glass vase placed on windowsill

I am not wrong, my past is

More often than not, in my practice I come across people who are haunted by their past traumas, for example difficult relationships with their parents, abuse or bullying. Especially during our first meetings, I encourage clients to start making connections between their present thoughts, feelings and behaviours and their formative years of life. This is what I call joining the dots in a psychologically informed way

For example, a client might struggle to form lasting relationships because they fear they will eventually be abandoned. So they either establish superficial connections with others; or they become quite attached to the very people that are bound to reject them, which in turn confirms their belief of being unlovable.

Therefore, as soon as they recognise their ways of operating in the present by making links to their past, clients develop new insights which render their current struggles less random and thus possible to tackle. However, it is at this stage that clients might start considering themselves as damaged goods and become hopeless, as they believe they will never be able to evolve. Or even worse, they feel that their predicaments are due to the fact that there is something irreparably wrong with them. They become cynical and this can stall their progress.

What I will never stop putting across to clients is that gaining insight is the very first important step towards healing. This represents a vital opportunity to appreciate that WHAT they went through is wrong, instead of thinking that THEY are wrong.

We as human beings have no fault for how badly or unjustly or uncaringly we were treated. However, we are accountable to take those steps that will allow us to heal by changing our behaviours, and to surround ourselves with nurturing people that can provide us with what we fundamentally need and deserve. 

In other words, we are not wrong, our traumatic past is.

Like in most cases, self-compassion is the key because, after all, if we don’t learn to truly acknowledge our worth, how can we expect that others will do that for us?

person in black pants and black shoes sitting on brown wooden chair

What happens in an EMDR therapy session?

When prospective clients contact me to embark on Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, they often ask: 

What’s a typical EMDR treatment session like? 

Below I will illustrate how I usually conduct an EMDR session. Before you read on, it is important to note that I always tailor my approach to the client’s needs, which means that both pace and intensity of each session are adjusted according to the client’s preparedness for therapy, their resilience in facing a wide range of emotions, and their therapeutic goals.

What’s EMDR therapy? 

EMDR is a type of therapy that was created to treat symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). According to the theoretical framework behind EMDR, when one experiences psychological trauma, she or he might become stuck in the trauma, which means that the traumatic experience gets frozen in time and it feels like it is often repeated in the present. Typical symptoms of PTSD are: flashbacks, nightmares and constant emotional and physiological intrusive memories of the trauma. When PTSD symptoms persevere for more than a month, trauma-focused therapy – such as EMDR – can be extremely helpful in helping the person process the traumatic experience.

To read a more detailed description of the theory underpinning EMDR therapy, to learn what EMDR therapy can be used for, and to access a number of frequently asked questions on EMDR, click here.

What happens in a typical EMDR therapy session?

EMDR therapy can be divided in three main parts: assessment, preparation and treatment.

Below, I offer a description of each phase, which includes a vignette of a fictional client, Sarah, who suffers from a number of symptoms following psychological trauma. 

In my practice, each session lasts 50 minutes but can be prolonged if the client prefers it. 

Assessment

During this phase, which usually can last one to three sessions, therapist and client meet to discuss the client’s presenting problems, psychological needs, and history. In EMDR, a strong emphasis is placed on getting to know and understanding the client’s personal history, because it often allows the therapist to make sense of the client’s presenting symptoms.

Here’s a vignette of a fictional client’s presentation:
Sarah comes to therapy following a car accident during which she nearly lost her life. The accident happened 2 months ago and Sarah feels that she cannot ‘get over the trauma’ even though she is physically fine. She explains to me that she is easily startled, has nightmares that are symbolically linked to the accident (being chased by something and dying), and becomes easily upset because fragments of the trauma resurface as she gets on with her day (i.e.: the honking sound of the car before the crash). Sarah has also a history of not feeling secure growing up as she had very critical parents and suffered bullying at school. Sarah would like to move on and finally place the traumatic experience where it belongs: in the past. As her therapist, I listen to her concerns attentively and I ask a number of questions, whilst being respectful of her pain and genuinely curious about her current concerns, her traumatic events and her personal history.

As you can read in the vignette above, the task of the EMDR therapist is to sensitively gather information about the client’s symptoms and then start connecting the dots with their personal history to make sense of their present. 

Preparation

EMDR is a very powerful type of therapy that can bring about significant change in periods of time that can be much shorter relative to other traditional talking therapy approaches. During the EMDR session, the processing of emotional content can happen very quickly and sometimes it can feel overwhelming for the client. This is why preparing clients for the treatment is imperative to keep them safe. In this case, the EMDR therapist will help the client ‘install’ emotional resources that can be used in order to make the client more resilient during the processing. Emotional resources are installed by using imagery techniques. This phase could last 1 to 3 sessions, depending on the client’s need. One might argue that this is also part of the actual treatment because it helps clients become more resourceful when they experience their day-to-day unsettling symptoms.

Here is how the preparation phase could look like with Sarah:
After the assessment, I explain to Sarah what EMDR means and how it can be helpful for her. I guide Sarah through some imagery exercises in order to enable her to connect with a sense of calm and relaxation. In Sarah’s case, she focuses on a time in her childhood when she had a lovely summer holiday with her best friend and felt happy and content. Sarah and I together make this memory more accessible for her so that she can bring it up when she needs it in the future, both in her daily life and during the EMDR treatment sessions.

It is often the case that clients need to install a ‘team’ of resources to use during the most difficult times of therapy.

Treatment

After illustrating both the Assessment and the Preparation phase, now it’s time to describe what the actual processing during EMDR looks like.

As it is suggested in the acronym – EMDR – the eye movements are what is traditionally used to help the person process the traumatic material. Typically, the client is asked to follow the therapist’s hand, as the therapist waves it from left to right in front of them – as fast as the client can manage. During the movements, the therapist reminds the client to just notice the material that comes up in their body and mind without judging it. The material can be in the form of thoughts, feelings, body sensations, etc. During the set of eye movements, the client is asked to remain silent if possible. After each set of eye movements, which usually last up to 30 seconds, the client is asked to briefly describe what they noticed and then the movements are resumed. During the movements, the client is also reminded by the therapist that there is no right or wrong material that might come up, because the work is based on free association. 

Ultimately, the therapy aim is to liberate the client from the emotionally negative intensity of their traumatic memories; therefore, it usually happens that the memory becomes less disturbing as the client keeps moving their eyes. 

This phase can last for the amount of sessions needed to process the traumatic memory – typically 6 to 8 sessions. However, sometimes it can much fewer or more sessions.

In the example of Sarah the following might happen:
After Sarah explains what the worst moment of her traumatic experience is, I ask her to focus on some specific elements of the moment. I then begin that hand movements and ask her to track them with her eyes. During the movements, I gently remind Sarah that there is no right or wrong answer and to just notice with curiosity what comes up for her. After each set of movements, I ask Sarah to take a deep breath and then to describe what she has noticed during the movements. Maybe Sarah remembered something else about the experience, or she feels quite tense in her chest, or she feels fearful? I then ask her to resume following my hand. Every now and then I ask Sarah whether the disturbance of the memory has changed in any way. This will inform how we will carry on with the treatment.

It is noteworthy that – instead of eye movements – self-tapping of shoulders and knees may also be used. This could be a preference of the client or just a practical step to take when, for example, EMDR needs to be conducted online. For further information about how online therapy works, click here.

I hope that the above has shed some light on how a typical EMDR session looks like. If you have any questions, click below to book an initial free 15-minute consultation. 

‘I am grounded in joy; I am not grounded in the trauma anymore’

Tarana Burke