I’ve been in therapy, mostly psychodynamic talk therapy, for most of my adult life, including during the 24 years I’ve been a practicing therapist. We therapists know, of course, that it’s important to be active in our own therapy or supervision, and we’ve all heard the common wisdom that if we’re blocked or avoiding certain themes or feelings in our own lives, those difficulties might transfer to our clients, altering their paths of exploration and experience.
As a therapist, I knew how to do my own talk therapy, and I could recognize and discuss many of my patterns, even when I couldn’t break them. In the starkest example, I suffered for years in my marriage, but I couldn’t bring myself to separate. After I switched to a different treatment style and had two parallel breakthroughs—one of my own, and one with a client, Camron—I realized that it’s not enough just to see our own therapists and supervisors. To continuously help our clients, we have to be courageous and push ourselves beyond the treatment methods and modalities that we gravitate toward for ourselves, so that we can go deeper into our own pain. I experienced this firsthand when I went deeper into the recesses of my unresolved grief and loss of my childhood. Exploring that pain made me become less afraid to do the same with my clients.
Deflecting Underlying Issues
Camron is a vibrant, quick-witted, hilarious 24-year-old woman with whom I’ve had the privilege of working for three years. She’s a spectacularly successful, seemingly unstoppable person. She did wonderfully in school, and she’s a successful business consultant, adored friend, and devoted daughter to her adoptive parents. She was adopted from a Russian orphanage at 11 months old. Her birth mother had surrendered her parental rights after giving birth, so Camron knew nothing about her or her birth father. Of course, as her therapist, I recognized right away that her orphanage care likely impacted her ability to form romantic relationships, but she didn’t think so.
“No, not knowing about my birth parents doesn’t bother me,” she told me when I brought it up. “Honestly, I rarely think about it.”
And then, as usual, she launched into what did bother her: her reluctance to become vulnerable with a romantic partner. Sure, she’s had a few relationships, but not the deep, enduring partnerships that she’s been watching her friends form in their mid-20s.
Camron knew she had a sparkly warmth, attentiveness, and sense of humor that people found attractive. She described feeling as though she could almost press a button and have another person pay attention to her. But when that person responded and wanted to reciprocate, Camron felt her interest dwindle. Frequently, when I asked her about a man she’d mentioned and seemed interested in during the previous session, she’d answer, “It sort of petered out,” or “It turned out he was just a friend.”
For years, every time I suggested we talk about her adoption story, she deflected and changed the subject in rapid speed. Camron’s intelligence meant she could easily intellectualize her problems. More than once, she dismissed the idea that her adoption story was worth exploring by reminding me of her close relationship with her adoptive parents, saying, “ I feel like my mom and dad have always been there for me.”
But one day, Camron fell in love. She was thrilled. She’d met Andy in an online cake-decorating class. In a breakout room discussion, they discovered their mutual love for anime, texturing layered decorating techniques, and exotic fruit. Camron lived in Atlanta and Andy in Seattle, but over the course of six months, they spent so much time talking on FaceTime that they professed their love for one another and made plans for Camron to fly to visit Andy.
Two days before she was scheduled to visit Andy, Camron told me she was unsure whether she was even still invited because of an argument they’d had the previous day about him not answering her usual morning calls. After she recounted the story, I confirmed that Andy’s angry reaction to her question about where he’d been seemed overly sensitive. In the end, Camron decided to go visit him, knowing she had the means to rent an Airbnb if things didn’t go well.
At our next session, Camron said the weekend with Andy was blissful. “We’re truly in love,” she told me. However, she reported an argument they’d had after attending a concert. Andy had left Camron sitting on a blanket while he’d danced with his friends, and when he returned, Camron, feeling abandoned, turned away from him. He snapped at her. In the car, they each accused the other of being insensitive. But the charge of their feelings made their lovemaking that evening passionate, and by morning all was forgotten. Until the next time.
This was the beginning of a pattern in Camron and Andy’s relationship. Periods of intimacy and connection were followed by arguments during which Andy would get mad at Camron for being controlling or insecure. Camron thought her reasons for concern about the relationship were legitimate, but she was enthralled with Andy and being in a relationship.
In my mind, alarm bells were going off. I wanted to express my concern to Camron, but I felt she was being pulled so strongly into the experience that warning her about it might cause her to distance herself from me. Since she’d been reluctant to enter into romantic relationships in the past, I also felt she needed to experience the intensity and tumult herself to learn her own lessons.
Things moved quickly. Camron flew across the country to stay with Andy for an extended visit. For the next several months, our teletherapy sessions were more sporadic, and Camron seemed unfocused and anxious. Once, she texted me to say that she’d made a dinner reservation and Andy had said that she was so selfish and controlling that he couldn’t look at her, all because he preferred a different restaurant. I responded that she should leave and go to a hotel or coffee shop to clear her mind. She texted me hours later saying it had just been a misunderstanding.
During the next session, I decided I had to say something. I wanted her to reflect on how she’d lost her sense of self in context to the relationship with Andy. “Camron, it seems like Andy has some really intense issues with boundaries with you, and it’s causing you to be in turmoil all the time,” I told her. “It’s like you can’t get your bearings before another upsetting fight sets you back. He can be a bully.”
“Some of my friends think I should break up with him,” Camron said. She had a neutral expression, and her voice sounded as if we were discussing something that barely mattered to her. “Andy and I talked over the fight we had, and he was really tired, and I played a part in it, too.”
Camron could easily launch into an analysis of any situation and provide justifications for Andy’s behavior, their fights, and why they’d been able to resolve their problems. “Honestly, I was being really unclear about what I wanted at times,” she’d say. “I gave him conflicting messages about my emotions.”
All I could do was continue to be supportive while presenting the risks plainly to Camron. The trust we’d established over the previous three years of work proved strong, and she continued to see me. Still, I felt she and Andy—and therefore she and I—were stuck in a pattern.
Then Camron emailed me that she’d left Andy and was back home in Atlanta. She wanted to have a session as soon as possible.
The next day, she was in an emotional storm, alternating between being quiet and sobbing with her head in her hands. She could barely piece together the events of the breakup. I felt truly helpless seeing her in so much pain, and through a screen. I wanted to sit next to her and comfort her with a hand, a hug, a tissue, or a cup of tea.
Camron began to tell me that leaving Seattle had felt like escaping from a prison. Andy had become increasingly controlling, volatile, and hard to please, and she’d begun feeling paralyzed and unsafe in his presence. They’d often fought continuously for hours at a time. But when she’d finally broken down and cried, Andy had looked shocked and said, “Why are you crying? I love you. You being here makes me happy.”
Although distraught, Camron told me one story with total lucidity. She and Andy had gotten into a fight while hiking. She was feeling dizzy and wanted to shorten the hike to get more water, but Andy wouldn’t let her, saying it was her fault for not carrying enough water. A switch had flipped for her then: she knew what she’d do next. She’d pretend to be okay—and as soon as they got back from the hike, she’d buy the next available plane ticket to Atlanta. Even through the fog of that session, her clarity about her need to escape was a source of pride. I highlighted how, even in her state of dread and paralysis, she could ultimately rely on her instincts and inner strength to guide her toward self-preservation.
Feeling My Own Memories
As I listened to Camron, I understood how difficult it can be to extract oneself from a relationship. A year earlier, I’d been in the middle of a personal crisis. I was feeling emotionally and psychologically compromised in my marriage of almost two decades, and I’d known for several years that I needed to leave. I could articulate my feelings and intentions plainly to myself and my therapist, but I couldn’t find the courage to separate from my partner. My biggest obstacle was knowing that we’d share custody of our daughter, and I couldn’t bear the idea of being separated from her for half of the rest of her childhood. I pictured a tragic parting, in which she’d be clinging to me, crying in panic and fear.
Much like Camron, I could easily intellectualize my dilemmas, and I circled around my fear of leaving with my psychodynamic therapist for years. When my longtime therapist retired, I decided to try an EMDR therapist, because I’d heard positive things from colleagues about the treatment.
When I sat across from my EMDR therapist for the first time, I felt nervous, terrified even. I could talk about my problems easily, but something about focusing on one image and then letting that image pass through my mind and body while watching my therapist shift her fingers from side to side for several seconds felt like abandoning control. It’s as if the flow of images and bodily sensations circumvented my conscious brain, which monitors and carefully crafts my responses, and went right to my gut and heart. Suddenly, I was really there. I couldn’t push the sad images into the distance. And yet, there was safety in the movement and pacing, the rhythm of the bilateral movements, and the frequent check-ins and loving gaze of my therapist’s face. Within weeks, I sensed a shift within me: I felt more settled, less scared, more courageous, and prepared to have stressful interactions with my partner and stand my ground.
During one session, the EMDR therapist asked me to focus on my fear that my daughter would cling to me and cry as I’d leave her. We passed through the sets of bilateral stimulation, and my therapist asked, “What’s coming up for you right now?” An image jumped into the front of my mind: I saw myself at six years old, in the summer of 1976, standing outside my grandmother’s home and witnessing the tragedy of my mother and grandmother hugging and saying goodbye. My mother, father, sister, and I were moving abruptly from Israel to the United States. I was being yanked from everything I knew without any sense of when I’d return. Near the hibiscus bush, my mother and grandmother had stifled their sobs, and I was clinging to my mother’s leg as she clung to her own mother. I remember an overwhelmingly painful heaviness. It’d be six years before we’d see my grandmother again.
I don’t profess to understand the science behind how EMDR therapy works, but I know that during the bilateral stimulation, many more evocative feelings and distinct memories emerged in my mind than during talk therapy. Clients are discouraged from analyzing or intellectualizing the thoughts or images that arrive while during EMDR processing. I didn’t think; I felt myself there, clinging to my mother beside the hibiscus bush. Waves of tingling sadness washed over my gut and up to my throat. My head swirled, and a wave of nausea caught in my throat.
My EMDR therapist changed my life by helping me fully feel what it was like to be that despondent little girl. By embodying my long-buried grief, I could uncouple painful childhood memories from my current situation and sense of self. I wasn’t the little girl by the hibiscus bush anymore—and my daughter wouldn’t be, either. I came to know that I could manage my separation and shepherd my daughter through coming changes without destroying or losing connection to her.
Why had it taken me so long to feel that way? Hadn’t I long understood how my childhood had affected me? I’d known that the decision to move to the United States had been made by my father, who’d been traumatized by combat and severe injury in the Israeli wars. And hadn’t I known that my mother’s voiceless paralysis had left me feeling helpless and ineffectual? Yes, intellectually I’d understood those dynamics well, but knowing them in my body was different.
Opening a New Portal
I was so enamored by the EMDR therapy process that I trained to become an EMDR therapist myself. And so, as I listened to Camron cry about Andy, I thought again of her early history, and I wanted to try EMDR with her. I suspected that like me, she’d remain stuck if we kept talking because, like me, she was prone to intellectualizing, and it kept her from going deep with her emotions. I thought EMDR might help reveal some deeper processes submerged in the primal space in her psyche. She agreed to try it.
One of the feelings that most frightened Camron was her memory of feeling completely and utterly unseen, lonely and unable to escape during the most difficult episodes with Andy.
I asked her to describe a specific memory, and she recalled once going to Andy’s bedroom after he’d berated her. She’d curled up on his bed for a long time, going in and out of consciousness, feeling trapped. “It was night, and I was looking through the slats of the blinds into the parking lot, and I could see headlights beam through the window,” she remembered. “I felt small and invisible and was wondering, Will anyone see me and rescue me from this place?”
Since Camron was an excellent artist, I asked her to draw a picture of herself in the bed looking through the blinds and focus on it. She drew a small, stringy figure staring out into a dark night with narrow beams of light in the distance. We focused on this image and did several rounds of bilateral stimulation. In between each round, I asked Camron to draw what she saw in her mind’s eye again. After several rounds, Camron’s image of the small figure in the bed looked smaller and less detailed. She reported that her Subjective Units of Distress, a scale from 1 to 10 that the client uses to rate how distressed the memory or feeling is, went down from an 8 to a 2.
I wanted to wrap up the session with a positive cognition, so I asked Camron to conjure up an image of a positive figure in her life, either real or imagined, whom she’d have liked to come to her in that moment and scoop her up and protect and strengthen her. She drew a smaller-scale image of herself on the bed, but standing next to her was a considerably larger figure of a woman, dressed in a flowing gown, with a crown and floating stars around her head, and a benevolent, calm smile on her face. Camron called this commanding presence her fairy queen. I was struck by how satisfied Camron looked as she gazed at this benevolent, beautiful figure.
In the next session, we returned to the image of small Camron peering out helplessly through the slats of the blinds, but this time I decided to increase the focus on the fairy queen. Camron had placed such a great amount of effort and detail into the fairy queen’s image that I, too, felt drawn to this magical being. As I watched Camron draw her flowy hair and eyes, with the sparkles that surrounded her head like a halo, I intuited that this figure held a great deal of significance. I believe I noticed how transfixed Camron was by the fairy queen and her relationship to the small and helpless figure because I’d felt and discovered the meaning in my own powerful childhood memories.
After several iterations of the image, Camron blurted out, “This fairy queen made me strong enough to leave Andy. I’m a survivor, and I have this kick-ass fairy queen inside of me that guides me.”
Then Camron and I looked at each other, and then at the picture, and then once again at each other. I felt I was looking into her soul and she into mine. Simultaneously, we had an epiphany. “When you look at the picture of your little self on the bed, peering out the slats of the blinds, where is that little self?” I asked.
“I’m in the crib in the orphanage,” Camron said. “I’m looking through the slats of the crib, feeling so sad and scared that no one sees me.”
“Yes, that’s little Camron,” I said. “That’s why you felt so helpless and afraid to get away when Andy mistreated you. No wonder you felt it was your fault that Andy was so unhappy. That’s exactly what babies feel when their caregivers desert and neglect them.”
Camron’s eyes welled up with tears of recognition. She began rocking her body back and forth to the rhythm of my voice.
“But you were able to mobilize, Camron, because you’re a survivor. You have a kick-ass fairy queen who guided you to safety. Who is she?”
“That’s my birth mom watching over me. She was a survivor. That’s where I get it from,” Camron said.
That session forever changed our relationship. It felt as though we’d traveled together back to Camron’s infancy and seen a glimpse of her little baby self, so helpless and desperate for someone to see her and rescue her. I felt chills seeing the parallel images of adult Camron curled up alone in Andy’s bedroom and baby Camron crying in her crib in the orphanage.
That shared, spontaneous revelation opened a portal through which we entered an entirely different and deeper series of conversations in the months to come. We were able to explore how Camron’s early experiences of losing her birth mother and being neglected in the orphanage had set the groundwork for a fear of vulnerability. Camron, usually such a confident, proactive person, could then understand why she was so immobilized by relational conflict and stopped asking herself why she hadn’t left Andy sooner. Her confidence came back, and grew, and this time it wasn’t built on avoidance.
Camron was ultimately able to look at herself and her history with open eyes because she had the courage to do so. At the same time, I could help her find her kick-ass fairy queen only because during my own personal crisis, I’d moved beyond my reflexive form of therapy and pushed myself to try an unfamiliar treatment that took me deeper into my own pain. Afterward, I could sit with Camron in a different way. That difference is ineffable: it can’t be analyzed or described. We can’t sew into coherence how our own experience of pain and healing allows us to be more present with our clients. But we know it when we feel it. And that feeling, more than any well-understood professional obligation, is the reason that we therapists need to do our own therapy, and in doing so, seek something new.
By Deany Laliotis
Dafna Lender’s case study highlights the centrality of the notion that our current life experiences, for better or worse, are informed by past memories. If the memories were emotionally overwhelming at the time and left unprocessed, they can continue to get triggered by current life circumstances, whether we’re aware of it or not. This is evident at one of Camron’s worst moments of feeling unseen and alone with her boyfriend felt familiar to her emotionally and somatically. In turn, the way she responded to her boyfriend was exactly as if she were her infant self, looking through the slats of her crib, overwhelmed and immobilized. Clearly, Camron was hijacked into the past; she couldn’t help but react that way.
In therapy, however, Camron was not alone. Given the strong therapeutic relationship between she and Lender, she was also able to keep one foot in the present as an adult, while focusing on her experience as an infant in the past, which we refer to in EMDR therapy as dual attention. Combined with the bilateral stimulation of her eyes moving back and forth, Camron was able to reprocess her emotional reaction and the corresponding confusion about her role in both situations. As Lender clarifies, when bad things happen to us as children that involve our caregivers, we automatically conclude that we’re the cause of the badness, which is applied to a current situation when something bad happens, even if we know better as adults. It’s how it feels that informs how we respond. By reprocessing these past disturbing memories, we’re freed to be more completely in the present, where we have greater access to our emotional strengths and resources.
Lender’s article also shines a light on how unprocessed memories in our own histories can inform how we as therapists, regardless of the type of therapy we offer, relate to what our clients are going through, and how we can inadvertently collude with them when we haven’t processed our own attachment wounds. Because Lender had done her own personal work, she was able to extend the invitation for Camron to approach unchartered territory. As an EMDR therapist and trainer myself, I observe therapists struggle with holding the space for pain to be processed, which is hard when it’s being experienced for the first time as part of memory reprocessing. With attachment trauma, it’s usually even more complex, where the client may not be ready to know what’s true about what happened in their childhood or has difficulty accessing emotions altogether. How do we find that sweet spot among soothing, titrating, and the healing that purges the emotional pain and transforms the grief?
Lender’s case is a heartwarming example of how EMDR reprocessing can be transformative. At some point, however, there has to be a reckoning about the mother’s abandonment and how that’s impacted Camron’s ability to be in relationships as an adult and her overall self-esteem as a person. Also, with complex trauma, we know there will be twists and turns in the journey that require courage and determination from both therapist and client. How we help our clients be more fully in the present depends on the degree to which we’re able to accompany them. Lender was able to meet Camron only when she herself had taken a deeper dive into her own work.
The moral to the story is that we can only accompany our clients as far as we’ve gone ourselves. That is the open invitation our clients offer us. So the question isn’t just “Is the client ready,” but “Are we ready?”
ILLUSTRATION BY SALLY WERN COMPORT
Dafna Lender, LCSW, is an international trainer and supervisor for practitioners who work with children and families. She is a certified trainer and supervisor/consultant in both Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy (DDP). Dafna’s expertise is drawn from 25 years of working with families with attachment in many settings: at-risk after school programs, therapeutic foster care, in-home crisis stabilization, residential care and private practice. Dafna’s style, whether as a therapist or teacher, is combining the light-hearted with the profound by bringing a playful, intense and passionate presence to every encounter. Dafna is the co-author of Theraplay: The Practitioner’s Guide (2020). She teaches and supervises clinicians in 15 countries in 3 languages: English, Hebrew and French. Visit her website.
Deany Laliotis, LICSW, is a trainer, clinical consultant, and practitioner of EMDR. She’s the director of training for EMDR Institute, Inc., and is the codirector of EMDR of Greater Washington.