Last time I wrote about EMDR Therapy. Explaining what it is and how it is administered.
I promised in my next post, I would share what happened during one of my personal EMDR sessions, to give you more of an idea how it works.
The particular event I targeted in the following session is not as traumatic as some others I have been working on. However, this particular one was resolved in one session.
My senior year in high school, I started at a new school. This was my third high school. Growing up my family moved often because my father was in construction. We moved the summer before, right after my junior year finished, moving from Oklahoma to Virginia.
I met a boy my age over the summer. He had asked me out. His idea for a date was to go dove hunting. That sounded completely horrifying, so I declined. I had the feeling I had just stepped into a completely different universe.
Basically, the first day of school, I knew next to no one. This was also the first school I attended that had any black students. I grew up mostly in the mid-west. I had always attended public schools, but, for whatever reason, I had never been in a class with someone of a different color. My ignorance increased my anxiety.
About halfway through the year, I was feeling fairly comfortable. I had made lots of friends, of every color, and strove very hard to be well liked.
Then the ranking of students came out. This ranking was based on overall GPA scores. Students would be informed their rank in comparison with all the other students in their grade. Seems a really stupid thing to do, but it was the eighties, and there were lots of stupid things back then.
The ranking wasn’t posted anywhere. The administration had the homeroom teacher put your rank on a piece of paper and hand it to you.
My homeroom class happened to be Physics. A lot of my close friends were in that class. Natural curiosity had everyone asking everyone else what their rank was.
I turned my paper over to see the number one on it. A boy named Scott was the first to ask my rank. I handed him my paper. He immediately looked over to Tom and yelled, “Tom, she’s the one that knocked you out of the top spot”.
I was friends with both Scott and Tom. Scott’s tone was one of pride at being the first one to figure out who had dropped Tom out of the #1 spot. Tom, to his credit, was very laid back and didn’t really care. He later told me that he was glad it was me, and not some “nerdy-type” of person.
However, turns out several people in the room weren’t very happy about it at all.
By the time I got to my next class, it seemed like everyone knew. Some kids would come directly to me and ask if I was #1. They also didn’t bother to hide their disappointment when I affirmed that I was.
Towards the end of the school year, an assembly was held to announce the Salutatorian and Valedictorian of the graduating class. The principal pulled the top ten students up onto the stage.
He was holding a yardstick, and he said the first student he held the stick over was the Salutatorian. He paced several times back and forth behind us and finally stopped and held the stick over Tom’s head. Everyone in the auditorium loudly cheered their approval.
He said the next student he stopped behind would be the Valedictorian. He began pacing. My friends with me on stage were smiling knowingly at me. Sensing I would not get as loud of a reaction as Tom, and horrified that the applause would be less, I was hoping the stage floor would open up and swallow me whole. Then the principal stopped behind me. I should not have worried about the level of applause I would receive, because there was barely any. Instead, the announcement was greeted with a staggered chorus of boos.
I turned to look at the principal, who looked quizzically at me, and then once the boos grew louder, quickly escorted all of us off stage. He didn’t address the students. The assembly just ended.
The next day, a boy named MB, started a petition against my being Valedictorian. Most of the students had been going to school with Tom since middle school, and they wanted him to be Valedictorian. MB gathered 70 signatures, which for a graduating class of about a 100, was pretty significant.
He then took the petition to the lone guidance counselor. She was an older lady who didn’t mince words. She informed him that he had wasted his time. It wasn’t up for debate. The person with the best GPA is the Valedictorian.
At graduation, I gave my speech to more than a few hostile faces in the crowd.
Selecting an Image
So to begin processing this whole series of events, I needed to pick a particular picture that encapsulated it for me. I picked turning around to the principal and the look he had on his face.
The therapist asked me to rate on a scale from 1 to 10, 10 being the most distressing, how distressing this made me feel. Remembering how I wanted the stage to open up and swallow me, along with various incidences of hostility I faced afterward, I rated it a 9.
She then asked where in my body I was feeling the distress. I noted that my shoulders were hunched, like I was cowering, and my breathing had become more shallow.
Tapping Session One
After a deep breath, I closed my eyes and crossed my arms in front of me and began alternately tapping on each shoulder while focusing on the picture in my mind.
I zeroed in on the principal. I remember the look on his face. It was a look of surprise and possibly accusation. As if he was saying, what did you do to deserve these boos. I could feel my face start to heat up. I felt an overwhelming anger at the principal for not defending me in any way.
The therapist said to stop. I shared with her my building anger.
Tapping Session Two
After another deep breath, I begin the tapping again, this time focusing on the anger I’m felt towards the principal.
I wanted to really focus on reading his face. He looked shocked, not accusatory, as he did in the last session. I sensed he was unsure of how to proceed, baffled by the intensity of the reaction of the students. He wasn’t expecting that at all. For all he knew, I was very well liked. He ushered us quickly off the stage.
He showed no hesitation in directing us off the stage once the initial shock wore off. He was very much in control then. He must have felt very strongly this was the right thing to do. He ended the assembly before the kids who were upset could grow any braver in their discontent.
I start thinking about the fact that he didn’t say anything to the students. He didn’t defend me. I try to picture him doing it and what he would have said. I come to the conclusion that this would have actually made me even more uncomfortable. At that moment, I didn’t need anymore attention directed towards me.
Yes, to leave me on stage and make me the center of attention by reprimanding the students for their reaction, definitely, would have just made matters worse. And if he thought I deserved it, he could have left me there to take it. So I think I’ve misread him. He did what he thought was best for me at the time.
The therapist says to stop. We discuss this new perspective of the principal, and I inform her the anger I felt for him previously was gone. Now being replaced with appreciation and gratitude.
Tapping Session Three
I start again. This time focusing on my new feelings towards the principal. My mind takes me to being back on stage and looking out over all the angry students, and for some reason, MB’s face jumps out of the crowd. He’s angry. HIs face is menacing and his death stare is directed right at me. I start to physically feel threatened and start hunching over again.
The therapist stops me. I tell her what I’m thinking about, but this isn’t a true memory. I know for a fact that I never looked out to the students booing me. I was too scared to look up.
She says that okay. I need to just allow my mind to take me where it wants to.
Tapping Session Four
I begin focusing on MB’s face. Then I just see MB. He’s not angry, we aren’t even in the auditorium anymore. I’m just seeing him standing in an abyss. What do I know about him, really? Before the ranking, MB was actually pretty friendly to me. He just missed out in being in the top ten himself. He used to always look polished and well groomed. Attractive. Several years later I learned that he was gay.
The rural Virginia town we lived in was not somewhere you wanted to be gay. Lots of friends and acquaintances I know from then denied themselves and just pretended they weren’t.
That would make me angry. I get how distressing that is. Moving around alot, I learned coping mechanisms that allowed me to easily read the people around me and conform into something they found pleasing. It was a way to cope with the moves. It did nothing to help me understand myself.
In addition to missing out on the top ten, MB was seeing only one black person up on stage when the school as a whole had more black students than white. I’m starting to understand MB’s anger. I don’t think he’s angry at me, he’s angry about EVERYTHING. And I cannot blame him for the way he feels.
The therapist stops me. We talk about this new perspective on MB. Yes, he launched a misguided attack against me, but now I believe it had very little to do with me.
Tapping Session Five
At this point the hour is almost up, so we do one last session returning the focus to the original image, that of the principal’s face when I was booed.
I’m feeling no animosity at the principal. What could he have said to them that would have made one difference on how they felt?
My mind actually jumps to many years later. I had been working several years at a gaming company. I was considering a job offer as an administrative assistant for a magazine. Many people at the gaming company knew about the offer.
We are all in an auditorium, attending a company wide meeting for the gaming company. The CEO is conducting an open question segment at the end, when an employee asks if I’m leaving. The CEO threw the question over to me as he didn’t know if I had made a decision or not.
Coincidentally, earlier that morning, a director of another division within the gaming company had offered me a position under him. I hadn’t told anyone my decision to stay, not even the director who had offered it. With everyone in the company’s eyes on me to give an answer I said “Yes, I’m staying.” To this announcement, I received a huge round of applause and cheering.
The therapist stops me and asks me to rate my distress of the target event again. I rate it a 0. It doesn’t make me upset at all. Now when I think of that day, it’s not stressful. I was still Valedictorian. I still gave a speech. I lived through it and overcame it. And many years later, I did receive the reaction I wanted.
We ended the session there.
In other sessions, when the work is particularly hard, I will do a “happy place” image before leaving the office. Sometimes you need this to stop negative imagery from staying with you outside of therapy.
But after this particular session, I wasn’t feeling any negative emotions.
Hopefully sharing that experience shows how EMDR therapy works. If you are feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope on your own, regarding anything at all, please, seek out professional help.