Getting Past Your Past: Take Control Of Your Life With Self-Help...

Getting Past Your Past: Take Control Of Your Life With Self-Help Techniques From EMDR Therapy By Francine Shapiro

By Eta Feuerman-Yaeger, LCSW

This book will help you:

  •  Learn how unprocessed memories affect your behavior
  •  Utilize EMDR techniques to heal

I have heard about EMDR for a while now as a modality of therapy that is especially helpful for trauma, but it always seemed like a mystery. This book, written by the creator of EMDR, elucidates how it works and how you can use some of it on your own. EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, where stimulating certain eye movements and brain patterns helps shift emotions and perspective.

In a healthy scenario, memories are “processed” in the brain, where an individual can integrate and digest events into a functional narrative. You may have something frustrating or negative happen, but you can integrate it as “The other person was just in a bad mood,” or “I’m usually good at this, but this part I need to work on.”

However, certain events may overwhelm the brain and the body, such as a traumatic event or a triggering event, and the memory remains unprocessed. An unprocessed memory may cause distress by triggering intense emotions, flashbacks, or beliefs. For example, you may have felt ashamed or unloved, which may have led you to have a core belief that you are unworthy or unlovable. Furthermore, a recent memory may become linked up with an earlier, foundational memory, creating a string of reactions that may or may not be rational or helpful anymore. You know a memory is unprocessed when it creates a sharp reaction in you when you are remembering it, or alternatively, you spend energy avoiding it because of the painful reaction it evokes in you.

Shapiro discusses how much of our behavior and reaction patterns stem from 10-20 touchstone memories, which are the earliest remembered events that influence current symptoms and problems. These memories are encoded in all sorts of ways, some of which may be unnecessarily intense. Your reaction made sense for the understanding and resources you had at the time, and you are not to blame for how it affected you. Certain emotions or cognitions become attached to certain triggers due to the pivotal event, rational or not. You can process them with new eyes and rationality to attach a healthier cognition to it. You can choose to look at touchstone memories with adult eyes and mind now. Beliefs and emotions that may have felt intense, completely true, or painful don’t always have to be.

Take a recent event that is bothering you now.
Notice what emotions or cognitions you have about it

Shapiro suggests a few things to help yourself cope with and possibly change the effect of certain memories for yourself. Firstly, being able to soothe yourself when coming up against a painful emotion is paramount. Shapiro guides the reader to attach a relaxed feeling to a visualization so that you can bring up the visualization as needed. Additionally, the Butterfly Hug technique is a way to nurture and ground yourself when facing difficult memories and cognitions. Butterfly Hug: Put your arms around yourself with your hands on the opposite shoulder, and slowly tap your shoulders alternately.

Take a recent event that is bothering you now. Notice what emotions or cognitions you have about it. Let your mind drift and see what comes; another older memory that evokes similar emotions or cognitions in you may come up. You can keep going back in time until you reach the earliest memory that triggers that specific emotion or cognition. Looking at that memory, you can notice what led you to certain beliefs or perspective about yourself and reexamine them for truthfulness and helpfulness.

For example, an individual may have experienced as a child many academic difficulties. They may have memories filled with negative and shameful connotations about their intellectual abilities because they didn’t perform in the typical way in school. Furthermore, they may have specific memories where teachers or parents were disappointed in them or rebuking them. This isn’t the parent/teacher’s fault either; sometimes a memory becomes encoded in a certain way just because a person attaches a significance to it due to a misunderstanding or misperception. For example, as a child, the individual may have interpreted their parent as withholding a hug one day due to getting a low grade, when really it may have happened because of something else. Either way, an individual may (incorrectly) deduce a self-belief such as “I am incompetent” that may follow them way into the future despite other successes. This belief would have them constantly questioning themselves needlessly. By reprocessing this memory, the individual may find that their childhood perspective was incorrect or skewed, and they can create a new, more helpful self-belief.

Shapiro stresses that certain memories may be too painful or overwhelming to face without professional help. It is essential that each person listen carefully to themselves to figure out what they can handle on their own.

Reading this book guided me to notice the memories that often pop into my head, the ones that cause a visceral reaction in me every time. I never really thought of them as important, but now it is obvious that memories that are so present, and even still make me cringe or gasp, must be significant. I chose to pay some attention to the memories and look at them with my current more mature (hopefully!) perspective to see what reaction the person I am now would have. Turns out, I ended up laughing and thinking that my past memory was more funny than cringe-worthy.

I recommend this book for you to learn what less-than-functional memories have been fueling you and create a new perspective for yourself.

Eta Feuerman-Yaeger, LCSW, is a child and family play therapist with a private practice in Queens. Check out her website at