Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy

Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy

by Francine Shapiro
Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy

Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy

by Francine Shapiro


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An accessible user's guide to overcoming trauma from the creator of a scientifically proven form of psychotherapy that has successfully treated millions of people worldwide.

Whether we’ve experienced small setbacks or major traumas, we are all influenced by our memories and by experiences we may not remember or fully understand. Getting Past Your Past offers practical techniques that demystify the human condition and empower readers looking to take charge of their lives.

Shapiro, the creator of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), explains how our personalities develop and why we become trapped into feeling, believing and acting in ways that don't serve us. Through detailed examples and exercises readers will learn to understand themselves, and why the people in their lives act the way they do. Most importantly, readers will also learn techniques to improve their relationships, break through emotional barriers, overcome limitations, and excel in ways taught to Olympic athletes, successful executives, and performers.

An easy conversational style, humor, and fascinating real life stories make it simple to understand the brain science, why we get stuck in various ways and how to achieve real change.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609619954
Publisher: Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 03/26/2013
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 26,670
Product dimensions: 5.64(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.94(d)

About the Author

Dr. Francine Shapiro is the originator and developer of EMDR therapy. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, Director of the EMDR Institute, and founder of the non-profit EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Programs, which provides pro bono training and treatment to underserved populations worldwide. She is a recipient of the International Sigmund Freud Award for Psychotherapy of the City of Vienna, the American Psychological Association Trauma Psychology Division Award for Outstanding Contributions to Practice in Trauma Psychology, and the Distinguished Scientific Achievement in Psychology Award, from the California Psychological Association. As a result of her work, over 70,000 clinicians have treated millions of people during the past 20 years. She is an invited speaker at psychology conferences and universities worldwide, and has authored numerous articles, chapters, and books about EMDR therapy, including the primary text Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: Basic Principles, Protocols and Procedures. Her new book for both laypeople and clinicians is called Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy.

Read an Excerpt



Why would a beautiful, intelligent woman keep picking the wrong men, and then when they try to break up with her, throw herself on the floor clutching their legs, begging them not to leave?

Ben is a successful businessman. Why is he hit with anxiety whenever he has to make a presentation?

Stacey has been trying one therapist after another for years to discover why she has an almost constant feeling of dread, fears of abandonment and an eating disorder. Strangest of all, she has repeated images of the color red and a candle. It makes no sense to her, but it has been going on for as long as she can remember.

Interestingly, there is a simple explanation for their problems that involves how the brain itself functions. In this book, we will explore both the reasons for suffering and what we can do about it.


The truth is we all suffer at one time or another. Situations arise all the time that affect us negatively. But when we continue to have pain long after the experience itself has passed, it is because the hardwiring of our brains influences our minds. Let's try the following experiment so you can see for yourself. I'll give a single sentence and you just notice the first thing that pops into your mind:

Roses are red

The odds are that the first thing to come up was: Violets are blue. For people born in the United States, it's basically the equivalent of a knee- jerk response. This is an important concept, since mental responses are based on physical reactions. Your brain is programmed to respond in the same way as the rest of your body. Regardless of age or gender, when your knee is hit in a certain way your leg will jerk. Similarly, regardless of intention, your mind also reacts automatically. For instance, when is the last time you heard that rhyme? You probably learned it in childhood. So, if you don't live with young children, it was likely many, many years ago. But it came up automatically nonetheless. These types of automatic responses can be wonderful and useful, and show the power of our minds, but they don't always serve us.

Take a look at the sentences themselves. Your response to "Roses are red" wasn't a critical evaluation of its meaning. Your mind just moved along with a response as if it was true. But roses aren't always red. They are also yellow, pink, purple and most any color you can think of. However, that unexamined sentence looks just fine at first glance. And how about the second one: Violets are blue. Are they really? No, actually they are purple. But the line will come up whether it's true or not. Now, probably the sentence didn't cause you any kind of distress. But that same type of automatic response also causes a wide range of problems that disrupt happiness, families and communities. The same mind/brain processes that allow us to recognize a rhyme, or sing along with a tune we haven't heard in 20 years, are the ones that can also drown us in the misery of anxiety, depression, heartache and at times physical pain.

The nursery rhyme has even more to offer. Remember the line that comes after "Violets are blue"? "Sugar is sweet and so are you." Lovely sentiment, and it also comes to mind automatically. But as we all know, while sugar is surely sweet, people are lots more complicated. Everyone is a mixture of sweet, sour and every flavor and variation under the sun. At some point, everyone is angry, sad, jealous, bitter, hurt, insecure, happy or sweet. And when we are, we act accordingly. One moment we cherish the one we are with and cover them with kisses. A day later we may explode and yell at them in frustration. So, basically, some of what we've learned growing up is true, but just as with all the other experiences we've had through childhood, other things are not. Often as youngsters we can't tell the difference, and what we take to be real—such as believing we are inferior because we are bullied or rejected, or thinking we are responsible for our parents' divorce—are really just misperceptions. Nevertheless, these experiences can have effects that come up automatically throughout the rest of our lives, outside our conscious control.

Every experience we've had in our lives has become a building block in our inner world, governing our reactions to everything and every person we encounter. When we "learn" something, the experience is physically stored within networks of brain cells called "neurons." These networks actually form our unconscious mind, determining how our brain interprets the world around us and governing how we feel from moment to moment. These memories include experiences that took place years ago, and our conscious mind is often unaware that they have any impact on us at all. But since the memories are physically stored in the brain, they can pop up outside our control in response to "Roses are red," just as they color our view of every new situation we encounter. They can cause us to feel unattractive when we're not. Depressed when everyone else around us is happy. And they can leave us feeling heartsick if someone leaves us—even if we know consciously that the person is terrible for us and continuing the relationship would be a big mistake. Basically, many of the feelings and actions that undermine our happiness are symptoms that stem from this memory system that forms the unconscious.

Let's take the first case from page 1:

Why would a beautiful, intelligent woman keep picking the wrong men, and then when they try to break up with her, throw herself on the floor clutching their legs, begging them not to leave?

Justine has no problems getting boyfriends. Her problem is keeping them. Now 25 years old, she generally picks men with an "edge" who are emotionally unavailable. Then every time she gets into a relationship, she begins acting clingy and her boyfriend eventually breaks up with her. When this happens, she begins to cry hysterically, falling to her knees and putting her arms around the man's legs, pleading with him not to leave her. In therapy, the cause of this was tracked back to something that happened on a Sunday evening when she was 6 years old. Justine was living with her parents in a two-story house. On that night there was a severe thunderstorm, causing her to become very frightened. Upstairs in her bedroom, she began crying and yelling for her mommy and daddy to come to her. However, they were in the kitchen on the first floor. The storm drowned out her screams, and they didn't hear her. They never came to her rescue and she eventually cried herself to sleep.

How could something as common as this be responsible for her problems? All of us have experienced loud storms sometime in childhood, but only some of us will remain negatively affected by it. We'll go into the detailed reasons for this in later chapters. For now, it's sufficient to know that when negative reactions and behaviors in the present can be tracked directly back to an earlier memory, we define those memories as "unprocessed"—meaning that they are stored in the brain in a way that still holds the emotions, physical sensations and beliefs that were experienced earlier in life. That stormy night Justine was intensely frightened as a child, and had the belief that she was in danger. Her parents didn't come when she cried for them, which also gave her the feeling that she would be abandoned if she really needed them. This memory, stored in her brain with the intense fear she experienced at 6 years old, is stimulated whenever a boyfriend breaks up with her. At this point, she no longer functions as a mature and successful 25-yearold, but instead as a frightened little girl left alone in the dark. We can see the connection, given that the storm and a breakup are both associated with aloneness and abandonment. As such, she unconsciously experiences the breakup as "being in danger."

We experience these types of connections all the time. It's generally the reason for all of the characteristics we love or hate in ourselves and the people around us. It's simply part of the way the brain functions in order to make sense of the world. But identifying the memory connections is just the first step in changing how we think, act or feel. It's not just understanding where something comes from, but also knowing what to do about it that's important. In the course of this book we will be exploring how to identify the memories that underlie personal and relationship problems; what we can do to help manage them on our own; and how to recognize when further professional help would be useful.

We'll also explore the workings of the mind—the intricate connections that form our consciousness—through stories contributed by some of the more than 70,000 clinicians worldwide who practice a form of therapy known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Millions of people have been helped by the therapy over the past 20 years, and many of them are giving detailed reports in this book in order to help "demystify" the change process. As research has shown, major changes can take place within even one EMDR reprocessing session. The clients' reports allow us a "window into the brain," since the connections they made answer so many questions about why we react to the world in different ways.

EMDR therapy targets the unprocessed memories that contain the negative emotions, sensations and beliefs. By activating the brain's information processing system (which will be explained in Chapter 2), the old memories can then be "digested." Meaning what is useful is learned, what's useless is discarded, and the memory is now stored in a way that is no longer damaging. For instance, Justine's clinician focused on the thunderstorm along with the feeling she had of being alone and in danger. Once the memory of the thunderstorm was processed, the childhood sensations of terror disappeared and were replaced by the feeling of safety, and the belief that as an adult she could take care of herself. Along with that, the boyfriend problem resolved as her new sense of self resulted in her making different romantic choices. Of course there would be more memories that might have to be dealt with if Justine's parents had been generally abusive or neglectful. But regardless of the number of memories involved, basically we are entering into the person's "unconscious" mind with this form of therapy, in a way that can allow insights, connections and change to occur rapidly within the reprocessing sessions.


When most people think of the unconscious, they think of psychoanalysis and movies that involve a Freudian view of psychic conflicts, and symbolic dreams and gestures. From the psychoanalytic perspective it generally takes years of talk therapy and "working through" to gain insight and mastery over forces that are hidden from view. This form of therapy can have great value. But Freud published first in 1900, and many things have changed since then. In the past century there have been new advances in neurobiological technologies that have expanded our understanding of what these "forces" actually are. The examination of the unconscious we are dealing with in this book is one that is based on the workings of the brain itself. Through an understanding of how experiences lay the physical groundwork for our emotional and physical reactions, we can determine how our "stuck" points and knee-jerk mental responses came about and what to do about them.

For instance, let's take the second case:

Ben is a successful businessman. Why is he hit with anxiety whenever he has to make a presentation? Here's how he described it:

"As long as I can remember, I've had anxiety about doing any performance in front of a group of people. My palms sweat, my voice becomes unpredictable, my heart beats fast and I have thoughts like, 'I'm an idiot. I can't do this. Everyone will hate me.' It sometimes felt as though my life was at risk. Sounds ridiculous, but it was so true. As I went through school, there were many times in the normal course of events when I had to make public presentations. In my professional career the same thing happened. I always made it through these events, but not happily. In fact, I suffered before and after every event, and tediously went over every detail with my loved ones, which, as you might imagine, did not delight them. No matter what I tried, nothing seemed to fix this problem. I tried many types of therapy. Sometimes it seemed a little better, but it always came roaring back."

Ben entered into EMDR therapy and used a variety of procedures that we'll learn in this book to identify the source of his problem and change his reactions. Here's what he discovered: "It turns out the cause was something that happened to me when I was no more than 3 1/2 years old. I was walking with my grandfather on his farm in western North Carolina. My memory here is as if I was looking up, like a very small child. I don't remember chattering away to my grandfather, but if family stories can be trusted, I probably was. We met a strange man on the road. He was old, bent, angry looking, with very hairy nostrils. He said to my grandfather in his mountain drawl, 'Well, howdy, if I had a youngun' talked as much as that un, I'd drown him in the creek.' I slipped behind my grandfather's denim-covered leg, peered up the man's nostrils and shut up. I knew that unwanted kittens were in fact 'drowned in the creek.' It did not seem safe to chatter in front of strangers."

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