Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR is a now well established and supported form of psychotherapy, recommended by the World Health Organization for the treatment of trauma, such has been it’s proven effectiveness. Can it be used for treating victims of psychopathic abuse?
EMDR can most definitely be used to help people recover from psychopathic abuse and in many ways it is an ideal treatment as it allows the processing of large amounts of traumatic memories in a relatively short space of time.
Let readers be in no doubt that the kind of psychological and emotional abuse that psychopaths inflict on their targets is indeed traumatic and leaves long lasting problems for survivors.
There is no doubt that many psychopaths inflict deliberate and prolonged trauma on their victims; they fill up their target’s psychological “distress cup” on purpose for their own internal amusement and entertainment.
This may explain the “numbness” and emptiness that many survivors feel for months or even years after the psychopath has left their lives. It is as though their mind has shut down to protect against any further trauma, with the unfortunate result that the person is often left with a pervasive psychological flatness and cannot seem to get enjoyment out of the things they once did.
EMDR can help with this by stimulating the mind to process and “digest” the unresolved trauma and distress the psychopath wilfully inflicted on their victims. By following a well defined and structured procedure, EMDR can help survivors of psychopathuc abuse fully recover from their trauma and get back to living fully again. Let’s look at how EMDR can do this in more detail.
See also here for an account of someone who has successfully used EMDR to recover from psychopathic abuse.
The Traumatic Effects of Psychopathic Abuse
Let us make no bones about it – psychopaths most definitely inflict trauma on a good number of their victims. This is not a case of a person being in a bad mood at times or miscommunication or some other psychological cliche. A psychopath is wilfully and intentionally looking to harm a person psychologically over an extended period of time. There is planning and intent there. Any survivor of psychopathic abuse will confirm this.
In order to cause the maximum possible damage, psychopaths will often build up a person’s trust over an extended period of time, creating a manufactured soulmate and walking and talking in step with the victim during a prolonged “honeymoon period”.
This then makes the following devalue and discard all the more devastating and traumatic, since the victim has bought into an fraudulent image the psychopath was projecting. Sometimes this can have been going on for months or even years so it can completely turn a person’s life upside down.
They now need to question everything they thought they knew about humanity and the world. Their “safe world view” has been shattered.
Add to this the complete ruthlessness and lack of empathy on the part of a psychopath and you have a recipe for potentially deep and long lasting trauma in the victim. Without any conscience, empathy or compassion there are no limits to the lengths a psychopath will go to undermine and psychologically destroy their targets.
They will continue to chip away at a person and inflict more and more psychological distress. They won’t stop; they will just keep going as without empathy there are no emotional consequences for the effect of their actions on others.
Psychopaths lack the emotional fail-safes that the rest of us have and so ever more outrageous behaviour is a characteristic of their relationships with targets, particularly in the latter stages.
This can leave survivors with a whole host of PTSD style symptoms after the psychopath has left. Some of the more common ones include:
- Irritability and mood swings
- Loss of appetite
- Lack of trust or faith in people
- Psychological numbness and emptiness
- Unable to get enjoyment or pleasure out of things they used to.
- Low self esteem
- Loss of identity
- Angry flashbacks at the psychopaths behaviour.
These are all clear signs and symptoms of trauma and this needs to influence the way survivors are treated. Conventional talk therapy can help but often doesn’t get the job done, or else is painfully slow in helping the person make progress.
The most likely reason for this is that trauma remains physiologically stored in the body once experienced. Just talking over intellectual memories of what happened is not guaranteed to help access this trauma. Similarly cognitive therapy techniques often focus on installing newer, healthier beliefs on top of the trauma.
The problem here is that the trauma itself is remaining un-accessed and un-processed. Until the feelings, beliefs and bodily sensations associated with a traumatic experience are actually accessed on a full physiological, visceral level, they will remain stored in the body and unprocessed, no matter how much one talks verbally about them or tries to install positive beliefs on top.
As the saying goes, “What you can feel, you can heal” and this is certainly true with recovery from psychopathic abuse and any other traumatic experience. This is where EMDR can come in as a much more effective therapy at fully resolving trauma. Let’s look in more detail at why.
Psychopaths can leave their victims with long lasting PTSD style symptoms and a shattered sense of self and identity. EMDR can help repair this damage.
How EMDR Can Help
EMDR is a therapy specifically designed to help reconnect a person neurologically and physiologically with trauma they have experienced and stimulate the mind to fully process this trauma in a way it couldn’t do at the initial time it happened.
It is a way of re-accessing and re-working the trauma and then installing healthier, more adaptive beliefs in place of the initial memory. This is in contrast to other forms of therapy which sometimes try to install new beliefs in the person without having first accessed and processed the underlying trauma that certain beliefs are attached to.
In this sense it can be seen as a more thorough and fundamental way of dealing with traumatic memories and events. It is pulling out trauma by the root instead of trying to address symptoms of trauma in the form of depression, anxiety or other psychological disorders.
The process itself works through a well defined set of procedures in which the eye movements are actually only a small part. The therapist and client will firstly draw up a history of the client’s life in terms of traumatic experience, grouping them into general classes of experience such as humiliation, bullying, ridicule, rejection and so on.
This will include any abuse the psychopath inflicted but may also go back further to other memories in a person’s childhood and adolescence which are still unresolved. Memories which are of the same general class or type are often physiologically related and so working with one experience can actually mean working with a whole class of experiences.
Once a definitive account of the traumatic memories the psychopath (and others) inflicted on the person is drawn up, the therapist will pick out some key standout experiences and attempt to tap the person back in neurologically to these experiences. They will attempt to rekindle, as best they can, the same physical sensations the person felt at the time the abuse was happening.
Whilst this may seem at first blush like a dangerous thing to do, accessing the trauma on a real, visceral level is crucial to the next step of actually processing it. Once re-accessed, the therapist will then use hand movements or some other form of bilateral stimulation to give the client something else to focus on externally, whilst also focusing internally on the re-accessed trauma.
This process of tapping a person back into trauma internally, whilst also providing some outer stimulus for the eyes to track, is now well proven to stimulate the mind/brain to process and “digest” the traumatic memory to resolution.
It appears that giving the mind/brain something else to focus on alongside the initial trauma causes the intensity of the memory to “blur” or lessen, taking the emotional “sting” out of it. When successful, EMDR therapy reduces the power a traumatic memory has over a person by removing the powerful emotional and physiological dynamics which are attached to it.
The person is now able to call up the traumatic memory, but is now no longer bothered by it to the same extent they may have been before. They feel unburdened and liberated from the traumatic memory and are better able to move on from it psychologically and leave the past where it belongs.
Following on from the processing, the therapist will also help the client install newer, more adaptive and positive beliefs about the experience, so they now have a sense of power and control over it which may have been lacking at the initial time it happened.
This is especially important for victims of psychopathic abuse since one of the main goals of psychopaths and other toxic people is to undermine and devalue victims and make them feel powerless in situations.
This is why they put so much effort into “gas-lighting” and other mind games and this part of the EMDR process can help the survivor install more positive, self empowering beliefs about themselves and rework the experience in the sense of putting blame and responsibility back where it belongs and revisiting it with a sense of power and control.
This is a very brief, thumbnail sketch of the EMDR process and does not cover every aspect of it. For more detail please visit the EMDR Healing blog for more articles and resources on the topic.
The Benefits of EMDR
The benefits of EMDR over other forms of therapy in treating survivors of psychopathic abuse, or any form of trauma, are usually clear to see for anyone who undergoes the process. We will list a couple of key ones here.
Firstly, EMDR is resolving trauma on it’s own terms and not merely trying to place newer beliefs on top of the trauma. In this sense it can be argued to be delivering a more fundamental form of healing. Forming newer, more adaptive beliefs in relation to trauma is a part of the process but only after the trauma itself has been adequately processed and “digested”.
This is in contrast to other forms of therapy such as cognitive behaviour therapy, which immediately try to place newer beliefs on top of the trauma without resolving the trauma itself. In this sense they can be argued to be addressing symptom and not cause. EMDR looks to access the trauma on a full physiological and psychosomatic level and is therefore pulling it out by the root.
Secondly, EMDR is a powerful and fast acting form of therapy. It is capable of producing rapid and cathartic resolution of trauma within an amazingly short space of time. Results can sometimes happen within minutes and most often the process itself requires far fewer sessions and seems to resolve trauma in a far more effective way than other forms of therapy.
Of course the process does vary between individuals and some more complex traumas may require longer to be fully resolved. However there is now no doubt that the EMDR process itself is extremely effective in dealing with trauma when properly administered.
Thirdly, EMDR is a very efficient form of therapy. What we mean by this is that there appears to be a Ripple Effect whereby resolving the key standout experiences within a certain class of experience (eg. humiliation) tends to have a ripple or flow on healing effect to all other similar experiences.
This means that you don’t have to work with every single negative experience the psychopath inflicted on you; you just need to work with the key standout experiences within each category and this will have a knock on effect in processing all other related experiences within that class or group of experiences.
This is especially important in this context since psychopaths will often step up their outrageous behaviour and boundary violations with ever more intensity and frequency and this can inflict distress on victims faster than they can even process it.
With EMDR you don’t have to pick back through every single experience; you just have to successfully work the key ones to resolution and this will have a flow on effect to all related experiences since they tend to be physiologically stored on the same pathways in the brain. Resolving one or a few key experiences can resolve many other similar ones so the process is very positive and “glass half full”.
How to Find Out More
If you are a survivor of psychopathic abuse and you want to find out more about how the process works, then a great resource is the presentation we have embedded below on the EMDR process by Dr James Alexander, an EMDR therapist based in Australia.
He goes into detail about how the EMDR process works and the benefits it brings and is a great introductory video for someone considering the treatment. See also his part 1 video which goes into a background of trauma.
Overall, EMDR is an immensely positive form of therapy which has received very good feedback from both practitioners and patients alike in it’s ability to effectively resolve trauma. It allows trauma sufferers to get back to living again as opposed to just surviving and we recommend survivors of toxic relationships look more into it as an effective form of healing.
See also the EMDR Healing blog for more resources and articles on the topic. The Find a Therapist page can help you find a qualified EMDR practitioner in your area, with links to directories for North America, The UK, Europe and Commonwealth Countries.
See also this article for an personal account of someone using EMDR to overcome psychopathic abuse.