Sitting on the Floor of a Childhood Home

It’s one of the most intense EMDR targets I’ve encountered in working with clients.  It’s also one of the most productive.  There is often a big loneliness that floods in when doing attachment-focused EMDR.  She remembers the awful loneliness of that time–usually between the ages of three and ten.  Inside reprocessing she usually finds herself sitting on the floor of a childhood home, feeling all the big and horrible things that the little girl felt.  This target is different than the other targets we have worked on.  It’s not a memory exactly.  It’s geographic.  It’s intensely local, but it’s about everything.  It’s what gets triggered when things get triggered.

In the first attachment-focused reprocessing session or two, she may not know for sure who is responsible for this terrible feeling.  She may think that she has done something terribly wrong or that she is horribly defective.  She may hate that little girl for wanting something so deeply that she could not have–and for the inability to not want it.  As you attune to her, you can feel a little bit of it.  It’s black and horrible and cosmic in scale. Once she digs into it fully, it is not uncommon for reprocessing to stop and the client to report that there is no accessible path out.

It’s helpful to have a resource prepared for these types of sessions.  Someone needs to be able to give that little girl a tiny bit of what she needs in order for sessions to end okay.  More often than not, the grown self cannot bring any comfort or information at first.  Remember, the grown self probably resents that little girl for having all these needs.  I often work with clients to create an aunt-like, grandmother-like, or parent of a childhood friend-like person who can bring attention and affection to the activated child state.  The helper figure can be spiritual or magical.  It should be nurturing and also have defensive powers. The impossibility of it does not matter.  We help create this resource because there is so little precedent for it.  It allows sessions to end in ways that aren’t awful.

When filling in/tapping in the characteristics of this helper figure, we borrow characteristics from real people (if such people exist or existed).  We borrow characteristics or warm sensations only and loan them into an imaginary personae.  Maybe the client’s great aunt could be warm–we borrow the sensation of the great aunt’s hug and put just that quality or sensation inside the helper figure.  Maybe a neighbor once made cookies with her–we tap in the sensations of smell, taste, and connection.  If the client has her own children, we can also tap in a somatic memory of the client holding and nurturing an infant child (as long as this isn’t triggering for some reason).  We leave everything else out.  We use what we can.  Whatever is attentive and comforting that the client can access gets put into that helping figure.

I have found that no other resource works as well as a helper figure when the target reduces to a horrible black roux of childhood loneliness.  I sometimes spent a third of a session helping the client create an effective helper figure.  Ironically, we may only need her for a session or two.  We call on her when absolutely needed at the end of sessions or after the client has been “stuck” on the floor of the childhood home for several awful sets and cannot find a path out.

Calling in the helper figure to give attention or nurturing to the young child often creates an intense release of that loneliness.  Imagining even the possibility of it seems to help open up a new pathway that allows other good things to transit later.  By the second session around these targets, she is much more likely to be able to send in her grown/adult self as a resource to comfort the child or bring information to the child that is helpful.   This allows those initial sessions to end in ways that aren’t horrible.  By the third or fourth session, this connection and communication between adult and child self may happen automatically and seamlessly.  One of my clients was able to imagine taking the little girl with her permanently, so she would never be that kind of lonely again (this was a real turning point in her therapy and occurred after just a few reprocessing sessions around childhood attachment targets).  Another client associated that awful loneliness with the persistent darkness of the childhood home.  The adult self was able to walk with the child through the home, slowly opening blinds and turning on lights (a key moment of healing between two estranged parts, following the same pathway that the helper figure took just two sessions before).

Early attachment stuff deeply severs the client’s road or prevents parts of it from forming.  You may need to be more directive than normal in making sure the client is able to find some way out once she connects with those targets because the clients lacks the adaptive stuff that the maladaptive stuff needs to link into.  Because the client initially struggles to bring in good things for the child state, it’s the way out that is the problem (the last half of the session).   As a resource, helper figures create the possibility of a way out because of the things that they bring in–things that the adult self may not be able to initially provide to the child self.  Clients will turn that imaginary footpath into a highway for deep healing and deep communication.  The voice of the helper figure often transforms in just a session or two into the client’s own voice.  This alchemy is astonishing and beautiful to see.  And when it happens, this deep healing happens everywhere and all at once.  And, the core of that can happen in just three or four sessions for some clients.

3 thoughts on “Sitting on the Floor of a Childhood Home

  1. What do you think of the therapist as the helper figure? I’m in schema therapy though my therapist is familiar with EMDR as well but can only do EMDR under supervision. We’ve been doing imagery rescripting with the therapist as the helper figure. In time, it will be Adult Me and my therapist, then Adult Me alone. Curious to hear your thoughts! Greatly appreciate how you demystify EMDR for me!

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    1. I like the idea of including features or traits of the therapist in the helper figure. Often, the therapist is one of the only people who has deeply attended to the client, so using this is a good idea, particularly if it’s the client’s idea.

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