I have been a psychotherapist for more than 2 decades. Over time I have seen many amazing things as well as some very boring things. The amazing things happened when the client was able to tap into a part of self that was deeper than the thinking mind. In those times we were amazed by the ability of the human system to move toward healing, and it seemed to happen when we were able to get the thinking mind out of the way to allow the process to happen.

I am now a trainer, teaching mental health professionals an approach we call S.A.F.E. EMDR, Somatic and Attachment Focused EMDR, and I am seeing that it isn’t just the client’s thinking mind that can be an obstacle to the natural healing process, just as often the psychotherapist’s thinking mind can stop the amazing process of healing.

Now I am teaching teachers, we have many consultants and trainers who are teaching our S.A.F.E. EMDR method. This new phase is exciting and challenging. I’m seeing how this top down way of working is just as ineffective in consultation and training as it is in psychotherapy. This isn’t necessarily a surprise to me, but more of a deepening awareness of the challenge we face and how much we as a culture ignore the beauty and wisdom of our bodies.

Top down verses bottom up refers to the approach that various therapies take in assisting client’s to heal. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, CBT, has been a widely accepted approach to psychotherapy that is a top down approach. The theory is if we can change the way we think we can change the way we feel, behave, react and relate. This thinking approach does work but falls short in many cases, especially those cases in which the client has experienced trauma or has very early patterns that are fueling the current symptoms.

The S.A.F.E. approach was influenced by Francine Shapiro’s EMDR Therapy and informed by Pat Ogden’s Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Both EMDR and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy are very effective “bottom up” approaches to psychotherapy. Both of these therapies have specific ways of accessing and working with the body as well as other aspects of the human system to assist in setting the conditions for the client to access and process information from those lower parts of the brain. The end result is freedom from old patterns and experiences.

For years I saw this change happening in clients with a sense of amazement and we didn’t have the research to back up what I was seeing in my office. It looked like a miracle happening, which was a red flag for many who were skeptical of what looked like a “quick fix”, it seemed too good to be true. However, now we have substantial research to show that EMDR does work and it is so much more than a quick fix. In fact, the effects of EMDR have been shown to produce lasting change and substantial healing for multitudes of people all over the world.

Since we have research and EMDR is an empirically sound way of working in psychotherapy, it is becoming more mainstream and accepted by the more conservative psychotherapists and groups.

Now we are seeing how much good therapy is about “bottom up” processing, which is another word for new learning and new experiencing. So why wouldn’t the same be true for all learning? Why would we still be doing “top down” consultation and teaching when we know how ineffective it can be for change? I think the answer to that question might be it is more comfortable. It is more comfortable for most people to stay in their thinking part of their brain and talk. That is likely the same reason that many therapists still do “talk therapy” even though we know it is less effective for most clients, it is more comfortable for the therapist and for the client.  I have found that the ability to tolerate discomfort can be the path to freedom, healing and new learning.  

So how do we offer “bottom up” consultation and teaching? The answer at the trainings is easier, we have EMDRIA standards to uphold at the trainings in which we are required for half of the training to be experiential. However, the consultation that is required for a therapist to become EMDR certified has no such standard. The entire 20 hours of required consultation can be “talk” consultation, in which the consultee and the consultant just discuss cases.

Just as in the basic training, there is a place for case discussion in consultation. However, the value of experiential and somatic awareness is of equal importance. Including the experiential and somatic awareness in the consultation is a dance. There is an art to being curious about the present moment as it relates to the consultee’s therapy relationship, while keeping the distinction between consultation and psychotherapy in the present moment.

There is a vulnerability that happens when we are present in the moment with the intention of increasing awareness. Standing on this edge is the best place to begin any new learning.

Deborah Kennard is the founder of Personal Transformation Institute, www.personaltransformationinstitute.com