By Deb Kennard, Founder of the Personal Transformation Institute and Developer of the SAFE EMDR approach.

SAFE EMDR was developed by me, Deb Kennard, in 2014. I was fortunate to be introduced to EMDR in 1995 and even more fortunate to have been trained by Francine Shapiro, the founder of EMDR Therapy. I was so amazed by the results I was seeing with my clients that I joined Francine’s training institute. My dedication and commitment to EMDR lead me to Sea Ranch, California where I was trained by Francine Shapiro to be an EMDR trainer. I have so much gratitude for Francine Shapiro and those amazing experiences that have shaped who I am as a clinician, teacher and human.

I am addicted to learning and during that time I had many other training opportunities in many types of psychotherapy approaches. I didn’t find any approach that was as effective and efficient as EMDR, but I did gain a lot of knowledge and experience in the field of trauma and somatic therapies. I dove deeply into Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, becoming certified after 4 years of intensive training.

In 2014 I was inspired to develop my own approach to EMDR therapy and I created the Personal Transformation Institute. I spent a year writing and developing an EMDR curriculum that would meet EMDRIA’s high standards for the 6-day foundational EMDR training. In creating this I was able to bring concepts that were informed by my other educational experiences as well as my practical experience in meditation and yoga and knowledge gained from leading over 50 EMDR trainings as developed by Francine Shapiro.

The SAFE approach offers an expansion of the AIP, Adaptive Information Processing Model, to include adaptations the client made to stay safe and attached to their caregiver. These adaptations often present as road-blocks in the EMDR therapy process. In addition to the focus on the client’s adaptations, the clinician’s adaptations are also considered and important. As the EMDR therapy process unfolds there is a dance that occurs between the client and the clinician and that dance often includes their adaptations.

In order to simplify and have a common language for these adaptations we created the concept of “The Answer”.

The Answer concept is used to refer to the adaptations or patterned responses that we learn to help us optimize safety and connection when we are children. These adaptations become our strength, our go-to way of managing stress or pain and also our greatest block to intimacy and happiness. So the very thing we do best is also the thing that keeps us from getting what we want.

Often we are unaware of our Answers and that is why it is important to have the concept. Since our Answers are essentially our “defense” it is also important that we work with it in a trauma-informed manner. So we have developed principles that guide the “way” we work with our client’s Answers as well as our own.

The principles are:


Mindful Awareness

Compassionate Assumption

Healthy Boundaries

These principles are like 4 legs of a table that support the therapy and rely on each other to function. The synergistic effect of all 4 is fueled by curiosity and love. Each of these principles are deep and profound but I will give a brief description of each and how they all work together.

The first one, Nonviolence, is the recognition that we all have freedom of choice and personal power. With a nonviolent approach we are aware of choices and we invite instead of direct our client. If we are embodying nonviolence we are curious about what is happening in this moment with the client as opposed to trying to figure out what intervention we should apply next.

The SAFE principles are an important aspect in all communication but especially when working with people who have experienced trauma.

It is a kind, compassionate, mindful way of working that helps create conditions of safety.

The next principle is Mindful Awareness, this is being in the present moment, curious and aware of the moment-to-moment awareness of what is here. It is a powerful way of working that is the opposite of doing something. It is being here and curious, which is the opposite of judgement. This presence is so powerful and missing for most people in our every day lives.

Compassionate Assumption is the belief that whatever is here, no matter how annoying or aversive is here because it is or has been helpful at one time. With this principle we are looking through a lens of love and curious about how the clients current symptoms or our own have been helpful to keep us safe and connected. As with the other principles, this is an an important ingredient to creating a safe environment for healing.

Healthy Boundaries is knowing where we end and the other person ends.

It is the recognition of personal power and empowerment. Healthy boundaries allow us to model the other principles and lead us to healthy communication and truth telling. It is with awareness of this principle that we stop a session on time, offer options and resources to clients and take care of ourselves.

At the Personal Transformation Institute we use these principles to guide our team, trainings and relationships.

The concept of the Answer gives us a common language and we aim to embody the principles with all we do. This makes space for vulnerability and authenticity which deepens our connection and safety. With all of this we believe that mistakes are mandatory and try to hold each other in a space of love when mistakes are made. We do the same at our team meetings, trainings, consultation groups and any interaction.

It is important to have concepts and principles to guide a path. Our principles and concepts were developed or named after they were here. When I first developed the SAFE approach I was the only trainer. As our team grew and the trainings evolved I had to find a way to teach what I was doing naturally. We now have a training team of 60 amazing clinicians and these principles and concepts help keep us on the path of transformation. As we invite our own personal transformation and growth we can offer it more to others.

The SAFE EMDR approach has been described as life changing for many clinicians who have taken our training. In the past 8 years we have had the honor of training thousands of mental health clinicians.