Contradictions and EMDR

Coral Gables Counseling Center - Thursday, October 12, 2023
By Victoria Carney-Paine, LCSW

Contradicting Thoughts and Feelings
“I know, on one hand, that I’m good enough. I have a good job, friends and family that love me, I have hobbies, I contribute to the world.  Then why, on the other hand, do I not feel good enough?”

Woman in forest

This is a question I’ve been asked by many clients.  Often, clients struggle with feelings about their self-image, identity or place in the world contradicting with the logical thoughts around the same things.

The toughest contradiction is – we can know something to be true, but feel the complete opposite.  You may be wondering what I mean. Here are some examples:

  1. I know I am intelligent (I get A’s at school,) but I feel stupid when I have to talk in front of the class or present new ideas in group projects.
  2. I know I am loved – I have a caring partner, family and friends – but I feel unlovable when my partner doesn’t answer my text messages immediately, or when my mother comments on my appearance.
  3. I know I am mostly safe – have a safe home, health insurance, social support – but I feel insecure and unsafe when I am overwhelmed with my work load.
  4. I know I have some control over my life – I can decide where I live, who I spend my time with – but I feel like I have no control when I find myself in financial difficulties or when I end up doing things I don’t really want to do.

These contradictions are common and most of us likely relate to one of them.  This kind of contradiction might also be known as cognitive dissonance. The issue here is that if you know something to be true – but you don’t feel that it is – do you really, actually believe it?  Absolutely not.  And furthermore, do you act based on what you know to be true, or what you feel to be true?  I’m going to guess that it’s the latter, at least for some of us.

Our human experience is dependent on our perception of the world, which is based on our emotional responses and thoughts – among many other things.

Logic doesn’t mean much if we don’t feel it.  You can’t convince yourself you don’t have a broken heart because you logically know the guy who dumped you was a cheating liar!  You might know very well that he isn’t the right guy for you, that this is a fresh start, that you deserve someone honest. But, in your heart, in your body, in your bones, you will still feel sad, hurt, and probably some love for the guy – at least during those first painful months of the break-up.  Which is totally normal.

Contradicting Thoughts, Feelings and Trauma
Traumatic memories are stored or imprinted in your amygdala, in the limbic system of the brain.  The right brain holds the emotional significance of our experiences, like the intensity and meaning.  The left hemisphere of the brain is more involved in processes such as language and words, detailed facts, and numbers.  Traumatic events are intensely emotional experiences.  Regardless of what is actually happening: the brain recognizes some kind of serious threat.

The problem with this is that since trauma is stored in the emotion brain (my nickname for the right brain) several things happen that can make recovery challenging for survivors.

One thing that will happen is that the brain will possibly not clearly remember the left-brain parts of the trauma – the time, date, place, name, street signs, etc.  This can lead to not being believed – a lack of “credibility” for survivors.

Another interesting thing about traumatic memories being stored in the right brain is that when we attempt to “make sense” of what happened – as humans do, in order to survive – we must put our emotional experience into words.  It would first sound something like “someone hurt me” and then, when trying to make sense of the non-sensical event, might sound like “someone hurt me because I am bad.”  Then later on, as time passes, the person may begin to realize that logically “I am good.  I go to work, I take care of my children.”  The same person might also struggle because although they logically know they are good – the left brain says I am good – they still don’t feel it. They feel like they are bad.

What happens next? This underlying negative belief “I am bad,” will very likely impact the behaviors:

  • They might not apply for good jobs because they feel like they won’t stand a chance;
  • They might shy from friends because they feel like they’re bad and shouldn’t get to be around good people; it goes on and on.

Some of us have these contradictory thoughts and feelings and are able to act on the logical thought versus the illogical emotion.  We might feel like we aren’t good enough but we fake it until we make it because we really want that promotion.

Unfortunately, when we have experienced trauma or repeated trauma, it can become extremely difficult to act on the “logical thought” because the underlying negative belief is deeply rooted within our brain.  It is connected with intense emotion and often, physical sensations – think, heart racing, sweaty palms, nausea.  This can confuse us even more – “Well if I’m feeling physically sick when I think about the promotion, I must not be good enough for it – even my body is telling me!” These reasons are why EMDR therapy is so helpful.

How Can EMDR Help?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy is a therapy model used to treat trauma and sometimes other things.  It works by utilizing bilateral stimulation – usually in the form of eye movements – to reprocess traumatic memories in the brain.  This helps traumatized individuals become less overwhelmed by the trauma.  This also helps to reduce and remove symptoms associated with the events.  EMDR helps clients to reprocess the beliefs, thoughts and feelings associated with the experience and help them become more adaptive.

In EMDR the goal is to help to reprocess traumatic memories – and the underlying thoughts/beliefs associated with them – so you not only become aware of the helpful, logical thought – but you can also feel it. Your right and left brain communicate and harmoniously adapt.  And, it may look like a change in perception about an experience.

For example:
Before EMDR:

  • “I know that being assaulted by someone I knew was painful and bad.” (memory)
  • “In order to survive, I must make sense of it by believing I can’t protect myself.”(resulting negative underlying thought/belief); and
  • “I feel shaky and sick to my stomach when I’m reminded of the experience.”(resulting negative physical symptoms) so,
  • “I won’t put myself out there and try to make new friends or connections because I can’t protect myself and it could be dangerous.” (behavior)

After EMDR:

  • “I know that although being assaulted was painful and bad.” (memory)
  • “I realize now that I did the best I could.” (reprocessed adaptive thought/belief) and
  • “I will try to make new friends and connections.” (behavior)

Am I saying that all of our thoughts are right, and all of our emotions are wrong? Absolutely not.

What I am saying is that our thoughts and emotions can sometimes help us and sometimes hinder us.  When we’ve been traumatized our emotions and thoughts can often be skewed.  EMDR therapy can help us figure out where those skewed feelings and beliefs are helping us v. hindering us.  It also helps us figure out where the disconnect may have begun.  “When did I first start feeling like I wasn’t good enough?” “What happened?”

Our brain wants to make sense of life.  That’s why we end up with skewed ideas about ourselves, others and the world following trauma. That’s also why EMDR can help: we can make sense of things, in a supportive environment, with the help of our left brain-which during trauma just doesn’t normally happen.

When we connect right and left brain processes and soothe our nervous system responses through this reprocessing and desensitization, we can behave based on more adaptive or healthy ideas of who we are and what the world is.


“What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.”
Brené Brown flowers on window sill