I have used EMDR in my practice for several years and I love it with such a passion. I have identified a way to explain it to my clients the best I can, since it is such a complex system. This is what I like to say.
What is EMDR?
EMDR has been around since the late 80s and has been studied and changed many times over. Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, we all have negative beliefs about ourselves. Some examples include "I'm not good enough," "I'm not safe," or "I have to be perfect." These things feel true but rationally speaking, they're not, so we can eliminate them.
Over the course of our childhood, you learn who you are and what value you hold. If you have a parent or parents who are there for you emotionally, you learn that you have value and you matter. On the other hand, If you experienced a childhood where your opinion was not considered, where you were shuffled around from house to house and had not a shred of stability, it's very hard for you to feel secure later in life. You were never TAUGHT how to be stable. Furthermore, If we are constantly dismissed and have our feelings invalidated, we start to think less and less about ourselves. It comes down to, "if my own mom rejected me, who else can I trust?"
We learn from the people in our lives. A perfect scenario is a parent who is emotionally connected and available to the child, who gives the child independence but they know they can always come to the parent and where the child has rules boundaries and limitations. Rules and boundaries help a child feel secure sort of like giving them a comfort zone. They may push the boundaries but when the parent reinforces the rule, it teaches them self discipline, respect for others and how to cooperate. It also helps them learn to regulate emotions and curb negative impulses; to consider other's feelings and perspectives, and patience. All of which we need to function in a healthy manner in the real world. We all know the coworker who can't get along with anyone or the child who is defiant and can't seem to cope if he doesn't get his way.
Boundaries also teach us how to relate to other people, how trust works and who we are separate from the parent. Without rules and boundaries, we don't get the opportunity to learn, in a safe way, who we are and what we like. It also leaves us feeling pretty poorly about ourselves. For example, a person raised without adequate adult supervision, whose opinion never mattered and was moved around from house to house while having no say in the matter, could end up feeling like they're not good enough or they have to be in control since they never experienced control in their childhood.
With EMDR, we identify memories that are linked to the negative belief you want to change. To continue to use the memory of being moved around a great deal during childhood, a memory might be of the client crying as she was packing her room to move from another town and school, leaving her friends behind. Then we basically ask you and your brain to focus on this memory and the negative belief and we do eye movements (or other bilateral stimulation) while you let your mind wander. Your brain will take you down the neuropathways necessary and with a skilled clinician you will feel confident to trust the process.
What Results Can You Expect?
We continue processing that memory until there is no emotional charge. We can explore other memories that elicit the same belief and continue to process as needed. Eventually instead of saying, "I'm not good enough," the person in this scenario would say "It had nothing to do with my worth, my parents had their own issues, they were taught to run from problems, and that's what they did. When things got hard, they moved us across town."
EMDR is unique in that it desensitizes feelings and thoughts. So you won't see tangible changes right away but rather the absence of symptoms. What I have seen is clients will come in one day talking about something that happened that would've elicited a negative reaction before, but now they handled it completely different or it didn't affect them.