How EMDR Works for BPD

Acronym breakdown: EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and is a popular method of trauma therapy. BPD is the short form of Borderline Personality Disorder. One theory of how people get BPD is that they have a natural emotional sensitivity combined with early traumatic life experiences.

How EMDR treats trauma

EMDR starts with the foundational theory that accumulated traumatic and negative experiences are the cause of your current life issues. EMDR was created as a way to help reprocess these memories, and it has mostly been tested on PTSD treatment. This is important because PTSD often has a clear traumatic event while BPD trauma is often more long term and without a clear incident. There are few direct studies using EMDR for BPD. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be effective.

How BPD comes from trauma

All of my clients with BPD have a history of negative experiences in their families of origin. We refer to these as “small t traumas” because each incident on its own doesn’t necessarily feel like a big deal. But when these small traumas repeat for years over a child’s life, they grow into a pattern that can become a problem.

BPD vs CPTSD

Chronic PTSD has a similar origin story. One key difference is that BPD is often associated with emotional sensitivity and attachment issues. BPD has a lot of difficulty with relationships- getting close and then withdrawing, sudden splitting, and fear of abandonment among other issues. On the other hand, CPTSD has a core fear of being unsafe. At a surface level, people with CPTSD may also have difficulty of relationships, but they usually don’t fear being abandoned as much as they fear danger.

Attachment traumas in BPD

One common feature across people with Borderline Personality Disorder is a history of broken attachments. Attachment theory understands that bonds between parents and children are key in developing healthy or unhealthy attachment styles as an adult. Children use the attachment with their caregivers to learn how to regulate their emotions, create healthy relationships with others, and ask for help when it’s needed. Many people with BPD have attachment traumas and describe a childhood where their caregivers were focused on themselves, distant and unattached, or unpredictably available.

EMDR for BPD treats attachment trauma

Since BPD’s attachment traumas often start from the very beginning, EMDR is an effective treatment option because it works well with early memories. In fact, EMDR is also able to reprocess stories the client may have heard about themselves from their mother’s pregnancy. This includes stories about being wanted or unwanted, being a burden or a problem, or being “too much” or part of a family with “too many” children. Even though these stories aren’t a direct personal memory, EMDR can help reprocess the family messages created by these stories.

EMDR for BPD is a bit different… but not too different

If you’ve experienced EMDR before, EMDR for BPD has some adaptations from the standard procedures. In early sessions focused on current issues, the biggest issues are usually related to difficult relationships. Even though the root is often attachment trauma, it’s rare that anyone comes to therapy wanting to reprocess childhood issues.

Next, people with BPD are often emotionally sensitive. This sensitivity means that EMDR for BPD needs to go slower than standard EMDR and therapy needs to spend a lot of time making sure the client has solid coping strategies, emotional stabilization skills, and an effective plan to manage disturbing or distressing memories when they come up. The therapist and client need to have a solid relationship. You need to feel comfortable being authentic and honest in the session even when it feels shameful or difficult.

Finally, EMDR for BPD needs to consider the client’s psychological defenses. SAFE EMDR (which I use) naturally includes work to understand your defenses, but many other EMDR methods do not. People with BPD often have strong defenses, and it takes a lot of courage to consciously set them aside.

Learn more about EMDR for BPD

Scholarly article written for therapists

Short explanation of EMDR for clients

Personal blog about how EMDR helped one person with BPD

Learn more about how I work

I use SAFE EMDR in my practice to help my clients reprocess any number of issues including BPD. I also work with people who want to manage their BPD using a number of different methods including ACT, EMDR, and Depth therapy.

If you’re ready to manage your BPD and want to know if online EMDR therapy could be helpful for you, contact me to schedule a free consultation. To learn more about me and how I work, check out my About page.

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