Going in Circles in Therapy

Greetings, dear friends–and you readers here on WP do feel like friends to me, thank you. I have been absent from my blog for several weeks now. That’s because I went on vacation–sun, sea, new cultural experiences, no schedule, swimming, snorkeling, coral reefs, colorful fish, manta rays, sharks (small, non-dangerous ones), coconut curries, fresh papayas, meeting really nice people, gorgeous views–and it was fabulous. Not only did I love the places we visited, but I felt well the entire trip. That was really different than, for example, our visit to China three years ago. Then I was torn between thoughts such as, Wow, I just got to climb up part of the Great Wall! and When I get home, I’m going to kill myself. I’m happy to report that I had none of the latter kind of thinking during this trip.

So I’m home now and trying to adjust myself to the fact that it is fall, which means it’s going to be wet and muddy for months. I have managed to put on jeans and long-sleeved tops, but I’m still wearing flip flops everywhere, indoors and out. I’m not quite ready to relinquish the freedom that I feel with sunshine and warm weather, and flip flops are a symbol of that.

Anyway, that’s not really my topic for today. Instead, I want to write about my session with Elaine, the EMDR therapist I have just started to work with (two sessions, including today).

It’s Tuesday morning, and I’m a little nervous before my session, I guess. But then I realize, I’m not powerless in this situation. I’m not walking into something where someone is going to do something to me. I’m simply going to try a new therapeutic modality which might really help me. I have chosen to try this. And if I don’t like it, or if I don’t like Elaine, I can stop. If she goes too fast, I can put the brakes on. If I feel upset, I can use my coping skills and/or I can process it with E.

Realizing that I have a lot of control over the situation is such an unusual, amazing and empowering sensation that right away I feel like texting E to celebrate it with her. But then I remember, Oh right, I’m not texting E anymore. Surprisingly, even that doesn’t deflate me. I’ll tell her when I see her, I think, and in the meantime, I can just be happy for myself! That’s what a good vacation does for my emotions and thoughts; it puts them on a much steadier base.

So, a bit later, almost as soon as I sit down in Elaine’s office, she asks me if I’d be okay with taking the PCL-5 questionnaire. This is a simple assessment of trauma symptoms, she explains, and it might be useful for us to have a measure now and then take it again after a while to see if the symptoms decrease, which is, after all, the point of this work together.

“Fine,” I say, “but keep in mind that I just got back from a couple of weeks in the South Pacific. I’m relaxed and rested and content, so my answers will probably make it sound like I don’t even need to be here.”

She laughs a little, but I mean it. We end up agreeing that I will answer it thinking about how I felt a lot of the summer, rather than how I feel now or over the past couple of weeks. That means the main symptoms that show up for me are insomnia, some intrusive thoughts, some questions about how much I can trust people, and some difficulty concentrating. It will be interesting to see how I answer in a few months’ time.

After the assessment, we shift gears, and Elaine spends some time explaining in greater detail how EMDR will work. I will need to pick a specific memory or part of a memory (even a smell) and focus on that, noticing how my body feels and what my level of distress about it is. I can tell her about it, if I find that helpful, but if shame or other negative feelings are too strong, I don’t have to tell her what I’m thinking about. As I focus on the memory, she’ll start moving her hands. I will follow the movement with my eyes and just see what comes up for me. She says it’s like getting a train that’s been stuck in one part of my brain to start up, move through, and then move out. She tells me I might find that I remember more, or I have thoughts about it, or other emotions. She will pause and check to see if I want to share what I’m experiencing. We’ll also check in on my distress level, which she says sometimes goes directly down, and sometimes goes up before it goes down. We can take it slow, she tells me.

She goes on to tell me that the eye movement work will be, at most, about 50 percent of what we do. She finds it’s essential that at least half the time is spent on parts work. She finds parts work, using an internal family systems approach, to be an essential complement to the EMDR work. She mentioned this earlier, during the intake session, but I don’t think she said then that it would be about half of what we do together.

As she talks, my head thinks what she says sounds reasonable. I notice, though, that my body is tensing up and I’m starting to curl in on myself.

Perhaps she notices this, since she pauses and asks me, “How does that sound? Do you think you have parts that are unhappy about this? Or maybe parts that are happy?” (She already knows, from the intake, that I am familiar and comfortable with working with parts.)

“Some part of me is happy to be here, starting this,” I say. “I have heard a lot about EMDR and read about its effectiveness, and I feel hopeful that it could help change things for me. On the other hand, I think I have a couple of parts that are kind of negative. One of them is the skeptical part that says, yeah, but this won’t work for me, probably…”

Elaine nods and smiles a little, “Right, because you are the one anomaly I am going to encounter in my practice… you can tell I have heard this before.”

I just nod back at her, also smiling a little. I don’t tell her all the “evidence” that skeptical part has, all the times I have had freak reactions to medical interventions, or that I have had procedures not work for me. It’s not worth a long conversation, I decide. I’m willing to try it, and maybe it will work and maybe not.

“The other part is the part that says, you can’t do this because you are making it all up. Nothing so bad really happened to you. You just concocted a wild story as a kind of excuse for your inability to cope with stress, or something like that,” I tell her.

Again she nods. Am I familiar with the role of Inner Critic in IFS? Sort of, I tell her. She tells me how the Inner Critic can play a protective role. “Aren’t there things you stand to gain from not believing it?”

“Sure,” I reply. “It makes my relationship with my father much less complicated; it makes it easier for me to want to help care for him as he ages. It allows me to feel more comfortable with my one sister who helps him, a lot. It keeps me from feeling resentment toward my mother, from asking, why didn’t she protect me?”

Elaine gets that see-what-I-mean look on her face.

“But just because there are advantages to not believing that my father abused me doesn’t mean he DID abuse me,” I say. “You can’t just assume that when I say, what if I made it up, that’s only about protecting myself from the truth.”

It’s weird how strongly this is coming up for me, when I’ve spent so much time dealing with Doubt in the past. I explain to Elaine that I know this part not as Inner Critic, but as Doubt, and that she was such a dominant character in the internal house where all my parts live that four years ago, I sent her off on a vacation to the coast for a month. And then I even extended her vacation. That was the only way I was able to hear anything that anyone else in the house had to say.

Since then, I’ve let Doubt move back in, and she’s a lot quieter, even though she pipes up now and then. But in Elaine’s office, I can feel her getting worked up. And the thing about Doubt is, not only does she say I made it up, but she says I’m a bad person for making it up (in that sense, I guess she IS a version of the Inner Critic.

“Okay then,” Elaine says, “I think it makes sense for us to start by getting to know Doubt a little better. We can find out what she needs in order to even allow us to do this work. It won’t work to just try to push past her.”

I listen, nod my head, okay. We make an appointment for two weeks from now, and weekly appointments for several weeks after that.

I say goodbye, walk out to my car, get in, and sit there thinking two things. First, I think maybe this is exactly what we should do, spend time on the needs and reactions of these parts, and get their buy in to move the trauma reaction out of a stuck position in my brain. Second, I think I have done this work before. I have done it more than once, in fact. Not EMDR, but the parts work. Whenever I have some kind of oversize emotional reaction, E asks me, what does this part need? So is going in to visit Doubt again, is this a repetitive exercise? Am I going in circles? Am I fated to be trapped in an endless loop of I-believe-I-was-abused-by-my-father/no-I-made-it-all-up forever?

Ugh, that sounds like something that should be in one of Dante’s circles of Hell.

I resolve to look at my vacation pictures and listen to recordings of mild ocean waves every single day. I’m hanging on to this post-vacation well-being as long as I can.

aerial photo of spiral on grass
CREDIT:  Photo by Rodrigo Kugnharski on Unsplash 


  1. Wow, I’ve never heard of the Doubt part but I strongly recognise what you write about it. Thank you for bringing it into the open, it’s made a few pennies drop with me. I think this is something I need to add to my therapy list to look at. Most definitely.
    Glad you had such a good holiday and hope the effects are long lasting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Doubt is just the form in which I know her; maybe she has some other dominant characteristic for you. But ever since I first started going to therapy–more than 20 years ago–I’ve had this noisy part that goes around saying I’m lying. So do you experience that too?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I do, and occasionally it’s not just about the abuse. I told Guy in my last session that I find it hard to be positive to my husband sometimes, even though things have now improved, because I feel like I’d be lying, how bad is that? The really stupid thing is I’m known for my honesty too! And it’s something that’s really important to me, I wrote about it in a recent post asking does anyone ever tell the truth?!


  2. For me, Doubt takes the form of Making-A-Big-Deal-Out-Of-Nothing-itis. This affliction comes in waves, varies in intensity, and is often triggered when I feel invalidated by something that may or may not actually be related to the issue in question. I’ve gradually come to accept that what my therapist says is true: I would not have PTSD symptoms unless actual Big Deal things happened. I believe this 95 percent of the time. EMDR has been a significant element in my healing. I hope that it is helpful for you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • My therapist (E, my regular therapist) has said things like this too. I think it is usually in this form: whether or not you know exactly what happened to you, clearly something happened that was not at all okay. Your reactivity to certain topics and situations gives that away.

      A lot of the time, I accept that. But there are times when Doubt just isn’t buying it, and apparently the start of EMDR is one of those times. I’ll try anyway. I hope EMDR will be helpful for me, too. I’m so glad to hear it’s been useful for you.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I wonder if I’d feel less like I’m repeating myself / going in circles if I were doing this work with E, instead of having to go to a new therapist, who doesn’t know me or the work I have already done. Does it feel like a good addition to your work with E? Does it fit in smoothly with everything else?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Perhaps – yes. I can understand how going to a new therapist can feel like being stuck on a wheel with all this. Parts of me are really interested in the EMDR and feel the benefit but there are parts that are railing against it (because it feels like it’s a clinical thing and not connecting to Em which is what those young parts want 😳🙄😖). So we are going to work with those parts and their triggers with the EMDR too. Anyway … all fun! Wishing you good luck with it all. Oh the joys eh?!! Xx

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Q, I just want to mention that the picture you posted with this post is a labyrinth, and that is a symbol of going deeper and deeper. They are not going in circles and not getting anywhere. I believe that your work with the new therapist will allow you to get deeper and deeper into healing the trauma that you have experienced. And if you have to tell the stories again, you will most likely find a different voice or a different perspective. I tell my stories over and over….they are too big to heal in one telling.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Perhaps it’s not circles but a spiral. Truama, depression, negative life experiences, unhealthy coping strategies all compound and build on each other spiraling to not so good places. Likewise healing builds in a circuitous way. Gaining and building on hard fought wins, capacity for joy softly spreading, spiraling upwards. What feels like backward steps can build strength to rebound. That’s my hope anyways? Healing journeys go round 🙂 Patty said it ever so more eloquently then I that stories need telling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. E said something similar yesterday, not as nicely as you did, but something about a spiral rather than a circle. I think you are right; it’s about building on difficult gains I’ve already made. I am not in the same place I was when I was first grappling with Doubt. That’s going to be very important to remember. Thank you. xxoo


  5. What success! So. Much. Success. I’m sorry I’m late to the party in commenting, but that just seemed so important to say. Keeping an open mind in an unfamilliar situation can be such a challenge, especially with a type of therapy that is going to bring up a lot of challenging memories and emotions. But you persevered in such a brave and vulnerable way. I continue to admire your strength and the way you fight your challenges head on.

    Liked by 1 person

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