EMDR and psychoanalysis have some some things in common. But when it comes to treatment, the two approaches are very different. In this article, I will review the main commonalities and the difference between the EMDR and psychoanalysis.


1. Unconscious processes – EMDR and psychoanalysis are two forms of therapy in which the therapist helps the client to bring unconscious materials to the surface. In both approaches, transformation occurs when the unconscious becomes conscious. While the language is not the same and the process is different, both approaches result in adaptive resolution. In bother approaches, healing happens when the unprocessed (unconscious) material becomes processed (conscious).

2. Early childhood memories – Freud described in detail how childhood events will affect the individual later in life. If Freud met Shapiro, I believe that they would both agree that childhood trauma has major effects on an individual’s life. But while psychoanalysis focuses on Oedipus complex, repression, and transference, EMDR therapists help clients with processing unprocessed material. More on that in a minute.

3. Free Association – Freud started using free association as a therapeutic technique and we have to give him credit for this. The use of free association is a basic and powerful tool in both EMDR and psychoanalysis. Living in a highly-linear world usually restricts our ability to think in a non-linear way.  Free association helps our clients to go beyond linear thinking. It helps the client connect neural networks and recognize patterns between old and current thoughts and feelings.

4. Symbolism – In both EMDR and psychoanalysis, the therapist knows that certain thoughts and feelings cannot be expressed in words. Language has its limitations. While Freud explicitly talked about symbolism, EMDR therapists use a lot of symbols to help clients with reprocessing. When language fails to express emotions and thoughts – symbols can do the job.

5. Insight – Perhaps the most important parallel that EMDR and psychoanalysis share is the insight the client experiences as a result of treatment. In both forms of treatment, the client main benefit from therapy is the insight that what happens in the past belongs in the past. Clients know, on a conscious level, that what happened in the past is not happening in the present. But EMDR therapy and psychoanalysis help the client feel, on a deeper level that they can leave their past in the past. This insight is what leads to the elimination of symptoms. This insight is what leads to transformation.


Obviously, there are many differences between the two approaches. I will focus on two major differences.

1. Successful psychoanalytic treatment usually takes years. EMDR therapy can take a few sessions. EMDR is not a quick-fix, and for people who suffer from complex trauma, treatment can take a long time. But EMDR therapy has the potential to eliminate symptoms in just a few sessions, while psychoanalysis takes a lot longer – usually years – even while doing a few sessions a week.

2. Psychoanalysis is all about interpretation. In EMDR we focus on reprocessing.

It is sometimes hard for experienced therapists, especially those with psychoanalytic or humanistic backgrounds, to avoid interpreting the meaning of their clients’ thoughts and emotions. Experienced EMDR therapists learn to trust the process and avoid offering an interpretation of the content that arises during processing.


My personal conclusion (I know I’m biased) – why choose a therapy that would take years, sometimes decades, to get mediocre results when you can choose a therapy that can help your clients get to an adaptive resolution in just a few sessions?

Sigmund Freud made significant contributions to our field. He introduced the concept of unconscious thoughts into the mainstream and for that we are grateful. But when it comes to the effectiveness of treatment – it’s a no brainer.

About Rotem Brayer

Rotem Brayer is a certified EMDR therapist and an EMDR consultant in training, practicing in Denver, Colorado. He divides his time between helping therapists to improve their EMDR work and maintaining a private practice.

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