EMDR and Psychoanalysis

What Do EMDR and Psychoanalysis Have in Common?

1. Unconscious processes

In both EMDR and psychoanalysis, the therapist helps the client to bring unconscious material to the surface. In both approaches transformation occurs when the unconscious becomes conscious. While the terminology is not the same and the process is different, both approaches result in adaptive resolution 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 individuals life. But while psychoanalysis focus 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 discovery. The use of free association is a basic and powerful tool in both EMDR and psychoanalysis. Most of us live in a linear world and free association helps with going 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 processing. 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.

The Main Differences between EMDR therapy and Psychoanalysis 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 has the potential to bring healing in just a few sessions. Psychoanalysis takes a lot longer, even while doing a few sessions a week.

2. Psychoanalysis is all about interpretation. EMDR is about processing.
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 interpretation of the content that arises during processing.


My personal conclusion (I know I am biased) – why choose a therapy that would take years, sometimes decades to lead to 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 brought the concept of unconscious thoughts into the mainstream and for that we are grateful. But when it comes to effectiveness of treatment – it’s a no brainer. EMDR is like the latest iPhone and psychoanalysis more like a dial phone.