When Past Trauma Impacts a Career’s Future: EMDR Therapy as a Career Development Tool
By Danielle Menditch
Most career counselors have assisted clients who possess the skills, experience, and character strengths to be successful in their careers yet have a hard time moving forward. The client could be stuck for any of a variety of reasons. Many clients have experienced trauma in the workplace, such as painful experiences with job interviews, coworkers, or layoffs. For others, trauma might lie deeper, going back to their early personal or professional lives, or even to experiences of work in their families of origin.
Trauma-informed psychotherapy practices can help our clients get unstuck. Specifically, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) can be a game-changing tool in career development. The goal of this article is to help you understand what EMDR is, the value it can bring to the career development process for clients, and whether it could be a useful tool for you. If you are a licensed mental health professional, you would be eligible to use EMDR in your career counseling or coaching practice after completing training in EMDR. If not licensed, you might consider collaborating with an EMDR-trained clinician to help your career development clients.
What is EMDR?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy model created by Dr. Francine Shapiro to help clients reduce anxiety, reprocess traumatic memories, and manage difficult life situations. Studies have concluded that the outcomes of successful EMDR therapy include positive cognitive restructuring, desensitization to disturbing memories, and increased self-insight (King, 2015).
EMDR has a three-pronged protocol that includes: 1) Reprocessing past events that were the cause of the emotional distress; 2) Reprocessing current triggers that provoke maladaptive thoughts and behaviors; and 3) Identifying new ways of responding to future events where the client imagines using their adaptive skills, also known as Future Templating (Hensley, 2015).
During a session, the clinician directs a client in bilateral movement to improve the processing of emotional information around a painful memory. Examples of bilateral movement include rhythmic left and right eye movement, hand tapping, or audio stimulation through headphones. The client begins to process the memory and disturbing feelings during this movement. When successful, EMDR therapy accelerates intellectual and emotional processes that transform the meaning of painful events (EMDR Institute, Inc., n.d.).
Using EMDR in Career Services
EMDR protocols have been modified for various populations and situations. With proper training, EMDR can be used for symptom reduction or performance enhancement, usages that translate well to challenges in career management and job search.
EMDR-trained professionals can select work-related memories to target and not go into deep traumas from the past, and they can utilize Future Templating to support clients in reimagining how to use new skill sets in the future.
Below are some examples of when EMDR can support a client beyond traditional career counseling and coaching.
Job interviews can be anxiety-provoking for clients. As career practitioners, we may find that clients cannot move past previous job interviews that went poorly or may feel stricken by performance anxiety before interviews. Clients might describe physical sensations experienced during interviews, such as clammy hands, sweatiness, fumbling over their words, becoming disoriented, or freezing. Our typical interview coaching toolkits may not be enough in these cases.
EMDR as a symptom reduction and performance enhancement protocol, partnered with interview coaching, can help clients alleviate the emotional anxiety associated with job interviews. EMDR allows clients to reprocess traumatic memories, such as job interviews that went poorly in the past, and form more positive interpretations of those experiences. The Future Template technique can support clients in imagining how they would like to perform in upcoming interviews.
Interpersonal Issues in the Workplace
Many individuals have had one-time-only or recurring interpersonal issues in the workplace that get in the way of making a career change or leveling up for a promotion. As clients repeat the telling of these stories, a lack of confidence may set in.
EMDR, partnered with teaching effective workplace communication and career advancement skills, can help a client process interpersonal issues that are keeping them stuck. EMDR helps the client become desensitized to potentially triggering situations and allows them to better handle interpersonal issues in a positive way.
Employment layoffs can occur for many reasons, including performance-based, or more often, business reasons unrelated to an employee’s performance. It is not uncommon for people to take the experience personally even if the layoff has nothing to do with one’s performance or workplace behavior. These clients may lose motivation to re-enter the workforce, suffer a hit to their confidence, or have deep fears around job security. EMDR can help clients reprocess previous layoffs, regain their confidence, and more clearly see their career management and work performance capabilities.
How to Ensure EMDR in Career Development Does Not Become Therapy
If a career practitioner is EMDR-trained, and a client opens up a deeper trauma than appropriate in the context of career development, the EMDR protocol allows the practitioner to redirect the client and refer the client for more in-depth counseling by a licensed practitioner.
Who Can Practice EMDR?
The EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) is a membership organization that upholds the standards of EMDR and approves training providers. To receive EMDR training, you must be a licensed mental health professional in your state. The basic training includes twenty hours of lecture, twenty hours of small group practice, and ten hours of consultation. To become an EMDRIA Certified Therapist requires additional supervision hours and practice.
Integrating EMDR into Your Practice
If you are a licensed mental health professional and want to use EMDR in your career counseling practice, take the training. Ask your trainer to help you be creative in how you might integrate parts of the EMDR protocol into your career practice. Reach out to career development professionals who are using EMDR and consider having your work peer-reviewed, so that you can ensure you are practicing within your expertise and following ethical guidelines.
If you are not a licensed mental health professional, consider working with an EMDR-trained clinician to support those clients who are stuck and need targeted symptom reduction or support with performance enhancement.
EMDR Institute, Inc. (n.d.). What is EMDR? Retrieved from https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/
Hensley, B. (2015). An EMDR therapy primer, second edition: From practicum to practice. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company.
King, W. (2015). EMDR therapy basic training course. Self Published.
Danielle Menditch, LCSW, GCDFI, is a career coach and EMDR-trained clinician in private practice who specializes in working with mid-career professionals making meaningful pivots. She prides herself on repurposing psychology into career coaching exercises. Her workbook, To Come Full Circle: Using Memories of Childhood to Clarify Your Career Direction, is due out in early 2020. Contact Danielle at email@example.com.