A Crucial Distinction For Releasing Troublesome Memories With EFT

Warning: This article is for EFT Practitioners who work with difficult or traumatic memories. It is not designed as a self-help intervention. If you recognise some of your own memories from this article I encourage you to find a skilled and experienced EFT Practitioner to help you process them.

Disassociated perspective

Have you ever cleared a memory using the Movie Technique, reducing the emotional charge to zero, but still find the memory bothering, even if there is (apparently) nothing left to tap on?

You may have had this experience and wondered what you did wrong or what you missed. Well you probably didn’t do anything wrong, but you may have tapped on only one part of the memory.

If you have such a resistant memory, bring it to mind for a moment.

There are two ways of remembering an experience, one of them yields to tapping very readily one of them requires a little extra something.

Are you on the inside of the memory looking out, or the outside of the memory looking in?

I suspect that if your memory bothers you, even if you have tapped it down to zero, it is because you are on the outside of the memory looking in.

But what does that statement even mean?

Are You Associated Or Disassociated?

There are three ways of remembering an event:

  • Associated: on the inside looking out
  • Disassociated: on the outside looking in
  • Flipping between associated and disassociated

For the purpose of this article the terms association and dissociation are borrowed from NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) and refer to your point of view in memories (and other experiences).

If you are ‘associated’, you are immersed in your own experience: present, remembered or imagined. You see, hear and feel everything from your own point of view. You are on the inside looking out.

If you are ‘disassociated’ you are an observer to your own experience. You watch that ‘other you’ have their experience as if you are an onlooker to your own experience. You are on the outside looking in.

To have an experience of both perspectives try the following thought experiment.

Close your eyes, imagine you’re at the seaside walking along the promenade (boardwalk) towards the fun fair.

As you get closer you can see that there’s a roller coaster, it’s just started its long climb to the start of the ride.

As you get closer you notice that there is someone familiar in the front carriage of the roller coaster ….. It’s you … Watch that ‘other’ you as the roller coaster tops the rise and then rattles down the other side gathering speed as it goes.

Notice how that feels, shake that experience off.

Now imagine you’re sitting in the front carriage of the roller coaster, as it starts its rise.

Looking through your own eyes you can see your hands gripping the metal bar, feel the shaking of the carriage and hear the rattling of the gears as it gets higher and higher.

Watch the top of the rise getting closer and closer and feel the breeze on your face.

When you get to the top, there is a moment’s pause and then the carriage begins its dive down …

Notice how that feels, shake that experience off.

Which experience is more intense?

Most people find the second (associated) experience to be much more emotionally intense.

Notice that the content of the experience (the roller coaster ride) is the same in both cases, but where you are in that experience makes quite a difference.

These are the two fundamentally different ways of coding your experiences in the brain. When you remember any event in your life it will be one of the following:

  • Associated: Seeing the experience through your own eyes as you were at the time it happened.
  • Disassociated: Seeing yourself have the experience, as if it was on a movie screen and you are in the audience.
  • Flipping: Moving back and forth between associated and disassociated.

Note: This is not quite the same use of the word dissociation as in psychology and psychiatry which describes a wide continuum of experience from mild to severe detachment from physical and emotional experiences.

What’s the big deal?

If you are having a good time it’s good to be fully immersed in it.

If you are fully associated into a romantic dinner for two, relaxing in the jacuzzi, enjoying a massage, etc then you are in the experience. You will fully experience everything you see, hear, feel, smell and taste. It’s delicious and you can savour it.

Unfortunately, life isn’t just made up of good times, we may also experience bad times, even very bad times.

Sometimes we can fully experience the bad times and cope with everything we are seeing, hearing and feeling. It’s not fun, but we have enough resilience and support to be in the experiences and cope with it.

If our resilience is low or the experience is very painful it is more bearable for us to ‘step out’ of the experience and witness it from the outside.

How often have you heard people say things like: “It was as if I left my body and was looking down at myself from the ceiling” or “It was as if I was watching it happen to me”.

This is dissociation as protection, we ‘step out’ of an intense experience to become a more detached observer of our distress.

This is a natural psychological defence mechanism that we can use to cope with painful situations.

It is one of the consequences of this mechanism that can defeat the Movie Technique.

Tapping on associated memories is ‘simple’

If you are associated into the memory, you are vividly relieving the experience from your own point of view. The emotions and experiences are fully present, you are tuned in.

Because EFT works well on fully experienced emotions this kind of memory responds very well to tapping. The emotions are live and the tapping can get right to them.

If you are associated in the memory a thorough application of the movie technique will clear the memory for good.

Tapping on disassociated memories is more ‘complicated’

When you dissociate from a painful experience it is as if you split your psyche in two parts.

The split off part of you has the experience and holds it out of consciousness so that the distress will not be felt (this is the purpose of dissociation). The intense part of the experience is now muted and ‘hidden’ from you.

The observer part has less intense feelings that are not hidden from view.

Now you have a memory with two parts, the ‘other’ you whose feelings are muted or hidden and the observer you who has feelings about the event.

This is why I think the movie technique doesn’t always work as well as it could.

When you tap on a disassociated memory, the tapping soothes the part that has access to its feelings which is the observer. The ‘other’ you’s feelings are not available, hidden away in the dissociation, not ‘reachable’ by the tapping.

The observer is soothed, their score may even go down to zero, but the ‘other you’ still holds the intense emotions of the event.

These ‘hidden’ emotions might not be felt in consciousness, that is the point of dissociation, but they still exert an effect. That is why there is still something bothersome about the memory even if the SUDs score is zero.

How To Spot A Disassociated Memory In The Wild?

There are two simple ways you can find out if someone is experiencing a disassociated memory.

Listening to what people say

People who are having a disassociated memory will describe their experience in the third person.

For example:

  • “She’s having a really hard time” instead of “I’m having a really hard time”.
  • “He’s been screamed at by his father” instead of “My father is screaming at me”.
  • “They are really laying into him” instead of “They are really laying into me”.
  • “I can see her making a mess of it” instead of “I’m making a mess of it”.

If someone describes themselves as if they were observing someone else you can be fairly confident that they are disassociated from the experience.

Asking a simple question

You can find out if someone is associated or disassociated by asking this simple question: “Are you on the inside of this memory looking out, or on the outside of this memory looking in?”

If they are on the inside looking out they are associated, if they are on the outside looking in they are disassociated.

Once you know you can apply the tapping technique that is best suited to their situation.

How Can You Tap For Disassociated Memories?

If you or your client’s memory is disassociated what can you do?

You could learn Matrix Reimprinting which makes specific use of the disassociated perspective in memories. But you don’t need to learn any new techniques.

Disassociated memories will respond very well to standard EFT approaches (if you make a few minor adjustments to the tapping routine).

We do this by tapping for that ‘other’ you in the memory.

When the client tells you about their bothersome memory, check to see if they are associated or disassociated by asking them if they are on the inside looking out, or the outside looking in.

If they are associated use all the standard EFT approaches to soothe the memory.

If they are disassociated in the memory ask them to describe that ‘other you’:

  • “What is going on for that other you?”
  • “What is s/he feeling?”
  • “How do they look?”
  • “What are they feeling?”
  • “What is most noticeable about her/him?”

Start tapping on whatever the client reports, adjusting the setup statement to refer to that ‘other’ you.

Using “Even though he / she …., I deeply and completely accept him / her.” as the setup phrase and “He / she …” as the reminder phrase.

For example:

If the client reports “She is frozen”, start the tapping with: “Even though she is frozen, I deeply and completely accept her” as the set-up phrase and “She is frozen” as the reminder phrase.

If the client reports “He is terrified”, start the tapping with: “Even though he is terrified, I deeply and completely accept him” as the set-up phrase and “He is terrified” as the reminder phrase.

It’s helpful to think of this approach as surrogate tapping for yourself.

Important: As long as you can ‘see’ that other you, all the tapping is done in the third person. The aim is to keep up the protective distancing effect while the distress is soothed.

Invite the client to pay attention to how their ‘other’ self looks and feels.

If the memory is intense then the client will often report that the younger self in the memory is: frozen, rooted to the spot, terrified, screaming etc. Include those descriptions into the tapping.

Even if the emotions of the ‘other you’ are not obvious, the client’s posture, facial expression will give clues on what needs to be tapped on next. By tapping for that other you the emotional charge will begin to drop.

As the distress levels of the disassociated self-start to drop the client may automatically start to associate into the experience, flipping between being an observer of the memory and being in the memory.

Since being associated into a memory gives clearer access to feeling the emotions, this can cause the intensity of the experience to rise dramatically as they fully experience it.

There are two ways of helping your client deal with this extra intensity.

  1. Keep tapping, just as you would in a regular EFT session.
  1. Invite the client back into the disassociated state by saying something like “Step back out of the memory and stay on the outside until we have done some more tapping”. Since that is what they have done up to now most people find they can do this quite readily.

Continue to tap until the disassociated younger self is calm.

Eventually most clients will associate into the memory (because it is now safe to do so). Then you can use the standard Movie Technique to clear all the remaining aspects of the memory.

When the client checks the memory again you will probably find it has been completely released.

The Three Hints Of Hidden Intensity

If someone has a disassociated memory, they can see themselves, but there are three other qualities of such memories can hint at how much emotional intensity is hidden away (and needs to be tapped on).

Keep Your Distance

When someone tells you that they are on the outside looking in you can ask them “Where are you with respect to that ‘other’ you?” or “How far away are you from that ‘other’ you?”.

You may get answers like this:

  • “I’m on the ceiling looking down on him”.
  • “I’m at the end of the corridor looking at her and she is at the other end of the corridor.”
  • “I am standing just behind his right shoulder.”
  • “She is way off in the distance”

Because it’s natural to want to get away from something that is dangerous you can be quite confident that the further away the observer is from the ‘other you’ the more intense or painful the other you’s experience will be.

As you tap on the other you that’s way off in the distance you will probably find that the observer gets gradually closer. As the emotional intensity in the other you is reduced it becomes ‘safer’ for the observer to get closer. (This is one of the signs that the tapping is working).

Important: Don’t try to get the observer closer to the ‘other you’, they are at a distance for good reasons of safety. Likewise don’t ever try to force someone to step back into that ‘other you’, this would be like pushing a non-swimmer in at the deep end of the pool.

Take A Snapshot

If simple dissociation isn’t enough protection, then the mind can try to limit the pain by turning a movie into a photo or sequence of photos.

Because watching a movie of a traumatic event would much more painful than looking at a still photo of the event, the distressed mind can ‘freeze’ the memory into a still image to make it more bearable.

Turning a memory into a snapshot makes it more difficult to see what is going on and conceals from consciousness what happened before or after the moment of the snapshot.

If you suspect the movie is a still image from what the client tells you then it may indicate that there is a lot of concealed emotional intensity in the memory.

As you tap for the client’s disassociated self you will probably find that the still image starts to become a movie.

This is a sign that your tapping is making progress, but it will probably add more emotional intensity to the experience and reveal more detail of what came before and after the ‘frozen’ moment (which may also add extra intensity).

Fade To Grey

Another way of reducing emotional intensity in an image is to take out the colour.

A black and white image of a traumatic incident is less intense than a full colour photograph of the same scene.

If the client reports that the disassociated memory is monochrome, black and white or leached of colour, this may indicate that the memory has more hidden emotional intensity.

As you tap for the client’s disassociated self you may find that the memory begins to regain its colour (which may increase the detail in the memory and its emotional intensity).

Caution: A Hint Is Not A Guarantee

These submodality distinctions (as they are known in NLP): the disassociated perspective, distance from the disassociated self, whether the memory is a still or movie and in colour or black and white are best thought of as hints and warnings, not guarantees, of hidden distress.

You’ve probably already noticed that there is a lot of variability among people.

It is quite possible that someone will have learned to take the disassociated perspective in memories at an early age and applied it to all their memories thereafter. For such a person even the good times are remembered from the outside looking in.

There’s no guarantee that a disassociated memory is a traumatic memory.

The best way to find out is to ask: “As you look at that ‘other you’ how much distress do you think they are feeling?” and take it from there.

Don’t Try This At Home

Finally, as I said at the beginning of the article, if you recognise that some of your difficult memories are held in the disassociated form get help to work with them. If you start tapping on them on your own you may find that you open up a can of worms that could be very hard to handle by yourself. Please look after yourself by working with someone who knows what they are doing.

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