When I first started eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (otherwise known as EMDR), I didn’t understand how much it would require me to say yes to myself and no to others.
EMDR is most commonly used to address feelings of post-traumatic stress disorder and severe emotional distress. Through consistent EMDR sessions, the aim is to reduce the physical and emotional symptoms associated with trauma. In a session, an EMDR therapist will likely lead you through side-to-side eye movements as you recount triggering or traumatic experiences.
In my experience, not every session was mind-blowingly difficult to get through (many were actually very chill). Even if they weren’t exhausting in the moment, though, I would often leave appointments feeling like I’d just finished running a marathon — physically, mentally, and emotionally. Reliving the toughest things I’d experienced so that I could decrease the impact they had on my body was not easy.
And so, from the beginning, I had to set boundaries for myself. I had to decide how I would care for and nurture myself on the days before, the day of, and the day after.
In order to give myself some recovery time each week after sessions, I had to first change how I thought about things. Prior to EMDR, I would treat therapy days like any other day. I would go to work. I would have plans after sessions. I didn’t have very structured rituals. Looking back on this, I wasn’t making enough space for myself to sit with the things I’d work through in therapy.
Many people have busy lives, and we don’t necessarily want to — or can’t afford to — “sacrifice” an entire day just to concentrate on our emotional well-being. But working through trauma required me to slow down enough to listen to what felt good or bad in my life when I tried to “fit” therapy into it instead of giving it the space it deserves.
Others I spoke with felt the same about taking some time to set intentional boundaries around how they interact with therapy.
For example, Charlotte has tried many different styles of therapy in the past 11 years and is even in the process of applying to graduate school to become a therapist herself. It’s taken her more than a decade to figure out what works best for her lifestyle.
Throughout the years, her methods for staying grounded so she can get all the benefits from therapy have included staying off her phone and journaling right after sessions. She also says that when she was attending therapy weekly, she would carve out time to listen to music and do dance classes in her room right after appointments.
“I just have never felt so good in my body as in those post-therapy afternoons,” Charlotte says. “Sometimes, I’ll only really know that my emotions are off because I realize that I haven’t been listening to music intentionally.”
Not all therapy modalities take a mind-body toll on everyone, and many sessions of therapy will feel restorative for people going through it, the same way I had sessions that felt like a breath of fresh air.
However, like I am, I know that others may be sensitive to working through thoughts and feelings. As a result, it’s important to know what options you have for setting boundaries.
Here are some of the most helpful boundaries I set for myself around therapy:
1. I gave myself permission to ignore texts and emails that weren’t urgent on the days before, of, and after therapy
This allowed me to really focus on myself without the pressure of starting or continuing conversations. When I did try to reply to texts and emails, social interaction felt like having to wear a mask. It would drain my energy and make it impossible to truly sit with what I was feeling and what I had processed.
I started putting my phone on do not disturb mode on the days that I had therapy sessions. I would also make sure I didn’t even look at it prior to or after sessions, at least until the next morning, if it felt OK to do so then.
Contrary to my anxieties, none of my friendships or other relationships fell apart because I took some days to myself, and no worst-case scenarios played out. It was a lesson: It’s OK to take time for myself, set boundaries, and respond to things at a time when I feel most capable of it.
2. I didn’t make any plans with friends or take on any serious responsibilities on the day of therapy
This is one that definitely might not work for everyone. I’m an introvert, so I know that to recharge, I need time alone. But knowing that I was always going to have an evening ahead of me to take a bath, watch a comforting movie, or just spend time with myself made me less anxious going into sessions.
I also knew that I wouldn’t have to see people or “perform” in any way. I had no preplanned “escape route” from my feelings (like dinner with a friend later that day), which allowed me to make space to actually be present in therapy. It also gave me the freedom for my evenings to look however I needed them to, depending on how the session went or what was talked about.
Instead of forcing myself into plans I’d already made, I had the possibility of just existing without obligation. Because of that, there were days when I did end up doing things with friends afterward because I’d left a space open for myself in my schedule to choose what felt good in the moment.
3. I made sure to take care of my future self
Making sure I didn’t have to make any big decisions or do anything big after therapy was especially helpful for me. For instance, ensuring I had easy meals available post-therapy relieved the possibility that I may overextend myself after sessions. If I was in the mood to cook as a creative outlet, that was fine. But, generally speaking, this was a way for me to ensure I’d be properly nourishing myself after an appointment. Additionally, this act of taking care of myself wouldn’t feel like a chore because I’d already done it ahead of time. In the event that I ordered out, it was more so a gesture of self-love since I was feeling particularly exhausted that day.
My mental and emotional boundaries may not look the same as yours. However, it’s important to take the time to figure out if there are ways you can spend your energy to truly reap the benefits of therapy.
It doesn’t have to be a large gesture, like taking off a week from work or handing the kids off to a babysitter. Instead, you can ask yourself questions and consider the following:
- What would be most comforting to you?
- What’s felt bad to do? What’s felt good to do?
- Is there anything that you feel like you’re missing after therapy? (For instance, do you feel that you need alone time to process, or do you want to be surrounded by loved ones?)
- What are you currently doing to absorb everything you talked about in therapy? Is there something you can add or remove to that routine?
Chances are, with the addition of boundary-setting, you’ll be able to feel more present in sessions and get the most out of your time, no matter what you’re working through.