BOOK REVIEW: ‘Getting Past Your Past’: Unprocessed Memories from the Past May Be the Cause of Your Present Mental Problems Says EMDR Originator Dr. Francine Shapiro

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Getting Past Your Past': Unprocessed Memories from the Past May Be the Cause of Your Present Mental Problems Says EMDR Originator Dr. Francine Shapiro

Right from the beginning In “Getting Past Your Past: Taking Control of Your Life With Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy” (Rodale Books, 352 pages, index, bibliography, resources, $26.99) Dr. Francine Shapiro presents the reader with a completion experiment. She supplies us with the first three words of a nursery rhyme familiar to most North Americans: “Roses are red.”

Chances are you’ll automatically say “Violets are blue” and finish the rhyme: “Sugar is sweet / And so are you”.

For people born in the United States, she says, it’s basically the equivalent of a knee-jerk response. You probably first heard the rhyme many years ago, as a child. You respond automatically to something that’s stored in your brain.

Of course, Shapiro says, your response wasn’t a critical evaluation of the rhyme; you just said what comes to mind: “…your mind just moved along with a response as if it were true,” she says. Of course, it’s not true: Some roses are pink, some are yellow, etc. And violets ARE NOT blue! They’re PURPLE! And many people — especially those who uttered thoughtless things to you as a child, or ignored you when you were scared, or beat you or sexually abused you — aren’t so sweet. People are a lot more complicated than that.

Dr. Francine Shapiro

Dr. Francine Shapiro

The nursery rhyme didn’t cause you any problems in later years, Shapiro says, but the same mind/brain processes that “allow us to recognize a rhyme, or sing along with a tune we haven’t heard in 20 years are the ones that can drown us in the misery of anxiety, depression, heartache and at times physical pain.”

These “unprocessed memories” can pop up anytime and can color our view of every situation we encounter. They can make us feel unattractive when we’re not, Shapiro says: “Depressed when everyone around us is happy.” They can cause physical pain. And they can make us do inappropriate things.

Speaking of such behavior, here’s one literally ripped from the headlines; The University of Arkansas football coach who was just fired for having an inappropriate relationship with a 25-year-old employee.

From ESPN: “Arkansas fired head coach Bobby Petrino on Tuesday [April 10, 2012], publicly dressing him down for unfairly hiring his mistress and intentionally misleading his boss about everything from their relationship to her presence at the motorcycle accident that ultimately cost him his job.

“Athletic director Jeff Long announced his decision at an evening news conference and laid out a stunning laundry list of misdeeds by the man he hired away from the Atlanta Falcons four years ago.

“Bobby Petrino has lied to his superiors time and time again. His latest scandal left Jeff Long with only one option,” writes Mark Schlabach.

“They included ignoring multiple chances over the past 10 days to come clean to Long about a relationship that had crossed the line from infidelity into workplace favoritism.

“He made the decision, a conscious decision, to mislead the public on Tuesday, and in doing so negatively and adversely affected the reputation of the University of Arkansas and our football program,” Long said, choking up at one point as he discussed telling players that their coach was gone. “In short, coach Petrino engaged in a pattern of misleading and manipulative behavior designed to deceive me and members of the athletic staff, both before and after the motorcycle accident.”

“Long said Petrino was fired ‘with cause’ — meaning he will not receive the $18 million buyout his contract called for — and there were no discussions about ways to keep Petrino at Arkansas.

“The 51-year-old Petrino, a married father of four, had maintained an inappropriate relationship with 25-year-old Jessica Dorrell for a “significant” amount of time and at one point had given her $20,000, Long said.” 

* * *

Petrino sounds like an ideal candidate for the EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy that Shapiro originated. At first glance, he’s a victim of what I call “Middle-Age Crazy” — compounded by the Harley-Davidson Syndrome — but undoubtedly a therapist with a Ph D and many years experience would find my lay analysis sadly lacking!


“Getting Past Your Past” explains how our personalities develop and why we become trapped into feeling, believing and acting in ways that don’t serve us. Through dozens of case studies, accompanied by exercises that readers can perform themselves, Shapiro helps us learn to understand themselves, and why the people in their lives act the way they do. Most importantly, readers will also learn techniques to improve their relationships, break through emotional barriers, overcome limitations and excel in ways taught to Olympic athletes, successful executives and performers.

I’ve read a lot of self-help books — and just as quickly forgotten most of them. I found “Getting Past Your Past” very much of a keeper in large part because of the case examples of people like Justine, Ben and Stacey — at the very beginning of the book — that Shapiro presents.


Shapiro describes Justine as “a beautiful, intelligent woman” who keeps picking the wrong men, and when they try to break up with her, she throws herself on the floor, clutching their legs, begging them not to leave.


Ben is described as a successful businessman. So why is he hit with anxiety whenever he has to make a presentation?


“Stacey has been trying one therapist after another for years to discover why she has an almost constant feeling of dread, fears of abandonment and an eating disorder” Shapiro tells us. “Strangest of all, she has repeated images of the color red and a candle. It makes no sense to her, but it has been going on for as long as she can remember.”


Shapiro proceeds to explain what makes Justine, Ben and Stacey behave the way they do. Here’s a hint (you must read the book for more!): Their present-day problems are triggered by unprocessed memories.


EMDR therapy has been widely accepted by the criminal justice system, proving that it passes the success test. In a comparison between EMDR and group therapy plus self-monitoring for sexual molesters (Page 240) EMDR has shown to be beneficial in nine out of 10 molesters, Shapiro says.


EMDR therapy is also successful in treating abusive spouses, 85 percent of whom are male, Shapiro writes (Pages 233-235) describing the case of Marie and Jacques.


In Appendix A Shapiro provides a glossary of EMDR therapy terms and a very extensive bibliography and a list of resources. EMDR is a worldwide phenomenon and foreign resources are included.


The book is a self-help guide, but in many cases a therapist is necessary: Shapiro writes that “therapists can be like coaches. They know how to help guide you so that the power of your own system can take over. Once it does, you can be off and running on your own. If unprocessed memories are blocking your ability to excel, then consider therapist assistance.” Appendix B offers guidelines on choosing an EMDR clinician. She says in this section it’s important to make sure the clinician has taken a course approved by the EMDR professional association in your area.

“Getting Past Your Past” is written in a very accessible style, making it the ideal lay person’s user’s guide from the creator of a scientifically proven form of psychotherapy that has successfully treated millions of people worldwide.

For a Psych Central interview with the author, click:

About the Author

Dr. Francine Shapiro is the originator and developer of EMDR therapy. She is a Senior Research Fellow at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, Director of the EMDR Institute, and founder of the non-profit EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Programs, which provides pro bono training and treatment to underserved populations worldwide. She is a recipient of the International Sigmund Freud Award for Psychotherapy of the City of Vienna, the American Psychological Association Trauma Psychology Division Award for Outstanding Contributions to Practice in Trauma Psychology, and the Distinguished Scientific Achievement in Psychology Award, from the California Psychological Association. As a result of her work, over 70,000 clinicians have treated millions of people during the past 20 years. She is an invited speaker at psychology conferences and universities worldwide, and has authored numerous articles, chapters, and books about EMDR therapy, including the primary text “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: Basic Principles, Protocols and Procedures.”


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