What Is EMDR Cognition & EMDR Cognitions List

By Derin Kubilay - Clinical Psychologist & EMDR Therapist

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is an effective trauma treatment. It helps the survivor process and resolves the feelings attached to their traumatic memories to decrease their negative emotional impact.

In EMDR therapy, you’ll be asked to focus on a traumatic memory to identify negative cognitions (beliefs about yourself, others, or your world) related to the incident that is contributing to your distress and preventing you from entirely moving on with your life.

EMDR requires the identification of a target image and a negative cognition. The thing is, a negative cognition is paired up with a ’target image'.

Targeting negative cognitions aims to build internal resources with positive visualization and stabilization through the five senses.

Unprocessed or maladaptively processed experiences can lead to distorted conclusions about the self because these conclusions are based on inaccurate information connected with disturbing effects that were available when the experience was encoded.

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What Is EMDR cognition

EMDR cognition is a negative or positive thought about yourself in relation to a past trauma. These thoughts can be automatic and may not be based on reality.

Note that it needs to be present-moment-focused. For example, “As you think of that situation and the sensations you are experiencing right now, what words best describe your negative belief about yourself?”

It is not a restatement of the effect.

“I am guilty” and “I feel guilty” are not the same. The first one is a general belief about oneself for most of the events, and the second one is a feeling related to the event.

Suppose that someone had been abused by their father as a child. In that case, they might automatically think that “I’m unlovable”, or “I deserved it”, even though these are not necessarily true. The negative cognition is “I am unlovable”.

In EMDR therapy, these cognitions are processed so that the person realizes the truth of what happened rather than the distorted meaning they gave it at the time.

What is a negative cognition for EMDR

A negative cognition is a thought or belief that is distorted and/or unhelpful. It can be something that you’ve always believed about yourself, or it can be something that you’ve started to believe as a result of a traumatic event.

According to Jenkins (2015), negative cognitions can keep you from moving on from trauma and can make it difficult to cope with day-to-day life.

For example, if your spouse was in an accident and died, believing I’m not good enough might have been part of your life before the accident. However, after the accident, you might start to think; that if I had been more careful, he would still be alive.

These thoughts are called negative cognitions because they are distorted (e.g., you’re not good enough) or unhelpful (e.g. if I were more careful, he would still be alive).

What is a positive cognition for EMDR

A positive cognition is a thought or belief that is helpful to you in some way.

It can be something as simple as “I am a good person”, or “I am capable of handling this situation”.

The latter is related to competency. Positive cognitions help you to feel better about yourself and your ability to cope with difficult situations.

They also allow you to take more control over your life by helping you develop healthy coping skills for the future.

Why cognitions are crucial for EMDR

Cognitions are people’s thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs about themselves and the world around them. They can be positive or negative, influencing how people see themselves and their experiences.

Both go hand in hand regarding an individual’s thoughts and feelings on a situation, which is why it is so important to address both types of cognitions when addressing trauma.

According to Coubard (2015), negative cognition is linked with a ’target image’ (a picture or thought) from your past event and any emotion and physical sensations you may feel from this experience.

In the treatment plan, the memories are collected. Then the desensitization phase is where the therapist can finally start working with the memory that the positive cognition joins.

In other words, we want our clients to change their cognition into a rational, adaptive way after processing.

To learn more, read our What is EMDR guide

For that reason, both negative and positive cognitions should be addressed during EMDR therapy.

It is crucial to bring up these topics because they will allow the therapist to help patients develop more balanced perspectives of themselves and their lives.

Hopefully, resulting in more successful coping skills. Also, when these new links are created, there will be less need for self-defeating thinking patterns that result in depression or anxiety after leaving therapy sessions.

How do you know if you have negative cognition?

One can find out if they have negative cognitions by conversing with someone else or going through a series of questionnaires. To do this assessment yourself, ask yourself questions like:

  • Do I ever criticize myself?
  • Do I feel like I am not good enough?
  • Do I get annoyed at little things?
  • Am I jealous often?
  • Am I prone to feeling anxious?
  • Are there parts of my life that make me feel ashamed or embarrassed?
  • Is the way I act the same way my mother acted towards me growing up?

If the answer is yes to most of these questions, then you have a negative cognition.

How do you know if you have a positive cognition?

**One can tell if they have a positive cognition by having a conversation with someone else or going through a series of questionnaires. One would ask themselves questions like: **

  • Do I enjoy making others happy?
  • Do I try my best to be always successful?
  • Am I able to live in balance with myself and those around me?
  • Is it essential for me to stay healthy mentally and physically?
  • Am I willing to explore new things in life even though there may be uncertainty ahead of me?

If one answers yes to most of these questions, they are likely to possess a positive cognition.

EMDR negative cognitions list

Several types of negative cognitions can be used for EMDR therapy.

1. Control/Choice

Examples include:

  • I will fail, or I am a failure
  • I am not good enough, or I am inadequate
  • I am powerless, or I am weak
  • I cannot succeed
  • I don’t have any options, or I am helpless
  • I’m going to die, or I am not in control
  • I’m a bad person
  • I am unlovable
  • I am ugly
  • I am stupid

2. Safety/Vulnerability

Examples include:

  • I can’t protect myself
  • I can’t trust myself anymore, or I cannot be trusted
  • I can’t trust anyone

3. Perfectionism/Self-defectiveness

Examples include:

  • I am worthless
  • I am defective

4. Responsibility

Examples include:

  • I am an idiot
  • I am unimportant, or I am insignificant
  • I should have known better
  • I deserve to die
  • I am to blame

EMDR positive cognitions list

Here is the list of positive cognitions for EMDR.

1. Control/Choice

  • I am strong
  • I am capable
  • I am in charge of my life
  • I will succeed
  • I will handle it
  • I am worth
  • I am powerful

2. Safety/Vulnerability

  • I am safe
  • I have many people to trust
  • I will take care of myself
  • I trust the judgment

3. Perfectionism/Self-defectiveness

  • I can succeed.
  • I can be myself (make mistakes).
  • I can handle it.
  • I am capable
  • I am adequate
  • I am good enough

4. Responsibility

  • I am worthy
  • I am lovable
  • I am bright
  • I deserve a second chance
  • I deserve to be treated with love
  • I am honorable.
  • I am deserving (fine/okay).
  • I am intelligent


Many individuals experience negative cognitions during their lives. They may be thoughts that are internal or in response to external stimuli.

An individual can learn to work through these cognitions by practicing EMDR and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.

The therapist will discover what cognition is and help the client process it healthily.

One thing to remember is that individuals cannot change what happened in the past but can change how they think about those events.

Back to the EMDR Guide

Author Details

Clinical Psychologist & EMDR Therapist

Derin Kubilay

Derin Kubilay is a clinical psychologist and EMDR therapist working in a private psychotherapy clinic. She is the founder of Psychology Mentorship organization, a coordination team member of Voluntary Psychological Support Project, and an active researcher on several topics related to EMDR.


Jenkins, S. M. B. C. (2015, January 8). Are Blocking Beliefs Holding You Back in EMDR Therapy? GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog. Retrieved September 6, 2022, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/are-blocking-beliefs-holding-you-back-in-emdr-therapy-0108144

Coubard O. A. (2015). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) re-examined as cognitive and emotional neuroentrainment. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8, 1035. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.01035

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