Emotional Logic


When I see my children play, I see them recreate/mimic things they have just experienced or stories that they have heard or read. As a therapist, these patterns interest me because I wonder how much of our psychological processes, i.e., attitudes, beliefs about the world, behaviors, and personality structure are a product of recreating or reenacting our earliest experiences. Repetition is also fundamental
to how we self-sooth, socially interact, play, and is also a key ingredient in how we heal. Healing is a critical aspect of survival. By taking a deeper psychological look at what forces are at play in repetitive behaviors we can better understand what makes us tick as human beings.

Have you ever wondered what forces drive you to repeat something that is bad for you (or good for that matter) and why you repeat it? Maybe you are repeating negative behavioral patterns that involve eating, drugs, sex, work, parenting, or romantic relationships. I hope that you have noticed these patterns because identifying these provide the opportunity to learn from your behavioral patterns.

Like with any form of learning, we need cues, prompts, or reminders to reference previously acquired information. These reminders are often emotional in nature and come in the form of cues from the body (i.e., butterflies in the stomach, heart pounding, hands sweating) and are prompted by the recognition of these emotional and behavioral patterns. If we don’t recognize emotional or behavioral pattern consciously then we can’t apply the message. Why don’t we recognize the message? Maybe it is because we consciously don’t know the language or why the body (which unconsciously holds all of our past experiences) is communicating to us in the first place. As a result, the experiences of not knowing leaves us consciously feeling “surprised” as to what is going on, which is also a reason why our behavioral patterns repeat.

Repetition is a form of communication and is essential to everything we do. To answer what is going on with repetition and why we do it, we first have to explore our motivations: We do everything and anything (and even nothing) for survival reasons. Our survival system, which include our action systems, help moves us/stop us depending on what is needed in a given situation. It references what has worked and not worked in the past through an associative and procedural process that utilizes our emotional/implicit and procedural memory systems. Oftentimes just hearing what works and what doesn’t isn’t enough to solidify our understanding so we have to try it ourselves to know what it feels like. Our actions, or lack thereof, do not always make sense rationally. However, there is a logic to our emotions if we consider them from the perspective of this procedural process.

For example, I once caught my toddler son putting a plastic bag on my infant daughter and trying to feed her small pieces of Legos, which both my wife and I explicitly warned him against doing before he had done it. I believe that from our prompting, he played it out and without correction he will come to know that he can express himself in such ways without consequences. But the key to understanding his behavior was when he decided to involve the plastic bag or Legos. It was when she was touching his toys for the first time or was hurt by the fact that she was getting more attention then he was. This is my son’s emotional side developing. I know in his heart he does not want his sister to die or be the one who kills her but in the moment when she is touching his toys he may feel threaten and it is hard to not react like this. I interpret the behaviors not as malicious or with murderous intent but with emotional logic.

Emotional Logic

Emotional logic can be found in one-liners that capture the paradoxes of life. “The more things change, the more things stay the same.” “Sometimes less is more.” “You don’t know what you got until its gone.” “No pain, no gain.” “The end is just the beginning.” “Creating pain in order to have relief later.” “We are living and dying at the same time.” “What feels good to you is bad for you and what feels bad is good for you.” To the extreme, emotional logic rationalizes all problematic behaviors: “I hit you because I love you.” “I need a cigarette/drink/sex/materialism.” “I cut myself to get relief.” “I had to drive drunk.” “I had to kill her so she would know how much I loved her.”

These are statements are emotional truths that are felt in the moment, are usually an end that justify the means, and are felt wants that are labeled as needs. When emotional logic is put to the extreme, it provides the philosophical and emotional grounding for problematic behaviors like abuse, overanalyzing, worrying, enabling, stealing, self-harm/abuse, murder, addictions, and suicide. All these actions are based on short-term survival thinking and can be linked to earlier developmental ages or states of the ego. These ego states are based on our reference material (i.e., memories). Underlying all of these behaviors is an unconscious and dissociative process of reenactments (more on this point later.)

In the survival system, staying alive and safe is paramount. This includes not only our defense reactions like fight, flight, freeze, and appease but also locating food, relating with others, engaging in play, feeling open to seek new experiences with curiosity, and respectful lust. If these latter experiences are not happening, we can feel as if something is not right and this makes us feel threatened or in danger. When we feel threatened or in danger our bodies internally and biologically organically produce symptoms of traumatic stress that include the desire to fight, flight, freeze or appease by triggering butterflies in the stomach, heart rate increase or decrease, or palms sweating. Psychologically and emotionally, we register these experiences by what we have experienced before and if our external world is continually triggering our internal world, our internal world starts communicating with external world through reminders by way of intrusive symptoms (and the element of “surprise,” dramatic expression, or extreme presentation ensures that the message is received but does not guarantee that it will be interpreted, comprehended, and/or applied). Intrusive symptoms of traumatic stress are flashbacks, thoughts, images, or body sensations but the “intrusive” nature of traumatic stress is a matter of perspective i.e., “who is intruding on whom?”

Parts Work

The answer to “who is intruding on whom?” lies in our temporal understanding because our past is playing out in our present. Rational logic that says “the past is in the past” doesn’t hold up because emotional logic says “Bullshit, that feels like it is still happening now so let me show you that it is by showing images of the past while you are in a conscious state or asleep.” The external emotional circumstances are triggering our internal survival programming because they are being felt as a matter of survival due to their needs not getting met. It is not that people want to consciously be doing these problematic behaviors but they do not want to unconsciously be living under these conditions either.

Our survival programming is the main platform for maintaining homeostasis both physically and psychologically. Psychologically, we have different sides to us that we use to keep ourselves balanced just like biologically we have different systems for different bodily functions. For example, psychologically, we have a side meant for daily functioning and an emotional side which guides us on how we feel about what we are experiencing based on what we have experienced before. In the theory of structural dissociation (Van der Hart, Nijenhuis, & Steele, 2006) these are identified as Appearing Normal Part(s) (ANP) and the Emotional Part(s) (EP). These parts of us can also be seen as correlated to functions in the brain i.e., the left-brain (ANP) predominately is oriented to time and space, logical, linear, and forms verbal language and the right-brain (EP) predominately is oriented to symbolism, affective responses, non-verbal communication, and facial recognition. The ANP and EP ego states are “states of being” “brain states” or “states of the brain.” meaning that are internal states of consciousness that are presenting externally. They also relates to our brain from a bottom-up/top-down perspective i.e., EP is related to the older reptilian brain and mammalian brain as they are emotionally-based and because our emotional world developmentally first chronologically and then ANP is related to the newer cognitive brain.

The question becomes, “How are these created?” and the answer is: “through experience.” The stronger the experience, the stronger the ego state created. An ego state is related to traumatic stress and memory because the ego state represents the part of us that is encapsulated in the trauma or emerged as a result. Meaning that an ego state is a manifestation of an unprocessed memory or what it learned from the experience. Furthermore, what is held in that ego state is a level of awareness, developmental level, and worldview of the age when the trauma happened. This is what we revert back to when we regress psychologically as a result of stress.

Now, back to the question at hand... Why would you keep doing something despite obvious negative consequences? On the surface, logic says that doing anything that could potentially have negative consequences like smoking, drinking, sex, or relationships is bad for you. Emotional logic says, “Wait! You cannot say you are alive if you don’t try new things so let me do more of that bad thing to prove a point because you need to learn that there are no absolutes in life and that everything has a consequence dependent upon the time and space that it is viewed!” The question again becomes, “who is talking to whom?” but also, “What part of the brain is talking to what part of the brain?” This is the proverbial scene where the devil and the angel are fighting over who is driving the bus i.e., the conscious (prefrontal cortex) and the unconscious (reptilian) brain or the left and right brain negotiating control over the action systems. True, negative consequences are going to be in the eye of the beholder and relative to when they are viewed, but when we breakdown the logic of why we do anything repetitively we see a deeper meaning emerge and access a deeper wisdom of life.

People often come into therapy to stop doing a behavior that they have consciously recognized as problematic, socially been pointed out as an issue, and/or because they feel some negative way of which they cannot explain; let alone change. Basically, they are seeing negative patterns repeat and trying to bring it to the attention of conscious brain so it can do something about it. When we feel a certain way because of what we do or what has been done to us, it leaves an impression on our survival reference material i.e., our memories.

This leads back to repetition: our unconscious processes repeat in order to learn/to increase awareness or consciousness. This is our survival brain trying to educate the conscious brain to what is an unresolved issue, which often presents in having mixed emotions. Our emotions are often mixed because they come from different experiences that we have had or different sides of us or from different times of our life when we held different views. When things from our past remain unresolved, the unconscious survival brain has a unique way and often indirect way of motivating our conscious brain to address the conflict through a process of reenacting previous experiences. From a more adaptive point of view, reenactments are attempts to make an experience conscious so that they can be resolved. Resolution is desired because it maintains homeostasis and when an experience can be stored properly in the memory systems i.e., memory resolution through a process of memory reconsolidation (Ecker, Ticic, & Hulley, 2012), symptoms of distress is reduced; if not eliminated. Symptoms of distress include: anxiety, panic, depression, dissociation, anger, emotional cycling, and physical ailments.


In traumatology, recreating our traumatic experiences is known as trauma reenactments. Reenactments can happen in real time i.e., they unconsciously recreate unresolved relational dynamics, events/situations, or aspects of your life in order to draw attention externally to what is being experienced internally. Bessel van der Kolk (1989) provided a clear example of this phenomenon where he
describes treating a Vietnam vet from a night when the soldier “lit a cigarette at night and caused the death of a friend.” “From 1969 to 1986, on the exact anniversary of the death, to the hour and minute, he yearly committed “armed robbery” by putting a finger in his pocket and staging a “holdup,” in order to provoke gunfire from the police. The compulsive re-enactment ceased when he came to [consciously] understand its meaning (pg. 393).” I added [consciously] in the last line as an editorial statement to support the point I am making.

If reenactments are the survival brain’s way of performing memory reconsolidation, then what the survival brain is trying to do is heal our memories/experiences. This would make sense as the reptilian part of the body/brain (cerebellum, medulla, brain stem) that sends out the white platelets to clot a physical wound so psychological they would be involved too. This part of the brain has survived on the planet for at least 500 millions of years and the ability to heal is essential for survival, however, cognitive/rational processes or societal expectations (stigma) are often blocking healing. From the psychological perspective, memory resolution and appropriate storage of memories are critical to healthy brain functioning, personality integration, and our overall mental health.

Integration is a sign of optimal state for our mental health (Seigel, 2011) and when memory reconsolidation cannot be performed naturally then it remains stuck and produces symptoms of distress i.e., dissociation, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and rigid personalities. With symptoms like these, it stands to reason that anxiety, panic, depression, and addictions (which I would include eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive behaviors) would result. However, despite the internal conflict that results in these symptoms, the cause for them continuing and not resolving is often external. We make meaning by being able to share our experience with a safe person by telling our story or expressing it non-verbally through artistic means. Oftentimes people are not able to express what has happened to them because they don’t have that safe person to share their emotions with.


Emotional logic is not without it flaws because it is often the ends justifying the means and rational logic often negates it. When our needs and wants are not objectively balanced out, there is conflict and disorder. Social stigma of mental health adds to the conflict because people are made fun of or suppressed if they express their emotions and expose their vulnerability. This often stems from our family and culture of origin. We all have an emotional side to our biological and psychological make-up, but like a muscle, if it is not used it weakens over time. In family or societal structures where our emotional experience is suppressed: subversion, deviance, and defiance persist.

Philosophically, all addictions are based on emotional logic, which is rationally disconnected but that does not mean that they are any less valid. Emotional logic is based on procedural memory, emotional survival, defense mechanisms, traumatic and dissociative reenactments, and ultimately our stories. When there is a disconnection between logic and our emotional world, which is often represented as disconnected from heart and mind, then it stands to reason that addiction is dissociative and dissociation always accompanies trauma, to what degree or measure is debatable. This is why Dr. Marich and I started our Addiction as Dissociation Model (O’Brien & Marich, 2019). What has been presented here are some concepts that are foundational to seeing Addiction as Dissociation and I believe that knowing these would benefit clients, families, clinicians, treatment centers, policymakers, and government agencies.

Until we recognize the different sides to us, we will be beholden to their survival needs. However, we are not condemned to repeat our past if we remain in a process of learning, applying said learning, and continue healing from our past. However, as Billy Preston asked… “Will it go round in circles?” Yes it will, Billy, yes it will...


Ecker, B., Ticic, R., & Hulley, L. (2012). Unlocking the emotional brain: Eliminating symptoms at their roots using memory reconsolidation. New York, NY: Routledge.

Maté, G. (2003). When the body says no: exploring the stress-disease connection. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

O’Brien, A., & Marich, J. (2019). Addiction as Dissociation Model by Adam O'Brien and Dr. Jamie Marich. Retrieve

Scaer, R. (2005). The trauma spectrum: Hidden wounds and human resiliency. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Siegel, D. (2011). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks.

Van der Hart, O., Nijenhuis, E., Steele, K. (2006). The haunted self: The structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Van der Kolk, B.A. (1989). The compulsion to repeat the trauma: Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12, 389-411.


Update on Treating Addictions with EMDR

Gabor Maté says that “the root cause of addiction is trauma” (Maté, 2010) but I think we need to add dissociation to that sentence because addiction is a dissociative process caused by trauma. I do not think that he would disagree considering that he wrote a book called Scattered (1999), which talks about the roots of ADD/ADHD as emotional dissociation.

You will have to reference my previous blog on this subject (HERE) to have more of the backdrop of what I am presenting here. This is intended for EMDR/trauma resolution clinicians but believe that anyone would benefit from exploring. Also, before I can give you this update, I will briefly make sense of how addiction, trauma, and dissociation interplay.

“Addiction as Dissociation Model” is what I have been working on for the past year (along with my mentor Dr. Jamie Marich) and have submitted it as a position paper and is currently under review. HERE is a recent blog that we did to highlight some of the main points (O’Brien & Marich, 2019). I believe that this model’s importance is critical to the treatment of addiction because it highlights where addictions fit into the mental health “disorder” paradigm but also because addiction symptomatology can hide in other mental health presentations.

I put “disorder” in quotations because specifically addiction, trauma, and dissociation are normed experiences, meaning that they are supposed to happen given certain conditions and for this reason they are interrelated. Addiction, trauma, and dissociation are inseparable forces of nature because like a stone into a pond (trauma) there going to be ripples (dissociation and potentially addiction). I believe that addiction and dissociation are the same process and that it is the impact of trauma that creates the extremes. Because of this, the root of addiction is untreated dissociation caused by trauma and untreated trauma. We use the definition of “dissociation in trauma” as the operational definition for dissociation (Nijenhuis & Van der Hart, 2011). For addiction, I will use our working definition of addiction as “a manifestation of untreated dissociation and trauma.”

When looking at these three experiences and how they overlay, we have to recognize 3 things.

1) Any life-threatening or adverse life experience, perceived or real, can produce the same symptomatology i.e., trauma and stress symptomatology, 2) that dissociative/addictive states create traumas, 3) and that dissociation always accompanies trauma due to the law of cause and effect.

So I ask, can you have trauma without dissociation? Can you have trauma without addiction? Can you have addiction without trauma and dissociation? Can you have dissociation without addiction?

Here are my answers and rationale for what I am suggesting.

Can you have trauma without some form of dissociation? No, i.e., a stone thrown in a pond is going to create a ripple. It was brought to my attention in a FB group, basically warning me against absolutes, that dissociation does not always happen during a traumatic event because people can consciously experience a traumatic event. I agree that people can be conscious during a traumatic event but this does not mean that a form of dissociation is not present because we can be consciously dissociated. This viewing of an experience sounds more like depersonalization, which is a form of dissociation. Furthermore, there is the concept of co-consciousness that suggests that both can be happening at the same time. Dissociation is not just about checking out momentarily; we can be consciously living dissociated, which can be considered dual attention. This is paradoxical but is essential to understanding dissociation and addiction and this is why parts work is essential to treating addictions.

Can you have trauma without addiction? Yes, you can have trauma without addiction but the trauma is most likely from a natural disaster i.e., an “act of God” as insurance companies call them but ultimately, “God” gives enough warnings before a natural disasters. Staying and not heeding the warnings is a sign of being addicted. “Addiction as Dissociation” explores when we are living dissociatively we are in a state of being addicted. All other traumas that I can think of happen as a result of someone else trying to get their needs met in excessive or maladaptive ways while under the influence of this unmet need (not just a drug).

Can you have addiction without trauma (and dissociation)? No, because addictive behaviors are traumatic/life threatening to the survival reptilian brain and this would produce dissociation as a response. Addictive Memory (Boening, 2001) is traumatic memory and so would produce the same symptoms. Addictions are on the spectrum of trauma and dissociation and what can be inferred is that since dissociation has a normal range of presentations so do addictions and trauma.

Can you have dissociation without addiction? Yes, because there is a normal range of dissociative experiences, however, outside the normal range is where pathological dissociation (Waller, Putnam, & Carlson, 1996) begins and this can be considered an addicted state. Interestingly enough, dissociation is produced by the endogenous opiate and cannabinoid systems in the brain (Lanius, 2014), which suggests that we can become addicted to the processes produced by dissociation and the traumas that cause them (Van der Kolk, 1989).

When conceptualizing “Addiction as Dissociation” we must see that the addictive behaviors are a manifestation of a previous dissociative experience that is manifesting as a re-enactment and/or creating a feedback loop. So, to explore this connection comprehensively with EMDR, by performing a floatback from the first time the client fell in love with the drug or bonded with their dissociation, will produce their dissociation history.

When doing this, what I have found is that clients floatback to early childhood experiences of excessively watching TV, playing video games or sports, eating sugar/food, studying/school, fighting, stealing, or extra-circular activities. Again, these are all done excessively suggesting that they were compensating for emotional abuse or neglect. We can conceptualize these as “small d” dissociations. Also, and more obviously, previous dissociative experiences as a result of traumas or adverse life events. These would be “big D” dissociations which would include any (real, potential, or perceived) medical procedure/illness of the individual or family member or hearing age-inappropriate stories with adult themes or death. More on this last point in the conclusion.

Here is the update… The Set-up

The dissociative response produces a felt experience of numb (the relief moment) that would emotionally be interpreted as safety, stillness, peace, and comfort. Some dissociative responses like fighting and stealing produced a high as well and if that still stays with them then it is a target. Even though it may be in the absence of conscious presence, it is still real to the person experiencing the immediate effects of relief from the subjective experience. Our survival brain would retain these experiences for future survival needs and would reproduce/reenact it as a way of communicating this need to the conscious self.

Temporally, there is a before, during, and after any given trauma. However, I contend that there are really two memories created in the “during phase” i.e., the stone and the ripple. First, is the inescapable shock moment (trauma) and then second is the dissociative response (safety/relief moment). If the dissociative response registers on the Positive Feeling State Scale (PFS) or even if it registers on the SUD scale, then it is the target. If it doesn’t register then it may have been processed naturally or is dissociated suggesting that it is unresolved. It is essential to target this because this is what is being re-enacted or caught in the feedback loop. We can target it by switching the NC and the PC as I suggested in my previous writing.

What we are doing as EMDR therapist is treating the “during” part of the memory when we are reprocessing a traumatic memory (Phases 4 and 5). Typically, when reprocessing the trauma you can get the dissociative moment (the safety/relief moment) as well - but not always. Taking a dissociative history like we do a trauma history is probably not something that most clinicians do regularly so this relief moment is often missed as a component of the client’s treatment. By doing the dissociative floatback it will provide more access to their dissociative profile, provide targets, and provide comprehensive treatment.

We can treat dissociation by targeting the dissociative moment and/or the safety that it provides. This is the memory that we need to target when treating dissociation and also addiction. In reference to my previous blog, how we set this up with our clients is by asking, “Do you remember that moment that checking out felt good or right?” This is the same question for addiction “Do you remember when you fell in love with the addictive behavior or that feeling of numb?” PC: “What does that make you believe about yourself or this situation?” (You will need a greatest hits list for this purpose. Click HERE for Dr. Marich or HERE for mine.) “What do you need to believe about this now (as the adult you)? Then get a PFS (Positive Feeling State) or SUD, feeling, and body sensation i.e., standard protocol.


Addictions can form as a response to trauma but often times linking the addictive behavior to the consequences or treating the trauma does not eliminate the addiction. In cases where addictions are present, we need to treat both the trauma and dissociative response from the earliest ages (even pre-verbal or inter-generationally) and for that we need the Addiction as Dissociation conceptualization. Once that is in place, then we can use trauma resolution methods to treat it. This is what Dr. Marich and I providing. Treating the cravings or triggers is really treating the symptoms of addiction. Often times this leads to the underlying mechanisms of dissociation but to securely say that we have treated an addiction therapeutically we have to resolve both the trauma and the dissociative response.

To me the dissociative response of living dissociatively (this includes re-enactments and feedback looping in the memory system) is what defines active addiction. We cannot separate trauma from dissociation anymore then we can separate water from the wave. Someone who is addicted (to be fair I believe that bonded is a better word for addiction) to his or her dissociation is going to produce reenactments that are based on emotional logic. See my most recent blog HERE on the subject.

Often times addiction is seen an avoidance tactic. What is the difference between avoidance and keeping one safe? For me, it is our cultural stigma, which inform our negative beliefs. With “Addiction as Dissociation” conceptualization, addictions are more of a survival need for securing a feeling of safety. Clients respond better to this more humanistic approach rather than being told that they are doing something wrong.

Lastly, the power of story cannot be denied or dissociated from. Stories are often our first highs in life. A good story hooks us in and it is that hook that gets us before any addictive behaviors sets in. Our stories are what our survival brains eat for food. It gobbles up the information as facts because it might have to use this knowledge in the future in order to survive but also in order to thrive. I write this last part because you may have to address the glorifying stories that the client has heard or seen from their childhood or saw in media. For example, I have targeted characters from “Dazed and Confused” and “Hunter S. Thompson,” however, more often I have targeted familial stories. Hearing that mom or dad did this or that when s/he was younger suggests to the child listening that this is what s/he has to do in order to be a wo/man or adult. Following in the footsteps of our parents is inevitable but it does not have to be so literally. Ultimately, this is breaking the cycle of addiction, which is essential to truly treating addictions. Stories are our reference material for life, so be mindful of what and how you share.


Boening, J. (2001). Neurobiology of addiction memory. Journal of Neural Transmission, 108, 755-765.

Lanius, U. (2014). Dissociation and endogenous opioids: A foundational role. In U. Lanis, S. Paulsen, and F. Corrigan (Eds.), Neurobiology and treatment of traumatic dissociation: Toward an embodied self. (pp. 81-104). New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Maté, G. (1999). Scattered: How attention deficit disorder originates and what can you do about it. New York, NY: Plume.

Maté, G. (2010). In the realm of hungry ghosts: Close encounters with addiction. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Nijenhuis, E.R.S., & van der Hart, O. (2011). Dissociation in trauma: A new definition and comparison with previous formulations. Journal of Trauma and Dissociation. 12:4 (pp. 416-445). DOI: 10.1080/15299732.2011.570592

O’Brien, A., & Marich, J. (2019). Addiction as Dissociation Model by Adam O'Brien and Dr. Jamie Marich. Retrieve

Van der Kolk, B.A. (1989). The compulsion to repeat the trauma: Re-enactment, revictimization, and masochism. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 12, 389-411.

Waller, N., Putnam, F.W., & Carlson, E.B. (1996). Types of dissociation and dissociative types: A taxmetric analysis of dissociative experience. Psychological Methods, 1(3). 300-321.