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  • Writer's picture Heidi Ashley

Imagery - therapeutic time machine for changing your past

 

time machine to go back to fix the past

Sometimes I’ll say to my client “Maybe one day, they’ll invent a time machine. We’ll jump inside and go back and help your Little Self. But in the meantime, we’ve got imagery.”

 

Imagery is almost like time travel, a way to go back in time and change the past.

 

Let me explain.

 

Imagery is probably the most healing intervention I know. It’s a way of getting out of the “talking zone”: avoiding endless conversations about issues that get clients only so far.

 

We need to get out of our heads in therapy. Otherwise, we often reach a stuck point. We understand something rationally (for example, that we aren’t unimportant or unworthy, and do have value as a human being), yet don’t feel any different. Clients stuck in the talking zone – for example, when therapy overemphasises rationality and reasoning – will often say “Look, I know I’m not bad or unlovable. I see that. But I still feel bad inside”.

 

Imagery is a great way to get out of our heads and get hearts and emotions involved in therapy too. When we do that, there’s the potential for much deeper healing.

 

In imagery, a client is invited to close their eyes, and imagine a painful scene from childhood. They are asked to become that little person again, see the world through young eyes, as if they are right back there. They are helped to connect with the emotions associated with being small and vulnerable in the scene. Often, a parent or caregiver is in the scene too, whose actions or attitude harm the child in some way. Maybe they are ignoring the child. Or perhaps they are frightening the child or blaming or abusing them. The child’s needs aren’t being met, which is why emotion is present. 

 

So: imagery takes us back in time to this salient early scene. A scene that makes sense of why we feel as we do as adults. A scene associated with the origins of the schemas.

 

But how does going back in imagery help? Isn’t it just reliving something painful, something maybe best forgotten?

 

Going back to become that little child again, feeling their emotions, is in itself an important step. Connecting with how it felt to be a vulnerable child packs a punch therapeutically. When we are in an emotional and open state like this, in a safe and contained environment (in the care of an experienced therapist), we are more able to accept new learning about ourselves. Growth and new learning don’t happen to the same extent when emotions are “cold”. Remember what I said above about getting the heart, and emotions, involved in healing too?

 

(You might also want to read “What are schemas?” where I discuss how resistant schemas are to change and new learning. Imagery creates the conditions where schemas are opened therapeutically, so that new learning can get in, kickstarting growth and change).

 

But back to my claim that imagery is a tool to change the past, not just revisit it. How do I justify this claim?

 

Imagery changes the past by “rescripting” the scene. Into the image of an upsetting childhood scene comes a healthy adult, whose job it is to meet the needs of the child.

 

At first, this will be the therapist, who enters the image to offer protection, warm connection or guidance to the little child. The therapist is careful to get in fast before anything too harmful happens in the image. These images are not about reliving past traumatic events.

 

Instead, rescripted images change and reorganise the scene and how we encode it within ourselves.

 

For example, imagine a scene where a client reconnects with an image of being harshly scolded by a parent when the client was only six. The client imagines and describes the scene, becoming the little child experiencing here and now, with all associated emotion.

 

Into the image walks the therapist. The therapist rescripts and directs the scene with the client. The therapist creates safety, puts a stop to the scolding, confronts the parent and sends them away (or removes the child to a safe place). Using imagination, even mean or scary parents are swiftly dealt with, for example by shrinking them down to the size of an ant or enlisting the help of a childhood superhero.

 

Now, the therapist’s attention focuses on the child in the image. The therapist might say “I won’t allow anyone to harm you again. Healthy parents don’t treat a child that way. It wasn’t your fault and you didn’t deserve it. You’re a good kid”. Eventually, the client’s Healthy Adult self can take over and look after their own child self. When this happens, it’s a sign of tremendous growth and change underway.

 

The scenes used in imagery represent the origins of the schemas. Images of being ignored by a parent (for example) are the reason why someone ended up with schemas such as emotional deprivation (“no-one understands how I feel”) or defectiveness (“I don’t deserve attention”). 

 

Reconnecting with these scenes, to rescript them – to hear healthy messages, the truth, the things a good parent would have said to the child - is a powerful way to reorganise images internally.  When images are rescripted, the meanings made of them can be forever changed. Often, we held these images within us as shameful or painful events. When images are rescripted, we can accept new information into the image: the truth. That we were not bad, were not to blame, did not deserve what happened to us. After rescripting, the emotional “flavour” of the image, its meaning and its significance, are held and encoded differently in the mind.

 

It’s like rewriting or updating the story of your life. It’s like travelling back in time, with your therapist there with you, on a mission to change the past.

 

After experiencing imagery rescripting, people often say “I still remember that event, but it doesn’t upset me the way it used to” or “when I think of that scene now, I’m not alone anymore. You’re there too”. Clients often say, “I wouldn’t say I enjoy imagery, but it really helps so let’s do more of it”.

 

By returning to an important scene to rescript it, imagery has real transformative power. Imagery update schemas, shifts internal self-critical voices, builds resilience and self-esteem, and changes unhealthy behaviours.

 

Can you see its power as a healing tool? 

 

Imagery remains the best therapy tool I’m aware of. It shatters the pain of the past and rebuilds memories. So, until they invent a time machine, imagery is a way to go back and change the past, emotionally and neurologically.

 

So, if you also struggle with painful memories, imagery could help you, too. You are always welcome to contact me to see if I might be able to support you as you journey forward.  Drop me a line at drheidiashley@protonmail.com and let me know you’re out there.

 

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