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What if Imagery of Past Happiness Generates Distress in the Present?

05 Mar

Question:

Dear BR,

I read your newsletters religiously and offer guided imagery in my practice as a Yoga Therapist.  With a specialty in Parkinson's Disease and neurological disorders, I always refer your products to my students and clients.

When I engage in a guided imagery  practice with my clients, leaving the setting and details to them, rather than make suggestions, they sometimes retreat to situations from the past that are no longer possible for them, such as playing golf, running or hiking alone.

I often wonder if this does not set the stage for more grief and possibly denial, and would like your thoughts on leaving them to their own images, or gently guiding them toward one that does not have potential for angst.
Thank you for all you do.

C.C., CYT/RYT

Answer:

Dear CC,

This is a great question, which often gets raised by psychotherapists, too.  I guess it depends on the individual, whether this trip down memory lane inspires sweet, nourishing memories or, as you say, angst over what’s been lost.  It’s quite possible that many could feel sustained by the feelings and experiences that they had long ago, without taking an emotional dive.

But since you’re doing this in a group, you’ll probably get some of each. So I suppose you could structure your imagery to be a little more protective of those who could get thrust into grief for times lost.  

One thing you might do is build into the imagery something symbolic or concrete, that they could take back with them to the present from that happier (or less disabled) time.  It could be a gift, some words of encouragement, a symbol of the love or happiness that was shared then… in other words, build in a “transitional object” as psychodynamic therapists like to call it – the grown-up version of a blankie or teddy bear – to have (imaginally) in the present.  You’d be surprised how effective this device can be for some.  (We use it in the Self-Confidence imagery and also in the narrative for Healing Trauma.)

Another thing you might do is not have them go to any unstructured place or time – just have them settle into their bodies and then be approached by a fill-in-the-blanks visitor, who offers some kind of comfort, healing, calming, acknowledgment or validation.  (Again, this could wind up being someone who has died, and the risk always is that the person will start feeling sad over that loss. But way more often than not, they’ll be very happy to have had a visit from someone they weren’t expecting to see again.)

You can encourage them to stay in the moment, stick with the imagery and not pull out of it to feel grief or loss from their current standpoint.  Sometimes that instruction is a big help.  

But if you know of people in your class who do react this way, you can help them figure out something ahead of time that won’t generate distress.

I hope this helps.

All best wishes,
Belleruth

Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award