One of the ways I help trigger memory reconsolidation with clients is through imaginal reenactment. This involves reimagining a painful scene so that it goes completely in the client’s favour.
But what if the reimagining brings pain itself? When the ideal imagining is so different from the reality they experienced, might this itself be painful?
In this post, I want to look at three things:
- Why do imaginal work
- How to use anger
- What to do about grief
Why Do imaginal work
Memory reconsolidation is the only known brain mechanism that produces permanent, effortless change. It does so through a repeated process of mismatching.
A mismatch is anything that disconfirms the person’s current emotional truth. This emotional truth may be expressed through core beliefs that they hold about themself, others, or life itself.
Yet there is almost always an autonomic nervous system response. When trauma therapists talk of trauma being bodily rather than just cognitive, this is an example of what we mean.
The autonomic nervous system responds to things in the now that resembles a traumatic time. When it does, it is felt in the body. The nervous system’s job is to respond to signs of threat and danger, and produce a response that keeps us alive.
Whatever we went through, that nervous system response worked because here we all are. So it reproduces that response today whenever something resembles the dangerous times.
Yet the response that was once useful may now be getting in the way. The nervous system is responding as if there is danger even when there isn’t.
Imaginal work allows the client to have new experiences and new, calmer autonomic responses. Memory reconsolidation can be triggered by mismatching the old feelings and the new. It overwrites the trauma response with new, resourceful responses.
The power of this is that it does not depend heavily on cognitive understanding. It is a bottom-up way of working directly with those bodily responses to help create change.
There are many ways that one can do imaginal work. Knowing the steps of memory reconsolidation allows us to get creative.
One approach that I use is imaginal reenactment. This is where an originally painful scene is reimagined in the client’s favour. The aim is for the client to emerge from the scene with their original needs met, as they deserved.
So a client that was overlooked feels validation. A client who felt unsafe feels complete safety. The disconfirmation between the old and new feelings helps create a mismatch on the nervous system level.
But what if the disparity between the two scenes itself causes pain?
How to use anger
Imaginal reenactment gives us an experience of how it should have been. Yet the point is not to simply have a pleasant experience. The point is to do it in such a way that it matches the steps needed for memory reconsolidation to occur.
When successful, the re-enactment will overwrite new feelings over the old (now problematic) responses. In future, the trauma event will still be remembered. The client remembers what happened. But their nervous system responds in a new, resourceful way.
Yet it may also bring up fresh emotions. Clients may experience grief or anger. “Was this really all it would have taken to care for me – so why didn’t they?”
Anger can be re-incorporated into the imaginal scene. For many clients, it may be the first time they have felt anger that is directed at others rather than themselves. It can be a realisation that they didn’t deserve this and were not to blame. “Hey, this wasn’t my fault, it was yours!”
If anger emerges, it can be woven into the imaginal scene so the client is able to safely express that anger, often for the first time. Like movement, it was likely suppressed in the original scene because it wouldn’t have been safe to act.
Incorporating the expression of anger into the new, safe scene is like satisfying the impulse to move. It helps the client feel safer and create boundaries in life that have previously felt scary to impose.
It is worth noting that such painful realisations are not restricted to imaginal work. Whenever a client reaches the insight that it was not their fault, anger can understandably follow. Any client who understands that they deserved better can rightly feel angry, irrespective of the kind of work that led to that insight.
Yet there is a benefit to this occurring in the midst of imaginal reenactment work. It can be quickly woven in and expressed in the imaginal scene. It becomes part of the client’s healing that creates changes in their actual life.
What to do about grief
We have seen how anger can emerge in the distance between what the client received and how it should have been for them. Another emotion that can emerge is grief.
Clients may feel understandable sadness that it didn’t happen that way for them. The imaginal scene gives them the experience of how it could and should have been. Feelings of sadness can follow.
There is a kind of mourning in this. It is the mourning of the loss of the childhood they deserved but didn’t get. Maybe even the mourning of the parent, grandparent or sibling they deserved but didn’t get.
There is genuine loss here and so this grieving needs to be worked with as you would with any other kind of grief. Like the anger, it is not to be erased. It is occurring in the here and now. It is not an echo response from decades ago. It is present.
Our role moves from change-maker to sitting with the person’s grief and loss. Helping clients change is not all that we do. Travelling with clients on a painful journey is also part of our work.
There is often a sense of sadness at this loss and sometimes tears. It makes perfect sense.
Yet this is not exclusive to imaginal work. This grief and loss can occur whatever our approach. At the point that the client realises that they deserved better, it is a step forward. A client who moves from “I deserve nothing more” to “I deserve so much better” is experiencing growth and fundamental change.
Whatever our methods, we hope for this upgrading of the client’s sense of worth. It can bring up feelings of mourning too. We may face this mourning with our client’s whenever we do successful work, however we do it.
When it emerges following imaginal work, we handle it as we would if it emerged following a conversational insight. With compassion and presence.
This same compassion and presence can be nurtured in the client for themself. Calls upon the imagination may be useful here too. In their grief, the adult client is feeling sad for their younger self.
They could be invited to be with that younger self and imaginally interact to give their child what they most need. This too may be an opportunity for memory reconsolidation. Not to erase the present grief, but to further disconfirm beliefs that no longer serve the client.
For instance, perhaps the child created a belief that “I do not deserve compassion.” Receiving compassion from their adult self may create a useful mismatch and so open the possibility for memory reconsolidation.
As you can see, a therapist who is aware of the steps of memory reconsolidation becomes ever alert to new opportunities to create change.
In this post, we have looked at
- Why do imaginal work
- How to use anger
- What to do about grief
Imaginal reenactment is a useful way to work directly with feelings and autonomic nervous system responses. It allows a bottom-up approach to memory reconsolidation that is not too reliant on cognitive understanding.
Yet the disparity between how it was and how they deserved it to be can itself produce difficult feelings, such as anger or grief.
Anger can be incorporated into the imaginal scene. It helps them unleash that repressed part and can help them feel safe from then on to draw boundaries in life.
Grief is a present emotion that makes sense. There has been a loss. It is the loss of what they deserved but didn’t get. It is not to be erased. Yet can be worked with imaginally too and offers fresh opportunities for disconfirming trauma responses and beliefs.
The key point is that, as our clients upgrade their sense of what they deserve, these feelings can emerge. It is not linked to imaginal work itself. A therapist who never uses imaginal reenactment will still face these questions as their clients gain these insights.
But those who do use the imagination as a resource have additional ways to work with these feelings to help create further change. Therapists who understand how memory reconsolidation works become more attuned alert to those possibilities during our work.
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