I’ve been fascinated by the power that visualization has on different clients experiences, especially concerning healing in their past relationships. I was first introduced to this concept through an interview with Mark Wolynn, the author of, It Didn’t Start With You-Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. During his interview, he noted that visualization can be just as formative as the memories that we have stored in our brains, and that our brain cannot tell the difference between the two.
Why Does This Matter?
So often, my clients reflect a desire to let go of resentment, pain, fear, and anxiety from past hurts in relationships. They have named that place of wounding and recognize its impact on their current relationships, emotions, and ability to function. Sometimes, in sitting with them, we work through role-playing what it would look like to confront the person that hurt them; but what happens when that person is no longer alive? What happens if they’ve cut off all ties with my client, or it seems that the person will never change and it’s actually unsafe for my client to approach the person that harmed them? This is where I’ve been able to witness the power of visualization.
While I am not a neuropsychologist, I do understand that our brains are taking in new information every day. It stores that information to help us approach everyday situations. When my clients have experienced hurt in their past, their brain has created a pathway that has remained stored to this day. When they think about the person who harmed them, their brain has taught them not only that that person was unsafe, but likely that other people or other experiences similar to that were also unsafe. It’s a way that we unconsciously protect ourselves, which is pretty amazing to consider.
Not only does our brain recall this level of feeling unsafe, but so does the rest of our body. It’s why people struggle with panic, increased heart rate, trouble breathing, tingling in the arms, or pain in their hands when they are around anyone or anything that reminds them of that experience.
What is Visualization?
Before I share why I think it works, it’s probably important to explore what visualization could look like. Simply put, I ask a client to recall a memory from their past. For those who may struggle with remembering, I’ll ask them to consider if they can recall a feeling, shape, their body posture, smells, or anything they might have heard. Once they’ve got that memory or one of those senses, I then ask them to describe, in as much detail that feels safe to them, what happened.
Next, I’ll ask them to think about the following: What would it look like for your grown-up selves to have power to change that memory to bring comfort to your younger self? Would you add another person there? Would you take yourself out of that memory? Would you re-imagine your posture or position?
I have seen from experience that many clients respond in such a deep way as they are re-writing the narrative of that moment. This in no way erases what happened. I’m not encouraging folks to forget. Instead, I’m asking them to imagine that instead of being harmed in that moment, they were kept safe.
Why Do I Think Visualization Works?
I think visualization works because it can create new experiences and new pathways in their brains. If the brains pathway changes, then my hope is that their bodies’ physical response and their emotions would also change.
Other Ways To Use Visualization
This practice of visualization is often used during spiritual practices, although there’s no limit as to where it can be used. Meditation and prayer are moments that have felt especially meaningful for clients. Envisioning God there stirs up a mixture of emotions from pain, hope, or anger, to disbelief.
Mark Wolynn also recommends visualization to be used to restore broken relationships or to grieve the loss of those who have passed. Here are a few examples:
- Placing a photo of someone who has passed away and saying a word or speaking to them about the comfort that you need.
- Lighting a candle as a memory or presence of a person.
- Writing a letter to the person and imagining that you are reading it to them.
- Creating a boundary box. This is done by looking at the ground and drawing a box around your feet and then another box away from your feet. The box surrounded by your feet symbolizes your worries, concerns, strengths, and your life, while the other box symbolizes the other person. This may be especially helpful for those who felt that much of your life was consumed by the needs of another person.
Guidance For The Next Step
I absolutely believe in the power of visualization to restore wounds from past experiences. I also recognize that recalling such difficult memories may be frightening and often is best done in the company of another person.
If just the thought of this exercise brings deep fear/stillness within you, I would say let’s do it together. Before visualization, it’s important for you to feel strong and safe within your body. You should have coping strategies in place in order to center yourself and know that you have what you need to feel empowered over emotions. This is something that we can do together. I encourage anyone who is interested in visualization to give us a call here at Optimum Joy.
Written by therapist Pamela Larkin