Imagery is a core component of many different therapies, but particularly mindfulness based approaches. Imagery is often described as an ‘experiential’ exercise, which means that it allows someone to experience the thoughts, emotions and physical responses as if something were happening in the here and now. This may be to learn a new skill (e.g. relaxation and self-soothing), or it could be to allow for limited re-parenting or re-scripting (e.g. in the case of schema therapy).
Paul Gilbert (2010) describes imagery as ‘creating mental experiences’ rather than working hard to create vivid and detailed pictures in the mind. It is about learning to focus and bring to mind memories, hopes, desires and ideas with minimal distraction (e.g. through intrusive and evaluative or critical thoughts).
A common imagery exercise is the ‘safe place’ image (although this can be called whatever feels most comfortable for you; soothing, comforting, happy, content etc.), which is very often used at the start of therapy as a tool to help a client learn a way to regulate and find a sense of calm and safety within themselves. Therapy can be a challenging process and can evoke many difficult memories and emotions, so it is important that there are some strategies in place that can help you to self-soothe either at the end of a session or between sessions.
In developing your own safe place, you may be asked to close your eyes if that feels okay and comfortable to do. You will be asked to create a place that can be real or imagined, that embodies a sense of calm, safety, peace and non-judgement. It is a place in which you are always welcome to be and a place that you feel that you belong. You will be asked to focus on the things that you can see, hear, smell, feel and maybe taste. You will draw your attention to other people or things that are present and to the feelings that they evoke in you. This place can be fluid; it may change each time you visit. The key is to be able to connect with a mental experience that creates an inner peace and sense of safety.
Within therapy sessions, you may also use imagery to connect with difficult or even traumatic memories. In schema therapy, your therapist (or another safe person) may be invited into the image to protect you from harm and to provide reparative experiences that you did not receive in childhood. Imagery can also be used to work through potential situations or ones that cannot be addressed in real life, for example talking to someone who has died or with whom you have no contact. Imagery in these instances can allow you to process, to make sense of and to challenge difficult thoughts and emotions you have about a person.
What is important to remember is that you are in control and you do not have to engage in imagery if it doesn’t feel right for you. You may re-visit it at a later time, or you may not. You may find that creating a safe space is enough for you. However, imagery is an incredibly powerful and effective therapeutic strategy that is used in many different therapy modalities.