The Process of Imagery Rescripting
Imagery rescripting for social anxiety is a therapy technique used to help you deal with traumatic social memories that are influencing how you act today.
It’s important to deal with these memories, because you carry an image of yourself based on what happened in the past. This image is triggered anytime you find yourself in a situation similar to the traumatic one.
While not everyone who has social anxiety will have experienced a traumatic event from the past, most people can think of at least one. And remember, traumatic does not have to mean a major event like being bullied be a group of kids or verbally abused.
Any memory that sticks with you, has a negative association, and seems to influence how you feel about yourself in current social situations can be relevant.
While imagery rescripting is usually conducted by a therapist, I’m going to outline for you the main steps, as I believe that it’s something you could practice on your own through some journaling techniques. Indeed, I’m basing the technique on what is described in a 2011 study by researchers Jennifer Wild and David Clark, who also suggest that this is a technique that could be practiced on your own.
Below are the steps to work through imagery rescripting on your own.
Step 1: Identify the Traumatic Memory
Do you remember a time in the past when you felt very anxious in a social situation and simultaneously felt that you were being humiliated or ridiculed? Write a brief description of that event.
Step 2: Identify the Recurrent Image of Yourself
Can you think of a recurrent image that you have of yourself that links to that negative memory? For example, in Wild and Clark’s study, they describe a young woman (Megan) who had an image of herself as going bright red (blushing) in front of people and them pointing and laughing at her. This image was linked to a time when her boyfriend had made fun of her in this way.
Step 3: Can you Identify the Underlying Belief that Links the Traumatic Memory and the Recurrent Image of Yourself?
For example, Megan identified her underlying belief as “I am inferior to other people, and they will reject me.” What belief links the negative memory that you have and the recurrent image of yourself?
Step 3: Cognitive Restructuring
In this step, you need to put on your logical thinking cap and list all of the evidence that supports this belief as well as all the evidence that does not support it. This is a standard practice in cognitive behavioral therapy.
Remember, you aren’t dealing with the memory in an emotional way here. You’re just thinking logically.
In the case of Megan, she discussed how blushing was a normal thing to do and didn’t mean she was inferior or that other people should make fun of her for it. She also realized that her boyfriend was being a jerk to make fun of her for blushing, and that the incident that led to her blushing was not actually her fault.
Step 4: Imagery Rescripting
Here’s where it gets interesting. You see, the basis of imagery rescripting is that it’s not enough to rationally understand a situation. Instead, you need to relive it and reprocess the memory so that you can let it go.
The imagery rescripting step involves some specific instructions that were used by Wild and Clark. I will summarize them here for you:
It seems that a traumatic event led to you having certain beliefs about yourself. You think people you meet today will treat you the same way you were treated in the past. It’s like you expect things to happen a certain way because of that one event from the past.
But back then, you didn’t have a rational way of looking at it. So, we need to go back and update that memory. You’re going to do that by revisiting the memory. We are going to do this in three steps:
Step A: I want you to write out the memory in the first person and present tense as though you are the age you were back then.
Step B: I want you to write out the memory in the third person and present tense as though you are an adult observing the situation. (For example, Megan wrote “Megan was blushing but it was because her boyfriend made fun of her and was a jerk.)
Step C: I want you to write out the memory again in the first person, but adding in what you know based on the adult observer perspective.
The goal of this process is to reduce the negative impact of that memory from the past so that it no longer influences how you behave in the present. We want you to be able to respond to the present as it is really happening, not through a negative mental filter that has resulted from your past experiences.
The reason this is so important is because when you go into situations expecting people to be judgmental, mean, cruel, or pointing out your flaws, of course you will feel anxious!
You have a belief about the world that everyone is watching you, studying you, noticing your anxiety, and ready to point it out. That in turn makes you feel anxious, which causes you to use safety behaviors that can actually cause other people to reject you because they think you are unfriendly (sad, but true).
What do you think? Do you remember any socially traumatic events that could be influencing how you feel and act today? Let me know in the comments.