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My client keeps talking in the past tense during imaginal reliving - should I correct them?

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

Doing imaginal reliving in the present tense is usually recommended to facilitate emotional engagement with the memory. Reliving should feel somewhat different to just talking about what happened in an unengaged way; we want our clients to bring the memory to mind and imagine it as if it is happening again. Some people find this easier than others. If your client hasn’t seemed very engaged with the memory, or you get the feeling that they are avoiding the feelings associated with it (e.g. by rushing, giving a very detached account), then use of the past tense may be another sign that they are holding back. It will be worthwhile to spend some time discussing how they are finding reliving to understand what lies behind that and working with any associated beliefs e.g. 'I won't be able to cope'.

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If your client seems well engaged with the memory i.e. they are describing it in lots of detail, accessing thoughts and feelings, and their feedback and ratings afterwards indicate that they were connecting emotionally with what happened, then speaking in the past tense probably hasn’t made much difference to their emotional engagement. It can be distracting and potentially undermining to continually correct someone who keeps slipping into the past tense during reliving. So, we might gently correct someone the first couple of times they use the past tense, but usually just let them carry on if it continues to happen. Asking all of your prompt questions in the present tense e.g. “what are doing?”, “how are you feeling at that moment?” can sometimes remind them to talk in the present tense. You can mention it again when setting up reliving a second time, but it is important not to give clients the impression they are doing the reliving ‘wrong’. As long as you aren’t concerned about their level of emotional engagement, the present tense isn’t worth insisting upon as reliving should still be effective.


Practice points:

  • Doing imaginal reliving in the present tense is usually recommended to facilitate emotional engagement

  • Use of the past tense can be a sign of avoidance, or lack of engagement with the memory

  • In these cases, use of the present tense should be discussed when reviewing how reliving is going, and trying to increase levels of emotional engagement

  • If the client is otherwise connecting emotionally with the memory, talking in the past tense is probably not causing problems

  • In these cases, a few gentle reminders should be given, but it is unnecessary to continually correct the use of the past tense.

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