My client wants to do something violent in an imagery rescript - should I let them?
Updated: Jun 17, 2022
Part of what can make imagery rescripting useful is allowing the client to have an emotional experience that they were unable to have at the time of the trauma. For example, if a client was made to feel powerless or humiliated, the experience of overpowering and/or hurting a perpetrator can help them to access a different emotional experience; one of power and a sense of control, as well as making the perpetrator less frightening. In many cases, clients are left with a sense of injustice after a trauma, feeling that they have suffered while the perpetrator has ‘got away with it’. Imagery rescripting some kind of revenge can give them a sense of evening the score, which may not be possible in reality.
Imagining something is not the same as doing it. Although research has yet to answer the empirical question of whether violent rescripts lead clients to behave violently in real life, a study by Seebauer et al. (2014) found that violent imagery rescripts led to a decrease in negative emotions, including anger and aggressive feelings, not an increase. However, this was a non-clinical sample of students who had watched a trauma video, so these findings need replication in a clinical sample.
For most clients, it will be perfectly safe to imagine a violent rescript. There are some situations in which violent rescripts wouldn’t be advisable. Firstly, if your client has become preoccupied with revenge following their trauma, and has made plans to exact revenge in the past, they may use rescripting less as an exercise in imagination, and more to ruminate on potential future plans. Secondly, if your client has a history of violence or aggressive behaviour, and you have concerns about their risk to others, rescripting violent acts would not be recommended. It is also worth monitoring their emotions during the rescripting process. If their anger is decreasing, this suggests the rescript is helping. If they are feeling more angry or becoming preoccupied with revenge fantasies, a change of tactic may be advisable.
Often, clients who want to feel powerful in imagery rescripts do not choose to be violent. Some clients feel this would stoop to the level of their attackers. Alternatives include finding other ways to disempower or humiliate their attackers. For example, by shrinking them down until they are tiny and putting them in a glass jar, tying them up and threatening them (but not harming them) so they can experience fear as your client did, or making them ridiculous in some way, such as dressing them up as clowns or making a public spectacle of them. One of our clients imagined a trial in the International Criminal Court at The Hague, where the perpetrator was publicly punished for their crimes. Another, taking inspiration from their favourite TV programme, paraded their abuser down the street while the public pointed and shouted ‘Shame!’. Another option is to use cartoon violence in imagery, for example dropping a comedy anvil on the perpetrator or drenching them in goo. These types of rescripts allow the client to feel strong and powerful and diminish the threat of the perpetrator without violence, which may be preferable to some clients, or more suitable if you have concerns about risk.
The Seebauer et al. (2014) produced another interesting finding. Safe place images were more effective at reducing negative feelings than the violent rescripts. There is also preliminary evidence that forgiveness can be a more powerful imagery technique than violence (Watson et al., 2015). However, we are led by our clients when selecting rescripts and support them to explore different options that fit with their emotional needs.
Violent rescripts can give clients a sense of power and control that they could not experience during the trauma
For most clients, it is perfectly safe and appropriate to allow them to be violent in rescripts if they so wish
Violent rescripts would not be recommended when clients are preoccupied with revenge or have a history of aggression
Alternative rescripts to humiliate or overpower the perpetrator can be used instead of violence if the client prefers, or you have concerns about risk
Seebauer, L., Froß, S., Dubaschny, L., Schönberger, M., & Jacob, G. A. (2014). Is it dangerous to fantasize revenge in imagery exercises? An experimental study. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 45(1), 20-25.
Watson, H., Rapee, R., & Todorov, N. (2016). Imagery rescripting of revenge, avoidance, and forgiveness for past bullying experiences in young adults. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 45(1), 73-89.