Transformational Imagery 1/6: Visioning Negative Futures

[Note: this blog was first published by PESI UK.]

During the first coronavirus lockdown in Spring 2020, I was finding it hard to focus on anything, to make any plans for the future, or even follow through with the projects I already had. I suppose we were all in shock.

When I’m feeling troubled or confused, I usually turn to my own ImageWork exercises. ImageWork is the approach I’ve developed over the past 40 years to tap into the power of the imagination in order to understand and guide our lives.

I decided to do one of my visioning exercises. I chose one in which you time travel in a ‘space-and-time-ship’ to two possible futures, one happy and one unhappy, and then look back and see how you got to each of them. You can then decide which you want, and make a commitment to do whatever you need to do to get to the future you want.

I hoped doing the exercise would show me not only where I needed to head in order to have a good future, but also what would lead me to the unhappy one.

I began with travelling to the unhappy future. I was flooded with painful feelings. I found myself almost unable to breathe, full of shame about how I had spent the year. What was the shame about? That I had done nothing, achieved nothing, created nothing.

Then I travelled to the positive future. Warm feelings of happiness and contentment flowed in. What was at the centre of my happiness? It was the manuscript of what is now my new book, ImageWork.

I started writing my book proposal the very next day.

The positive future showed me what I needed to do, but it was probably the negative picture of myself at the end of the year, almost unable to breathe, that pushed me to start immediately on the book proposal. While negative pictures of the future tend to have a bad press, they can also be great forces for good, if used consciously and with an intention to create change.

Everyday Imagination vs. Transformational Imagination

Negative pictures often deserve their bad press. We all have deeply held pictures of ourselves and the world, largely based on the past, the family, and the culture, that guide our lives often outside our awareness. These pictures come from a taken-for-granted level of the imagination that I call the ‘Everyday Imagination’. When these pictures are negative, they can be destructive to our health and welfare, and transforming them is part of any significant change process. All practitioners are doing this on some level.

But when we consciously dip into our deepest imagination, the one that great thinkers, scientists, and artists rely on, we can evoke the images that are hidden from view, and then work with them until they transform. This is what I call the ‘Transformational Imagination’. And of course, we need to consciously see the negative images before we can transform them. We need to find the lion pacing in the cage feeling trapped before we can discover that the cage door is actually open.

Visioning negative futures has a particular kind of power.

I started using negative futures in my visioning work when a client told me he couldn’t imagine a positive future. I said, “Let’s go to a negative future.” Once we’d done that, he was perfectly happy to go to the positive future. He had to have his negative expectations acknowledged. I began to use these negative futures as a matter of course.

Facilitating choice and change by visioning futures

I soon realised that when I invite people to take a space-and-time-ship into the future, they are having the opportunity not only to see what the future is like, but also to look back and see how they got there. This means that if they go to a positive and a negative future, they can compare the way they got to each. What is the difference?

The answer is consistent. You get to the negative future by doing what you are already doing. You get to the positive future by upping your game in some way.

Moreover, I discovered that people are almost always on some level attracted to the negative future. Why? It’s familiar, it’s secure, it’s easy. No wonder we keep repeating the same mistakes.

One group member said, “I can’t go to the positive future because I can’t take my mother there.”

Even so, once you invite clients to acknowledge their attraction to their negative future, you can also encourage them to choose the positive future and go for it. And then if you help them to align their will behind this choice, and set it into motion, they become unstoppable.

They’ve seen the negative future. They don’t have to have it.

The full background to visioning, and the script for the exercise mentioned here, are available in Dr. Dina Glouberman’s new book, ImageWork: The Complete Guide to Working with Transformational Imagery (PCCS Books, 2022).