In these vulnerable times, how do we as therapists deal with the fear that seems to be all around us? In my experience, we need to distinguish here between moderate fears and extreme fears.
A ‘reasonable’ level of fear of the future can be protective, because it warns us that there is danger, connects us to our resources, and reminds us that it is time to reflect deeply and to act. Once we help our clients reflect on the message of the fear and find a way forward, their fear tends to relax.
Extreme fears, by which I mean fears that overwhelm people with anxiety or terror, even run their lives for them, are another matter, and need a different approach. Where fears are extreme, solutions become maladaptive, security rather than freedom becomes the prime motivator, and impulsive reactions like avoidance, anger or addiction can multiply. One young woman I interviewed about her work with climate change told me, “If I were too afraid, I wouldn’t be able to do my work.”
I carried out depth interviewing and therapeutic work with more than 50 people with extreme fears of the future, as well as considerable group work in which I worked with these extreme fears.
My conclusion from all this work was, to my surprise, that extreme fears of the future are not really about the events we fear, nor indeed are they about the future. They are about our own response to the events, a response that usually echoes our past.
Reimagining the future self, not future events
Because my focus is on understanding and transforming the images that guide our lives, what I noticed was that, where people had extreme fears, the picture of themselves that they saw in that feared future was of someone fearful, collapsed, shrunken, or otherwise not coping with the situation. Sometimes the future self was even a child. And this picture was usually connected with a past experience of helplessness and hopelessness.
It turns out that the most direct way of helping people with extreme fears of the future is to turn to the imagination where the fear resides, and to help them transform that picture of themselves in the feared future. This is not hard to do.
What the imagination has brought about, the imagination can transform.
We can use our imagination and the imagination of our client to go into that picture of their feared future and remind the future person of who they are, and in so doing, invite them to come home to themselves. Once we have a picture of a future self who can deal with whatever arises, the fear tends to disappear. In fact, when I ask people I’ve worked with in this way how they now feel about the extreme fear we worked on, they sometimes struggle to know what I am talking about because they have forgotten they ever had the fear.
This is true even when fears are realistic and understandable. My client and student Lucy, who has MS, had an intense fear of ending up lying immobile in her bed completely paralysed – which was exactly what had happened to her sister, who also had MS. Who wouldn’t be frightened? Yet as soon as we were able to work with this exercise and key into her resilience and her ability to remember who she is even under these conditions, Lucy felt able to let go of the fear and return to focusing on the present moment.
An exercise to transform the fear picture
Here’s a brief summary of how to transform the fear picture:
Invite the client to describe their most feared future, and in particular to observe their picture of their Future Self. How is Future Self looking and behaving?
Now invite them to go with you into that fear picture, introduce yourselves – client and therapist – to Future Self as coming from the past to help them and, most important, look at Future Self with an unconditionally loving look that combines compassion for their pain and limitation and respect for their magnificence. Tell Future Self how you sympathise and empathise with their situation but remind them how wonderful and amazing they are.
Ask your client to let you know when Future Self looks up and begins to smile, and to reconnect to themselves and to their resources. Now, ask your client to invite in everyone they can think of – real or imaginary people, animals or even spiritual beings – who could feel the same way about them. Let these invitees look at Future Self and talk to them with the same compassion and respect. Have a party!
Now check out how Future Self is looking. When they seem confident, and ready to cope with the situation, both of you come back to the present, and ask your client how the future fear picture looks now. If it looks okay, your job is done.
Too simple to be true? Try it first with a friend or colleague and see!
The full background to this work 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).