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Use Imagery to Be Your Own Best Therapist

Go back to the future starring your happy child and healthy adult modes.

Key points

  • Use imagery to bring the powerful childlike elements of creativity, playfulness, and joy into your daily life.
  • When you are intimidated by life's challenges, channel an image of confidence and competence.
  • Imagery is like a sensory experience you can provide yourself as needed.
 Terricks Noah/Unsplash
The joy, playfulness, and creativity of the happy child mode.
Source: Terricks Noah/Unsplash

We usually emphasize how important it is to have good chemistry with your therapist, with good reason. A good therapy rapport is the leading indicator of successful therapy. But what about our relationship with ourselves?

Whatever you think of Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in Back to the Future, you have to admit he goes back in time and takes care of business when it comes to surviving family dynamics. As he’s matchmaking for his own high school-age parents, he’s teaching them life lessons and generally being very parental and compassionate about the whole awkward teen thing. You could say he’s being his own version of a good or ideal parent.

Every school of psychotherapy has its own way of understanding how our relationship with ourselves changes with good therapy, whether that means feeling more confident in our skills, or more compassionate, or having memories of our therapist’s voice as a helping agent.

Schema therapy focuses on our relationship with ourselves by channeling Marty McFly and asking: How do we become a good parent for ourselves, in our own unique way? No DeLorean time machine required. To get there, we visualize and connect with our inner child, or “child modes,” and then with our ideal adult self, or “healthy adult mode.”

When I do schema therapy, I like to pair imagery exercises of the happy child with imagery of the healthy adult, as a way of building my clients’ self-esteem, self-appreciation, and self-compassion. Connecting with the happy child mildly re-connects us with our sense of playfulness, curiosity, joy, and fun. Our healthy adult image usually takes some work to put together and cultivate with therapy and is about connecting with our sense of self at our best and most confident and competent.

I’ve got two simple exercises you can do yourself to connect with your own happy child and healthy adult modes. You may find that connecting with these parts of yourself will build self-esteem and motivation to help with therapy or your own journey. One note on your self-care: for people who have been through childhood trauma and/or currently experience serious depression, these exercises may not be recommended, as they could bring up painful memories, thoughts, and feelings. Please be cautious.

Part of doing imagery involves settling your body and mind as preparation. So before doing each of these exercises, sit yourself in a chair, plant the souls of your feet flat on the ground, close your eyes, and draw your attention to your feet feeling planted on the ground, then focus on your spine, and draw your attention up your spine, from your lower back all the way up to your neck and head, picturing your backbone as straight as a flagpole. Roll your shoulders back so they connect with your straight spine, and feel your chest open up. Take some deep breaths, and then clear your mind.

To connect with your happy child mode, think of times in your childhood when you had the most fun and joy. What were your favorite toys or games? What were the things you were most passionate about? Summer fun, going to the beach, or snowy fun with sledding, with friends, or alone. What were the foods or treats you loved? Who were you excited to spend time with? You may have a lot of memories or images pass through your mind. Just try to settle on one you like best, or maybe pick a favorite. Select one image and hold onto it, keeping the feeling it evokes with you.

You may want to take a break and come back for the healthy adult exercise on another day. After doing the grounding and breathing exercise again, this time, let your mind settle on an image of you as an adult at your most confident and best. This may be performing in some way with work, or taking good care of a loved one, getting through a tough time with resilience, doing a great job with an interview, or accepting a diploma at a ceremony. Hold on to that image of you succeeding and connect with the feeling of success or confidence you feel in it. What do you value about yourself in this moment? What are the ideals you are living? Hold on to this image, and the positive emotions connected to it.

 Photo by Markel Hall on Unsplash
Your healthy adult mode is confident and capable and caring you.
Source: Photo by Markel Hall on Unsplash

Now that you have a solid image of the experience of being your happy child, as well as an image of your healthy adult at their most confident and effective, you can hold on to these as a kind of sensory time-released positive experience you can access as needed. Suppose you are slogging through your day, feeling pressured and maybe even lifeless. Try to take a few minutes and call up the image of the happy child. What would they want right now? Can you allow for a few minutes of that kind of joy in your day? Or if you are feeling less motivated or confident, take a minute and pull up in your mind’s eye the image of your healthy adult. How would confident, healthy you feel in this situation?

The more you connect with your happy child (and your capacity for joy and creativity) and your healthy adult (and a sense of confidence and effectiveness), the more you can care for yourself, nurture yourself, and be there for you in a therapeutic way.