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Doing Visualization Right

6 tips to help your client visualize their best possible self

Positive visualization can help make us feel better about past traumas, make us more focused on achieving our goals, and help us relax more during social interactions.

“Judge people not by what they are, but by what they strive to become.”

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Gareth closed his eyes and, as I suggested, feelings of calm soon sank deeply into the beautiful ‘sleep’ of hypnosis.

Some clients want you to sort out their pasts for them, to soothe the wounds of ancient relationships and traumas. Perhaps ameliorate the grief of dashed expectations.

Others, like Gareth, are more naturally future focused and want to become a ‘better version’ of themselves.

The past is sometimes the gateway to the future

Of course, helping to undo troublesome emotional conditioning from the past may be the first step in helping someone to a better future.

Much of therapy is about exactly that: helping clients overcome faulty pattern matches so that they can live better and no longer fear the future.

For example, often after using the Rewind technique to overcome a trauma or phobia we will, once we feel the trauma or phobia is lifted, have the client visualize their future self minus that PTSD or phobia. So by deconditioning a terror, we help free up a more adaptive self for the future.

But for some clients, the impact of the past occurs on more of a conscious level. An overarching focus on the past can sometimes be extremely unhelpful, and they may need help to shift their focus in a more useful direction.

Conditioned to think only of the past

Some clients may have been conditioned by former therapists to feel that they are supposed to ‘explore’ the past, to wade through its murky depths waist deep and splash around in it – perhaps to the detriment of their present and future focus. To them this might be ‘what therapy is’.

Emotional archaeology is all very well, but ultimately devising theories as to why we are as we are may not be enough to help us adapt and thrive in the future. To become what we might become.

Gareth, though, seemed more concerned with his future than his past. He wanted to be more forthright at work, to stick up for himself more and assert his ideas. He wanted to exercise and eat better. He wanted to relax more socially and read more widely. He had a real sense of what his ‘better’ self would be.

Unlike Gareth, some clients may need our help in developing a sense of what they might be.

But we can go much further than that.

The real power of visualization

As you’ve no doubt noticed, there have been some huge claims made as to the power of visualization – for example, that simply imagining some outcome, such as dollar bills floating through your window, will inevitably bring that about. People love to hear what they love to hear, and telling them what they love to hear will always be popular.

Other people want the truth.

Don’t just wish it – create it!

Just wishing circumstances were different and visualizing this magically happening may, ironically, make us feel less in control of our lives. I may feel great if I visualize being given a new Mercedes, but the locus of control is still outside of me. I am still a puppet of fortune rather than a prime mover.

Just visualizing circumstances being different may, ironically, make us feel less in control of our lives. I may feel great if I visualize being given a Mercedes, but I am still a puppet of fortune rather than a prime mover. Click to Tweet

If we want better outcomes, we need to be better able to make those outcomes happen – so it is the self we need to focus on developing, predicated on what we do, feel, and think, when we visualize.

To the extent that one’s self can shape the future, one’s self needs to develop. Magically materialized advantageous circumstances simply grafted onto someone who has not developed resilience and adaptive qualities may simply cause new kinds of problems, as we often see with lottery winners.

Yet there is good evidence that positive visualization can help make us feel better about past traumas, make us more focused on achieving our goals, and help us relax more during social interactions.1

And there’s a particular therapeutic skill that puts you in a very good position to help your clients visualize their best possible self.

Hypnotic visualization

Visualization often naturally and spontaneously occurs during hypnosis even without suggestions to visualize being made by the hypnotic practitioner. But if you have this particular therapeutic skill then any visualization work you do with your clients will be that much more powerful.

And even if you don’t yet have that string to your bow, you can still help your clients envisage changes within themselves.

So, what’s the best way to help your clients visualize their best possible self?

Tip one: Ask your client what they do want

Some clients seem to feel it’s unnatural to talk in terms of possibilities. Perhaps they have a negative bias and can only talk in terms of negatives even when they believe themselves that they are ‘being positive’.

So you might ask, “How do you want to feel?” and they might reply, “I just don’t want to feel miserable anymore” – which may be followed up with a long diatribe as to how terrible they feel and how bad things are.

Now it’s certainly important to listen to a client’s woes, but at some point we need to know what they do want, not just what they don’t.

The parable of the foreigner in a strange city

I might suggest that if I were in a strange city and lost I could ask directions from a friendly local by telling them all the places I didn’t want to go, or where I’d already been. I might even feel listened to and enjoy the concerned attention.

But ultimately I’d need to talk to them about where I actually do want to get to. In this way we develop a goal. Wanting to not feel something is a starting point, but what we want to know is, what feeling should be there instead?

A flying instructor needs to get beyond “don’t crash the plane” when helping others learn to take flight!

We can start by asking, “How do you want life to be different?” But from that point we need to then help them see how they would need to be different in order for their life to be different.

Next, we can take this a wee step further.

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Tip two: Have them talk in depth about the new them

Once you have a sense of how your client wants to be different, you can have them describe in detail how they’ll know when they’ve become this better version of themselves.

I asked Gareth to do this, and as he described how he’d look, walk, and talk, and what others would notice, I felt he was already starting to inhabit on some level this new, improved Gareth.

This kind of response is not at all uncommon. When we ask people to talk about how they will be, that ‘future’ self can become a reality, such that they start to inhabit it in the here and now. You might ask:

  • “What will this future you be doing on the average day, different from what you do now?
  • “How will others be able to tell you have developed in these ways?”
  • “Close your eyes and imagine seeing this future you. How do you walk? Talk? What are you doing?”

So our questioning can be the beginnings of future-self visualization. When we direct someone’s focus of attention inward by asking them to imagine, we are beginning the journey towards much deeper visualization of success.

But before we take them deeply into this new visualization, there’s something else we must do.

Tip three: Find the steps to positive change

Research shows that simply visualizing success without visualizing the steps needed to get there can actually make us less likely to reach our goals.3

While they enjoyed imagining the success, participants in the study who visualized an end result but not what needed to be done to get there were less likely to engage in the necessary steps to get to that success.

One of Gareth’s aims was to read more books. So I asked him what steps he’d need to take in order to become more well-read. With my help, he listed the following:

  1. Buy three books he aimed to read.
  2. Choose which one he’d read first.
  3. Set aside a time to read (in his case, before switching off the light to sleep).

Now that seems really basic, but we’ve gone from the vague goal to “be more well-read” to actual steps.

I then hypnotized Gareth deeply and had him observe himself ordering the books or buying them in his local bookstore, choosing which one he’d start on, and then reading intently before sleeping deeply.

We were building a blueprint for his mind to follow. Now “being more well-read” was more than just an idea.

But there’s a caveat here regarding the way you might help your clients visualize their best self.

Tip four: Use disassociated visualization

I helped Gareth ‘see himself’ doing these activities.

This is based on research that found that when people observe themselves from a disassociated, third-person position doing something they intend to do, they are more likely to actually carry out that activity than if they imagine doing the activity from an associated, first-person position.4

I had Gareth hypnotically observe himself on a movie screen taking the steps to get fitter, to study, and to socialize more. He reported feeling strongly drawn to fulfilling, in reality, these visualizations – likely in part because he’d observed himself doing it ‘from the outside’, as it were.

The next tip relates to another form of visualization entirely.

Tip five: Use the transformative power of writing

A 2001 study conducted by Laura King at the University of Missouri found that participants who visualized their life as they wanted it – where everything was going well and good outcomes had and were happening – felt better about themselves and their lives.5 But there was a particular method of visualization that was found to boost their wellbeing in this way.

One group of participants was encouraged to bring their vision to life on paper. They were invited to dedicate 20 minutes each day for four consecutive days to write about their best possible future selves.

The results were remarkable.

Evidence of empowerment

Those participants who wrote about their best selves experienced significant improvements in subjective wellbeing compared to the control groups. Astonishingly, these benefits were still measurable five months later.

This is a great way of utilizing the proven benefits of expressive writing and unleashing its transformative power. When we write expressively we are visualizing in a sense, so doing this seems to add power to the intentionality of taking positive steps.

Inspired by King’s findings, subsequent studies in 2006 and 2007 further confirmed the transformative power of visualizing your best possible self.6,7

With Gareth, I had him visualize in turn all the different facets of his desired self-improvements. He then visualized the steps needed, and the specific outcomes of following those steps.

Next, I had him write down in detail these steps and desired changes and then keep a journal of his progress. At the end of the sessions I would have him hypnotically experience having reached these goals after having followed these steps and made all these changes.

But why do we talk simply in terms of visualization?

Tip six: Create a holistic sensory experience

Finally, do more than just encourage your clients to visualize. Most people don’t simply dream in visuals. We see, hear, smell, feel, and even taste the content of our dreams. You feel the dream water in which you float, you hear your dream companions talking to you, and so forth.

So when using visualization with your clients, use the senses. When helping them hypnotically inhabit their future state, talk in terms of what they’ll see, how they’ll move, what they’ll hear, and so on.

There are all kinds of further ways to help clients envisage their future self, and I may well write more about this, but for now I think these are pretty good principles to be working with.

So, to summarize:

  • Some clients focus on resolving past traumas, while others want to improve their future selves.
  • Therapy aims to help clients overcome faulty patterns and fears of the future.
  • Hypnotic visualization is a powerful tool in therapy.
  • It is important to ask clients about their desired outcomes and focus on positive goals.
  • Detailed descriptions of the desired future self can enhance visualization.
  • Visualizing steps towards positive change is crucial for goal achievement.
  • Observing oneself from a third-person perspective increases the likelihood of taking action.
  • Expressive writing after visualization can reinforce intentions and improve wellbeing.
  • Studies attest to the transformative power of visualizing our best possible self.
  • Overlap the senses so it’s not just visualization.

So keep it real with clients, and remember that an integral part of future self-visualization is the actionable steps that produce that self and life.

Gareth did become this better version of himself, and because he was functioning better, his life began to be more satisfying for him and useful to others.

The beginning of a better reality is nested within the fabric of our imagination.

How to Engage Your Client’s Imagination for Rapid Therapeutic Gains

When we work with only behaviour, or thought, we miss perhaps the most essential part of the person – and the most powerful: the imagination. A client’s imaginative ability can change their emotional state in the blink of an eye, and can be used for many different types of therapeutic gain. The science and art of how to do this is hypnotherapy. You can learn flexible, indirect, respectful hypnosis online with Mark Tyrrell in his course Uncommon Hypnotherapy. Read more here.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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