Assuming she was good at visualizing things, since she enjoyed painting, I asked her to recall something in nature, a place perhaps, that she’d experienced as “beyond beautiful.” When describing a sunrise she’d once witnessed by a lake in a wooded area near her home, she released a deep sigh, closed her eyes, and leaned back into the curve of the couch. Her jaw relaxed and her clenched fingers unfolded as she rested her hands on her lap. She took another deep breath and whispered, “I could linger there for hours.”
Because she was beginning to relax and indicated an interest in going further, I narrated the scene back to her, adjusting the pitch and tone of my voice so that it was melodic, soothing, and uplifting. I elaborated on her description of the sunrise, suggesting she could enjoy noticing how the crimson edges melted into pleasant pinks and vibrant golden oranges that glowed against the backdrop of a tranquil azure sky and the cool, calm lake. She dropped her tense shoulders as I continued using sensory-rich language to describe the balmy feel of the air and the fresh scent of the pine trees. I even made soft sounds like wind blowing gently and birds singing. Years ago, I’d have felt ridiculous providing sound effects, fearing clients would perceive me as corny, but now I do it to help lighten the mood and encourage clients to let go and be imaginative with me.
When I asked Saundra what she was noticing within herself, she sighed as she murmured, “Feelings of serenity, peace, and joy.”
I told her I didn’t think the sunrise dropped those feelings of peace inside her. I suggested instead that she was getting in touch with her true nature—who she really was, underneath the clouds of depression. I added, “Just as the sun isn’t destroyed by dark clouds and rainy days, we know your light isn’t destroyed just because you felt it was. The clouds may cast a shadow, but the sun still rises—and your sun can rise again, too.”
Tears streamed down her face as Saundra nodded and placed her hand over her heart, saying, “That’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard. I do think that’s who I am under all this darkness. But if I show this side of myself to anyone, it gets squelched. I’m careful not to squelch my kids, though. I want them to feel free to express themselves and not feel so afraid, like I felt as a kid.”
Her passion for being a loving, supportive parent informed our work in subsequent sessions as we used other types of guided imagery, in which she envisioned stepping into traumatic scenes from her youth and reparenting her younger self with the same nurturing, protective responses she was giving to her children. Within two months, she’d developed a new relationship with herself and her emotions. She reported fewer mood swings and was handling interpersonal situations more effectively. Rather than engage in endless self-talk when she felt anxious, she imagined her sunrise and sent herself feelings of love and reassurance to calm herself down. She became less fearful of getting squelched if she showed her soft side to others. In the end, she commented, “Other therapists told me I needed to learn to love myself, but nobody ever showed me how to do that. I feel like I’m finally getting it.” She was right. She could never have thought her way into loving herself. She needed someone to evoke a sensory-rich experience of self-compassion in her—to touch her emotional brain and stimulate change in that way.
The Art of Evoking Emotion
Decades ago, Mama Cass of the Mamas and the Papas sang, “Words of love, so soft and tender, won’t win a girl’s heart anymore. If you love her, then you must send her somewhere where she’s never been before.” Therein lies the real job of the therapist—to take our clients somewhere they’ve never been before, especially when they feel stuck. Guiding this journey may require us to go places we’ve never been before, as we open ourselves up to become more engaging, riveting, entertaining, and even playful in ways that stir our clients’ hearts and propel them to action. Motivational speakers know how to stir people in this way and—dare I say?—so do many politicians and cult leaders. Likewise, if you observe any of the great therapists of our time, you’ll see that, regardless of their theoretical approach, one thing they have in common is the ability to make a charismatic connection with clients and evoke meaningful emotional experiences in them.
Until six years ago, I was good at treating clients with sincere, nonjudgmental empathy, having been trained traditionally in cognitive-behavioral therapy. My practice was busy, and my clients liked me. They’d gain insight and try out the skills I’d suggested. They’d feel better for a time, but the changes wouldn’t stick unless we’d meet for months and they’d make a lot of effort to apply the insights between sessions. In short, my results weren’t remarkable. Then I learned to show up for my clients in a more creative, provocative way.