Did you know that your imagination is a powerful tool for positive change? Or that, without your intentional guidance, it can be your greatest enemy? Many people neglect their imagination, allowing outside influences to guide and direct this powerful engine and then wonder why their lives are less than satisfying. Your imagination is yours to develop as you will, but ignored and neglected it can become a liability—the very source of depression, anxiety, interpersonal problems, and unconscious self-sabotage. Unless you take the initiative to choose your goals and begin to exercise discretion in what messages you allow your brain to receive and process, all the forces of marketing that bombard us on a daily basis—television, email, pop–ups, and Facebook—will shape your choices (and therefore your destiny) without your input, and often without your awareness.
When we don’t exercise careful choice over what we feed our imagination, we can end up developing habits of thought that impede success. Habits of thought are things like catastrophizing—thinking about worst-case scenarios—a habit of thought guaranteed to generate anxiety and/or depression; or habits of thought like filling in the blanks when you really don’t know—a habit of thought that can lead to all kinds of interpersonal problems if you make the mistake of believing that your imagination knows what is unknowable.
The first step to taking charge of your life is to take charge of your imagination. You can begin with a few simple exercises. Imagine a very unpleasant scene from a horror movie. If you allow this scene to fill up your whole imagination your feelings will follow—heart racing, palms sweating, a ball in your stomach, the whole nine yards. You see, your imagination cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is not. Now imagine that you are seeing the same unpleasant scene on a small flat-screen TV. Notice that you still have some of the same reactions you did before, but not as intensely. Now shrink the screen down to a very small size. Remember, this is your imagination, so you can do whatever you want with the image. Now turn the TV off.
Ok, that was interesting. But it was an unpleasant image. Now try it with a pleasant one. Bring up one of your all-time favorite memories. Perhaps recall a time when you really felt loved, or maybe a time when you had just accomplished something very hard and fairly important. Allow that image to fill your imagination and keep it on the screen in your mind. If it fades or slips, bring it back, and focus in on some random detail. The more you focus on some detail of this experience, the more vivid it will likely become and the more practiced you will get at using your imagination for your own good. While you’re focusing on this image in your mind, notice the warm feelings that result. Notice where in your body you feel these warm feelings of love, happiness, joy, and delight—usually right in the middle of your chest.
This is the power of your imagination to influence your emotions. All your thoughts and all your emotions are neurochemical events in your brain and in your body. So when you choose to develop your imagination and your ability to focus and direct your imagination, you gain the ability to guide and shift and direct your emotions as well. And when you have the ability to direct your imagination and modulate your emotions, then you also have the ability to influence the neurochemicals in your brain and in your body, too. Like all things mental, this ability is learned, and, like all things learned, this ability is made proficient through repetition. You do not learn to read overnight. You learn to read through repetition. Repetition makes proficiency.
Once you become proficient at managing your own imagination, you can do all kinds of other things—like set goals and define all the small steps that make up progress toward that goal. You can anticipate problems and anticipate solutions. You can try out various solutions and develop the confidence you need to translate goals into actions. You can step back from emotional triggers. You can pull yourself out of funks and you can stave off anxiety. You can even improve your sex life. But we’ll talk more about that later.
© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sara Rosenquist, PhD, ABPP, therapist in Raleigh, North Carolina
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