Lisa Mitchell

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Use Your Imagination to Recover from a Ready Made World

Lisa Mitchell | Oct 6, 2016 | 12 comments

The power of imagination to overcome anxiety, grief, fear and other difficult emotions.

Custom Costumes Reinforce Imagination

It’s Halloween time and kids all over the country are deciding who they want to be for the special dress up night that comes around once year.  I’m a “Halloween Auntie” which means that I’m in charge of making my niece’s costumes every year.  I volunteered for this job after my kids stopped trick or treating and the demand for my sewing was no longer needed here in this household.  I love the sewing part.  But that’s not why I make Halloween costumes.  I also love seeing the kids all dressed up with their pillow cases sagging with the weight of their candy hauls.  But that’s not why I make Halloween costumes.

There’s a problem with pre-fab, bought-at-Target costumes.  They aren’t creative.  They aren’t personalized.  They don’t affirm the wearer’s imagination.  And they represent a factory made, cookie cutter, already-decided-for-you-image.

With handmade and handcrafted costumes, the child can use their imagination and decide from an infinite number of possibilities and combinations.  One of my favorite costumes to make was the “Fairy Witch” my daughter wanted to be when she was 4.  Her wish to combine the sweet lightness of a fairy with the menacing black of a witch was a wonderful idea.  Two years ago, my niece wanted to be “Zoe with a Doc McStuffins Headband”.  It was so fun to make a Zoe costume (Elmo’s girlfriend) topped by the power and magic of the female toy surgeon, Doc McStuffins. This year I’m working on a “Balinese Dancer” costume.  I adore the fact that Fianna is practicing her Balinese Dance moves.

I’m a Halloween Auntie because I believe in the importance of empowering kids to use their imagination to create.  By capturing their ideas in sewing form, I hope to send the message that they can be anything they want.  Whether it’s the one night a year when they actually dress up, or the other 364 days a year when they wear their “other costume”, I want to let kids know that their creativity is welcomed and supported.

Impoverished Imaginations Abound

I’m finding, these days, in my work with latency age and teen clients that few have experienced ongoing encouragement to use their imagination.  The school system asks kids to narrow their thinking and work to find the right answer rather than think of all the creative possibilities.  After school time is often filled with activities that reinforce hard work and commitment like sports, jobs, and homework. When they do use their imagination, it seems kids are all too familiar with imagining the worst possible outcomes and are using their creativity to reinforce anxiety and worry. 

When clients come to me to work through their problems creatively, I am often in the position of reintroducing them to the untapped resource that is their imagination.  Often clients experience their imagination as an enemy because the station to which they habitually tune into plays negative, worst case scenario programming.  I love to teach my clients that their imagination can actually bring joy and comfort and hope.  By helping clients to experience their imagination as helpful, we can empower them to be creative in their own personalized way. 

Here are two activities I’ve been using in session lately.

1. What kind of pet would it be?

When a client is having trouble with self-compassion and is experiencing difficult internal judgements about feeling anxious, scared, sad, or any other vulnerable feeling, I like to ask the following questions.

  • “If your____________ (fill in the blank with an emotion) was a pet, what kind of animal would it be?”
  • We work with the image of this pet and talk about what it looks like when it is most ___________(fill in the blank with an emotion).
  • We imagine what it needs in that state of __________(fill in the blank with an emotion).
  •  We imagine what it would look like when it gets what it needs.
  • Then I invite the client to represent that pet in both states—with the activated emotion and soothed.


Here’s an example:

I was working with Libby,  a teen who had no tolerance for her fear of talking to strangers.  She wasn’t able to order food for herself in a restaurant or talk to a cashier.  When Libby found herself in a situation where she had to talk to strangers, her self talk was cruel and forceful. She would threaten and criticize herself and eventually give up and slink away.  Libby’s imagination was full of negative scenarios and she didn’t see any way out.

When I invited her to imagine her fear of talking to strangers as a pet, her imagination didn’t disappoint.  Libby decided that her pet was a sick stray dog with heavily matted fur.  At first she was repulsed by the stray, but then she was able to imagine herself bathing him, working out the fur balls, and talking in a soothing voice.  She delighted at her pet’s recovery and his appreciation of her attention.  Libby was also amazed at how good she was at caring for her “fear” instead of trying to make it go away.  This was such a wonderful experience for me to be a part of.  It was truly a case of supporting Libby’s imagination to work for her as opposed to against her.


2. Video Postcard

When a client’s thought’s are incessant and repetitive, their imagination is restricted and inflexible.  To assist clients in shifting to a more desirable state,  I invite them to create a video postcard.  Whenever they experience their repetitive thoughts, they can “send” themselves the video postcard and watch it in their imagination.  I start by talking about the following ideas.

  • “Tell me about your most_______(fill in with fun, joyful, relaxing, etc.)  memory.”
  • “Describe where this memory took place in vivid detail.”
  • “Walk me through your memory using present tense—like it’s happening right now.”
  • Then I invite the client to gather props that will assist them in remembering and put them in a container.
  • Each time the client notices bothersome thoughts, I ask them to retrieve the container and re-live the video postcard.


Here’s an example:

I was working with Tina, a teen who was having significant anxiety after a major surgery.  She was finding it difficult to face her last year of high school.  She would try to go to school only to get overwhelmed and flooded with anxiety.  Tina would go to her car and weep—during which time her imagination played dire scenarios of her never getting into college and people laughing at her.

When I asked Tina to tell me about her most capable moment, she told me about the time she’d been camping with her friends and their food had been stolen by a bear.  She was the one who created a fishing pole and actually caught a fish.  She was able to recount the joy she felt when she reeled the fish onto the rocks and how good it tasted once they cooked it.  She re-lived this event with me and I helped her gather props.  We found a stick and some old fishing line.  We burned some wood to get the smell of a campfire.  We found magazine images of a rock -lined river.  Tina put the box full of her props in her car and used it anytime she found herself overwhelmed.  Her imagination proved to be the very source of her resilience and competence.

Empowered Imagination

When we teach our clients to use their imagination and to think beyond the apparent or the instant answer, we teach clients to be resilient.  In a world full of ready-made costumes we need to find ways to inspire our clients to think for themselves –to use their imagination and creativity.  When we show them that the handcrafted way–a way that  is completely within their power, we are reinforcing their imagination and their path to recovery.


12 responses to “Use Your Imagination to Recover from a Ready Made World”

  1. Sharon Eakes says:

    What good exercises! Thanks

  2. Perri Jacobs says:

    I look forward to trying these. Thanks so much.

  3. Kitty Wilson-Pote says:

    Love these, Lisa! I’ve shared this page and will use both creative techniques myself as well.

  4. Margie Shaw says:

    I unfortunately had to wear the same store bought Halloween costume year after year as a child and vowed my children would have unique costumes of their choice every year. I loved creating these individualized costumes with them and for them. They are now 34 & 30 years old and I saved their costumes and hope that if they have children will put them to good use. I continue to make costumes for my adult ‘children’ and now their husbands. It’s still fun.

  5. Andrea says:

    Love this. Felt the visceral impact, especially of the tending to the pet imagery, just in reading the examples of those young women. Feels like the tailor-made tool for what I am already doing, just more practical – THANK YOU!

  6. Larissa says:

    These are fantastic and I love how you provide examples of processing the art invitations. Your inspire so many ideas and thoughts for how I can apply these in practice. Thanks again!

  7. Caro says:

    I love this too. I recently did something a little similar but working with a teen and death and grief – if death were a sound/colour/animal/food and so on. It was so opening and fascinating. What I love about the pet idea is the instant softness and love that rises up – the self love and compassion that is so hard to ‘imagine’ in a shame spiral. Animals are such gifts for that. And I love the idea of a collections box! I will definitely use this! Wonderful.

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