That’s Good, Keep Going: Imagining the Way to Self-Compassion using the Ideal Parent Figure Protocol By Heather Clague, MD on 6/4/21 - 11:31 AM

“I know I’m supposed to be self-compassionate, but I don’t know how to do that, and that makes me feel even more like crap!”

My patient Sally has struggled with years of chronic depression. Through hard work in therapy, she understands that her rough childhood has set her up with a tendency to be harsh with herself. She understands that energy wasted on self-criticism and negative emotion leaves her less free to take initiative and connect with others. But when she wakes up in her apartment alone, all that wisdom seems to fly out of her head, and she feels crushed by a load of self-loathing.

Much the way we learn language, we learn patterns of relating to ourselves early in life. John Bowlby and researchers who followed him described this process as the formation of secure or insecure attachments to a caregiver. People lucky enough to have warm and sensitive parents can develop a secure attachment, which leads to the development of kind and encouraging ways of being with oneself. This inner soothing and encouragement support brave engagement with the world that helps reinforce a sense of the self as capable, and of the world as responsive to one’s needs. A smoothly functioning emotional system allows wise choices in response to the present situation in accord with one’s values.

For those who did not internalize a relationship with a sensitive and encouraging caregiver, life is harder. They can become overwhelmed with feelings of shame, helplessness, anger, and fear, or they may feel depressed, deadened, or cut off from experience. Unregulated or silenced emotions inhibit healthy exploration, which reinforces negative images of the self, generating further negative emotion and inner harshness. Self-compassion can seem like a strange and distant land.

Enter the Ideal Parent Figure visualization protocol, developed by Daniel P. Brown, PhD. as a method for healing attachment disturbances in adults (1). His method relies on the fact that the unconscious mind does not distinguish between images that derive from memory and those that come from the imagination (in fact, most images that we think of as memories are imaginary reconstructions of events). With deliberate visualization practice, we can come to “know” something we did not directly experience. In this method of treatment, I ask Sally to visualize herself as a young child and to imagine ideal parent figures that are perfectly suited to her and responsive to her needs. From there, I ask her to imagine herself playing and exploring with the ideal parent figures offering perfect support and encouragement. Once that imagery has been established, we will have her use these Ideal Parents to respond to her in moments of distress, giving her a visceral sense of an attuned, soothing, and encouraging relationship, and a vivid sense of how she can treat herself.

Sally was dubious. “That sounds kind of cheesy,” she told me. “Also, I can’t really imagine what ideal parents would be like.”

That’s exactly the point. Kids who grow up with parents who were unable to provide good-enough care will stop hoping for something that never comes. We protect ourselves by not thinking about what we can’t have, which reduces the pain but, if practiced repeatedly, can create a deliberate (though unconscious) failure of imagination. The Ideal Parent Figure visualization protocol seeks to reverse that. It turns out that no matter how terrible and abusive one’s childhood was, each of us knows what we needed to thrive. I find this to be a wondrous and hopeful thing.

Ideal Parent Figure visualization uses the process of exploration to discover the kind of support that fosters further exploratory behavior. This method provides a solution to Sally’s frustration of “not knowing how” to be self-compassionate: she will explore until she comes upon the experience. As the therapist, I will provide her with support and light guidance as she navigates this uncharted territory. I’ll be prompting her to imagine Ideal Parent Figures who have five key features: 1) The Ideal Parent Figures are reliable and consistently present—they provide a deep sense of safety and refuge that creates a secure base from which to explore. 2) The Ideal Parent Figures are perfectly attuned; they see us and accept us exactly as we are, which sets us free to be completely and authentically ourselves. 3) The Ideal Parent Figures know exactly how to soothe us, so if we get distressed or over-excited in our exploration, they help us settle down, so we can return to pursuing what is interesting and meaningful to us. 4) The Ideal Parent Figures are delighted by us. We can see their faces light up when they connect with us—not because we have achieved or accomplished anything, but because of our being ourselves. 5) Finally, the Ideal Parent Figures understand we are growing and developing, and they encourage us to become our best selves.

Importantly, the specific imagery comes from the patient herself; she is tapping into the wisdom of her own imaginal experience to create parent figures ideally suited to her. And because these figures are ideal, they will provide a source of support and resiliency more effective and powerful than anything a fallible, human parent or therapist can provide.

Insights during Ideal Parent Figure work often have the feel of a lightbulb turning on. The insights my patients have experienced have included the following:

“My parent figures would NEVER hurt me. They are strong enough to protect me.”

“When I feel safe, I naturally get curious and want to explore.”

“My ideal mother figure understands my mistrust, and she doesn’t pressure me to come close before I am ready.”

“My parent figures don't turn away while I am angry. They stay interested and want to know why I am upset. It’s okay to be angry.”

“My ideal mother figure is delighted by me, even when I am being bad and she is setting limits—I can see it in her eyes.”


In our first few sessions, Sally quickly became frustrated. “Nothing is coming up, I can’t imagine anything.” This frustration is normal and is a sign that she has come to the “edge of her imagination.” Exploration requires trying things, running into blind alleys, trial and error, persistence. “That’s good, keep going,” I encouraged her. “Imagine that your ideal parent figures are with you, sensing exactly what is wrong and responding in exactly the right way. They love being here with you as you explore. They know you can figure this out, and they will stay with you as long as you need, for hours, days, weeks, or even years. Imagine what that would be like.”

In our fourth session, Sally’s imagination “popped.” “They know I can get this!” she said with a smile, “that’s how they can be so patient. They’ll stand by me as I figure this out.” Her expression changed, and what followed was an eruption of grief she had missed out on when she was little. She broke into deep sobs while imagining being held, forever if she wanted, by her ideal mother. The moment was anything but cheesy. Afterward, she felt an unusual sense of peace and hopefulness.

After that point, when that feeling of frustration or sadness emerged during visualization practice, she could reliably call up the image of her ideal mother to soothe herself. Becoming more confident, she started to have fun and looked forward to visualization sessions. Meanwhile, she reported that her mood improved, it had become easier to get things done, and she was reaching out more in relationships. “Well,” she told me with a smile, “I think I’ve figured out how to be self-compassionate.”


References

(1) Brown, D. P., & Elliot, D. (2016). Attachment disturbances in adults: Treatment for comprehensive repair. W. W. Norton and Co.

Many thanks to George Haas of mettagroup.org for his exploration of the language of encouragement.
 


File under: The Art of Psychotherapy