The Power of Visual Images

Some of the most effective tools for developing better ways to navigate life are visual images. If we can link a strong mental image to the pause we take before we respond to a situation, it can become a meaningful springboard to our desired new habit. Using visual image cues can foster the improved life skills we want to incorporate into our relationships and daily lives.

When I find myself in the midst of a hard conversation, a tough decision, or simply a lot of stimulation overwhelm, I recall an image given by a beloved yoga instructor twenty years ago. “Plant your feet firmly on the ground and imagine roots growing right into the ground, anchoring you,” she offered.

There is something very powerful about this visual image, of being firmly planted on solid ground, with small roots stretching out, stabilizing us and our emotions, just long enough to slow our heart rate and feel anchored to our core values.

As we pause to feel our feet on the ground and focus briefly on the feeling of little roots anchoring us, we are giving ourselves a needed break, a boost of self confidence and a mini-reset to respond to a situation with more skill, clarity and kindness.

Brene Brown teaches us that “Clear is Kind”. This often means stating clearly what we wish to convey without a lot of strong emotion taking center stage. Too often it is our strong emotions that speak the loudest. This feet firmly planted image can serve as our cue card to strive to be calm and collected in the midst of hard things.

“If even one person on the boat stayed calm, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone.” This quote from Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hahn provides a powerful visual image for how we co-regulate each other — and the tremendous positive impact it can have when we are in the midst of a shared experience that might be scary, full of uncertainty, and chock full of a wide range of big emotions.

In emotionally turbulent times, if we pause and link this visual image of being the calm one in a boat full of people in rough seas, it supports our ability to switch from our default sympathetic nervous system to our mammalian care system. Rather than adding to the distress of the situation by automatically — and all too quickly – tapping into that part of our nervous system that houses our “threat-defense response”, we can override that option. It does take some will power, but if we care about the people in the same boat with us, we are more easily able to lean into the “tend and befriend” mammalian mode. The shortest path to calming down a tense situation, is to lead with caring calmness. Rather than “rocking the boat”, we can pivot to “being the ballast.”

Watch a parent soothe a child who has been frightened, and you will get a master class in how to switch from auto pilot to captain calm. Remember the key here is that we human beings co-regulate each other. Remaining calm in high stress situations is a super power.

Eckhart Tolle, renowned self discovery author, teaches us that what we fight, we strengthen and what we resist, persists.

When we find ourselves in resistance mode, the visual image of a gentle open hand, palm up and holding something lightly, can serve as a powerful reminder to do a check in.

What are we resisting and can we relax into it? Can we hold our strong opinions or perspectives lightly? Being willing to accept new ideas, change our minds, and let go of our need to control the outcome is all part of a healthy growth mindset.

The mental visual image of holding something lightly in the palm of our hands tends to relax us and opens us up to a fresh perspective. We pivot from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. We “open up” to the truth that we can be learning rather than resisting.

The iceberg visual is a powerful awareness cultivator; especially if we are working on developing a greater “other” awareness.

When we are interacting with another person, our natural tendency is to put their emotions and reactions through the same filter we have. We can find ourselves judging, criticizing and comparing. Yet the reality is that we have no idea what is really going on under the surface for anyone. Yes, even for our own partners, children, and friends.

Brene Brown has spent decades teaching us about how our 87+ emotions and experiences get threaded into all of our personal history. Each and every one of us will process and react to a similar experience using our filters that are as unique as our fingerprints. The result may vary.

If we find ourselves thinking someone is too sensitive, too difficult, too much — it is wise to imagine the iceberg and take a moment to be curious about what lies under the surface. Learning how to be more self-compassionate as Kristin Neff teaches enhances our “other” awareness in meaningful ways.

Linking the image of the iceberg can shift us from judgment to curiosity. Perhaps if we met that person with more compassion, a smile or a random act of kindness, we might discover our first assumption was all wrong. Trade judgment for curiosity — it helps all of us navigate more easily with our submerged parts.

In summary:

The old adage – “a picture is worth a thousand words” is really true for personal growth work. Strong visual images are remarkable tools for shifting us from unconsciously reacting to life the same old way everyday. We disrupt old habitual patterns embedded in our brains when we disrupt our normal routines. Imagine the transformational impacts that just 3 – 5 visual image moments can make over the course of a week in our daily lives.


Check out this recent episode of Sharon McMahon’s dynamic podcast series: Persuaders are Meaning Makers with author Anand Giridharadas. Rest assured, you will be enlightened in a whole new way by the end of it.

Listen to this 20 minute YouTube episode with the remarkable Malcolm Gladwell. If you have read his book, Talking to Strangers, then you already are aware of how often we let the stuff in our submerged iceberg override updated information we have actually gained.

Krisin Neff’s body of work in the area of Self Compassion has become a cornerstone of psychology, neuroscience, mental health and personal growth modalities. This book will become an invaluable resource for improving your quality of life, your parenting skills, and your relationship skills. It’s the sort of book you will refer to time and again over the course of a lifetime.