Imaginal Nurturing

Imaginal Nurturing

Imaginal Nurturing is ego-state work rooted in attachment theory and research and is the heart of the Developing a Secure Self approach. It addresses early deficits through working directly with needs for and difficulties with nurturing, intimacy, and autonomy. The client develops a new relationship with self through connections with the externalized younger parts of self.

While the Standard EMDR Protocol works beautifully to resolve traumatic memories (i.e. things that happened that ‘shouldn’t’ have happened), it does not directly address the attachment aspects of experience, particularly early experience. It does not address the things that should have happened that didn’t happen. Our relationships with early caregivers is the context of our lives as we grow and develop. They have an enormous impact on who we become as adults. Typically in therapy, such early deficits are left to be somehow compensated for through a supportive therapeutic relationship between the therapist and the adult client.

In Imaginal Nurturing, we work to get to the root of existential issues, supporting the effectiveness of other therapeutic interventions and allowing psychotherapy to move forward more quickly. Imaginal Nurturing, as part of the Developing a Secure Self approach, complements trauma work beautifully.

What Imaginal Nurturing is

Imaginal Nurturing has been developed for use with adult clients and is one of three components of the Developing a Secure Self approach:

  • the therapeutic relationship recognized as an attachment relationship
  • Imaginal Nurturing
  • emotional skills development

The goals of Imaginal Nurturing (I-N) include helping the client to develop a new relationship with self in the present and to facilitate the integration of child and adult ego states. It entails the use of guided imagery with very slow and gentle bilateral stimulation and has been developed specifically to enable the client to achieve emotional and somatic experiences of both nurturing and being nurtured, and experiences of connectedness. In basic I-N, the ‘child’ (or occasionally the younger adult) may be imaginally brought out of a memory into the present to connect with the present-day adult (a retrieval), or the client may simply begin with the image of the ‘child’ at a given age. Newborn and infant I-N works with the metaphor of the infant self to allow the client to meet her or himself afresh without the layers of history which can muddy self-perception. This approach addresses existential issues and thus challenges the belief that the client is inherently defective or undeserving. Exploration Imagery goes a step beyond this and entails the ‘child’ moving away from the Secure Base (adult) to explore, and then return to the adult. This is experienced from the perspective of both the child and the adult.

I-N is not limited to the actual imagery work. A critical aspect of this approach is the between-sessions ‘honouring’ activities and checking-within through which the client consolidates and further develops the new relationship with self, and strengthens emotional skills. Some aspects of I-N can be adapted for work with children and teens.

Imaginal Nurturing is not intended to be used as a single intervention. It is an approach to be woven throughout the therapy. It can be challenging work, and can be very satisfying and productive. The relationships developed with the young parts of self and both the adult client and the therapist are not limited to the I-N guided imagery. These relationships stay central to the therapy as a whole, since after all, it is for the most part, the younger parts of self who are needing healing.

Who can benefit

I found that the vast majority of my clients benefited from Imaginal Nurturing. The exceptions are clients suffering from single-incident traumas with no earlier associated trauma and with secure relationships in childhood, although even with these clients, a “retrieval” from the disturbing memory made for gentler processing. The I-N helps to ground the part who experienced the trauma in the present, but they don’t have the need for that extra bit of nurturing. I saw such a client about every year or two. At the same time, I have had clients who have had a relatively secure childhood for whom Imaginal Nurturing has zeroed in on the core concern resulting in a resolution of a significant presenting problem in one, two, or three sessions.

Clients who can especially benefit may have one or more of the following problems:

  • little sense of self
  • low self-esteem
  • a sense of alienation
  • inability to regulate emotions
  • affect intolerance
  • inability to empathize
  • impaired interpersonal relationships.

They may suffer from:

  • depression
  • anxiety problems (including obsessions and compulsions)
  • addictions
  • eating disorders
  • a tendency towards dissociation that has left them vulnerable to PTSD.

For one reason or another, the infant/child missed out on the relatively consistent, loving, attuned presence and responsiveness needed for healthy development.

Some responses from clinicians

“Imaginal Nurturing has been fantastic to use in therapy and I’m getting better at being attuned to the client and providing the attachment deficits. So many of my clients have blossomed using your method. It’s gentle and caring and kind and sweet and so nice to do as a therapist! I particularly like the Retrieval from a traumatic memory prior to doing EMDR. That works so well….” ~ Beverley Johnson, Clinical Psychologist, Australia

“Startling progress. What a wonderful session with a client who came in with enormous neglect and self-esteem issues.” ~ Carol Seidenwurm, MA, MFT

“It worked beautifully! She was so moved! I think (and she thought too) that this was maybe one of the only times she ever had in which she could just FEEL the pleasure of holding and touching and caressing, without any obstacles. ” ~ Carina Mitrani, Clinical Psychologist

“Your material has been applicable to my every client, and has filled a gap in my resources beautifully. My clients need a systematic experience/resource for developing a caring attitude toward themselves–and Imaginal Nurturing is much more effective than the other forms of resource development I have used for such thoroughly damaged selves who have never experienced being loved or comforted.” ~ Kate Matista, MS, EdS, LPC

“Thanks for sharing this level of connecting with us. This was definitely needed and missing.” ~ Karen Forte, LCSW, DCSW.

For more information

See details of the 13-hour training program, Imaginal Nurturing, Ego States, and Attachment: An Integrated Approach to Early Deficits. This presents the most up-to-date material on this approach.

The Developing a Secure Self: An Attachment-Based Approach to Adult Psychotherapy book includes an in-depth presentation of Imaginal Nurturing, how it complements trauma work, how it is related to the therapeutic relationship, how to address problems that may arise with this method, and how to incorporate it into therapy as a whole. More information about the book and the Therapeutic Toolkit is available by clicking here.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ian Waymark, Gabriola, BC (Copyright 2004)