“Who sits at the table in your boardroom?” I asked my handsome, elegantly dressed fortysomething year old patient. He looked at me with a confused expression on his face. He was a man in recovery from an addiction who was struggling with some difficult relationship decisions. He is similar to many of the high functioning executives whom I counsel and was not sure if I were referring to the boardroom for the financial organization where he works, or if I were looking for a deeper meaning. It was actually the later explanation.
I told him to close his eyes and then take several deep breaths. When he seemed in a more relaxed state of mind, I asked him to visualize being in a beautiful boardroom furnished with sturdy traditional mahogany furniture. I described a long table filled with many comfortable chairs and told him that this was the table set aside for his own executive board of personal advisors. He could fill these chairs with the most important people in his life that he trusted enough to guide him. I told him that not everyone at that table needs to be someone he sees frequently. In fact, not even everyone at that table needs to be alive presently. They could be men or women. As we did this visualization, I gave him several moments to picture whom he would want to have sitting at his table. Who could give him the most support or guidance? The chairs could be filled with anyone he has ever met but I hoped they were filled with people who cared about him and loved him deeply. After several minutes of this visualization I asked him to picture himself looking around the table at each of the people sitting in these chairs and to greet them. I suggested that he look in their eyes and welcome them to his boardroom and ask them, “Is there anything you want to tell me? Is there any advice, suggestions or support you could share?” After he greeted each person individually and listened to his or her words of advice, I asked him to imagine looking in each of their eyes and saying goodbye. This was a moment where he could thank each person for his or her contribution and tell them that he will call them back in the future if he needs their support again. After completing this visualization, I gave him a moment to open his eyes and orient himself back into the therapy room.
As my patient looked around the room, I realized that his eyes were filled with tears. He shared with me that this was a very powerful exercise for him and he pictured people who were both living and who had passed away. He informed me that I was sitting at one of the heads of his table. I replied that I was honored. He also told me that there was a chair occupied by his old high school basketball coach who believed in him at a time in his life when he felt very alone. His recovery sponsor was in a chair rooting for him as he spoke in his usual blunt manner. His deceased father was there imparting his words of wisdom. Additionally, his college friend who now lives on the West Coast made an appearance. His middle school English teacher was there along with a favorite aunt who had died way too early. He pictured two of his recovery friends, also, sitting at the table.
I have done this visualization exercise with many of my patients as well as created my own “advisory board”. One of the things I love about this exercise is that it reminds us that we are not alone.; however, it is contradictory to traditional psychotherapy where there is one “all knowing doctor” who treats a suffering patient. The advisory board exercise supports my belief that we all need a team to support us. Whether the members are all living or not, we have spiritual guides and supports that exist in our lives. It is up to us to listen to them.
For this patient, his advisory board helped him with a very difficult decision he needed to make. What I did with him since that session was to encourage him to imagine that his table can be with him whenever he is struggling. All he has to do is visualize his team being right there behind him, and he will feel less alone.