Imagery is, experts claim, extremely important to Millennials. According to theologian and semiotician Leonard Sweet, Millennials yearn for images, soundtracks, and stories, to make sense of their lives. It’s not just Millennials, of course. Our entire American culture has become image-saturated. We take in images through mass entertainment, share snapshots of our lives through social media, and create communities around the design images we share with one another on Pinterest.

We love images. We don’t just love actual pictures; we love word-pictures as well. Metaphors abound in our language, and always have. There’s a reason for this. Our brains are highly efficient image factories.

We are hardwired to understand our lives and the world we inhabit through images which form the basis of the stories we tell ourselves.

According to neuroscientists and psychological researchers, assign mental images and metaphors to ourselves and our life-stories. These images are the lenses through which we both interpret the world and predict what paths our lives will follow.

The images we assign ourselves, and the stories we build around those images, can either boost us or limit us. Negative images shackle us with pessimism, and cause us to pass up on exciting opportunities. Positive images, however, set us free to experience achievement, success, and grand adventures.

Some studies suggest Millennials have difficulty developing deep relationships with others. Millennials were raised at the height of the self-esteem movement.  Many were assured that each was unique and self-sufficient. Many parents and teachers encouraged them to be assertive and not accept any limitations on their lives (positive), and to put their interests before all others (not so positive). As a result, the Millennial generation is generally individualistic.

In my work with Millennials I have found their descriptions of themselves to be populated with images marked not just by individuality but also aloneness–each standing isolated in the world, making his or her own way, but making it alone. Millennials’ self-images reinforce strengths of self-esteem, self-confidence, and perseverance. These same images may also make it more difficult for Millennials to acquire healthy reciprocal relationships.

As a coach, I help clients lay aside unhelpful images and personal narratives, and reshape new ones for positive effect.

For example, I might be given an opportunity to expand my role within an organization. Once I begin, I may confronts challenges that are greater than I’ve ever before faced. A common response is to think, “Maybe I’m in over my head!” That’s an image of drowning.

If I tell myself I’m drowning, I’m creating a word-picture. That word picture starts to shape my future choices. Typically my mind will begin to create additional images and pictures that reinforce the first. This constellation of images can cause feelings of panic and desperation. They will shape and impact my actions. If I feel “I’m drowning” in difficulties, I will become more self-protective.  I may become risk-adverse, and lack grit and stamina. I will seek a way out and try to escape from my challenges instead of solving them.

There is a better way. When I begin to experience feeling like I’m drowning in difficulties, I can take a step back. I can look at my situation more objectively. I might think to myself, “this is difficult, but I’ve done difficult things before. I’ve known other people who have accomplished things like this.

Then, I can intentionally choose a positive image through which to view my challenges. For example, I could choose the image of a goose launching into flight. Have you ever seen a goose taking flight from a body of water? Wings slap the water, feet paddle furiously, water-spray is flung madly about and the bird looks awkward, ungainly, and liable at any moment to crash. Not a comforting metaphor, right? But it can be!

The goose is not “going under.” The goose is launching! The goose knows that all his effort, all the incredible energy being expended will result in launching into flight. The goose is secure in the knowledge that this is what is required for the goose to do what he was designed for—to soar! All the effort and energy will soon result in the goose being lifted to new heights where he will see and explore new vistas. Safe on still water he can paddle a few hundred yards. In the air, he can travel untold miles and experience countless new horizons.

If I apply this image regularly to my personal struggles, my emotional responses will change. I will view my activity as more purposeful. What before seemed like merely trying to survive now seems directed toward an important goal. So what, if sometimes I seem to be flailing? Soon I will be soaring. Returning to Millennials and their self-images, what if instead of images of being strong in isolation, Millennials modified those images to one’s of strength in concert with others?

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One Millennial client of mine felt overwhelmed by what she viewed as her lonely commitment to initiate positive change in her organization. She felt “The whole company is at the end of a rope and I’m at the other end, all by myself, pulling it into the future. It’s exhausting.”

As we worked together, she realized she wasn’t unique in her struggles. There were actually many others who wanted to change the momentum of the company. We modified her image from working alone to being part of a tug-of-war team, each with a role to play, all pulling together in a fun way to pull the company into a better future. As the new image settled into her mind she began to find team and relationship-building opportunities all around her, and no longer felt alone.

What are the images you are assigning to your experiences? How could your experiences be re-imaged, truly reimagined in such a way as to bring hopefulness, motivation, and increased sense of wonder at the goodness that lies ahead?

An accomplished professional with unique leadership experience in enterprise and academia, Dr. Phil Carnes is an Executive Leadership Coach with multiple certifications, including an emphasis in emotional intelligence. He has advanced degrees in Biblical Studies and Education, and a doctorate in the field of leadership with an emphasis in semiotics and future studies. Phil and Jennifer, his college sweetheart, have been married 25 years and have four children. He loves fishing, the arts, exploring the intersection of faith and culture, and traveling with family and friends. and friends.