Why the use of imagination in psychotherapy matters
People enter into therapy for different reasons, whether to understand bereavement and loss, or to explore a recent spate of anxiety. In therapy there are many aspects of our lives, experiences and relationships which can be explored. Therapy emphasises the importance of exploring our minds, seeking truth or clarity and uncovering our past. This exploratory process takes place in the hope that we may unburden ourselves from a myriad of complex thoughts or feelings.
This is why imagination becomes so important in therapy, because it allows us to explore thoughts and experiences, which if shared in the outside world, may not be understood. Imagination enables us to view or interpret experiences with a variety of different lenses which we can alter, change or shift as our mind explores concepts further.
Why imagination matters
All of us hold the potential for imagination, creativity and reflective thought, and can benefit from thinking outside the box. Imagination matters because it is fundamental to who we are. It is linked with dreams, ideas and what makes us individual and unique. No one will ever see, understand or engage with our imagination as well as we will ourselves. We are connected to imagination throughout life from an early age. Imagination assists with development and growth in infancy, and helps us to learn the boundaries of the world we are learning about and exploring.
Some people in therapy benefit more from working within the world of metaphor and imagination, than exploring what is more factual or ‘real’. The idea that progress can only be made if one owns up to their difficulties, admits fault or is real with oneself, is not an absolute. Of course, there must be some ownership of thoughts feelings and ideas, but this is not the only route to progress in therapy. In fact, it can be in abstract or creative patterns of thinking, which can lead us down meaningful avenues of self-exploration and growth.
Imagination not only assists with healing, growth and understanding in therapy, but also contributes to a person’s personal and mental development. Actively using imagination in therapy assists with transpersonal development, meaning it allows people to understand experiences which extend beyond the personal level of their psyche. Imagination, and reflective thinking, can assist someone in making links between their experiences and thoughts and help them form more detailed connections in their lives.
Free association, metaphor and imagery
Freud believed greatly in the importance of imagery, metaphor, symbols and dreams. He believed much could be deciphered from a person’s unconscious processes, and that these became clearer through an individual’s use of language, imagery and metaphor. He encouraged people to express any and all thoughts which floated into their minds during a session. No image, thought or idea was too small, and all held value and meaning.
Exploring the mind without hindrance, censorship or embarrassment is a key tenant of Freudian therapy, and is known as free association. The idea behind this concept is that by speaking freely, a person will, through imagery, metaphor and language, reveal deeper aspects of their unconscious mind, which for several reasons may have been covered up.
Metaphor in therapy is not easy to define, and depends hugely on each client and therapist relationship, and how a therapist or client may understand particular metaphors used. For example, a therapist may use their own understanding or knowledge of theory to infer meaning to a metaphor which a client did not mean, or a client may have several understandings for a metaphor. Imagery which was considered safe, may become dangerous or unsafe. Through imagination, we can add or remove meaning as necessary, and there are no wrong or right answers. Thoughts that that once made sense may shift and become confusing and difficult. Through actively seeking an imaginative understanding, we can make these ideas more malleable and fluid.
The reason imagination matters in therapy is because it can allow a client to express how they are feeling about something when the direct use of words may be too painful. Symbols and metaphors can be used in place of complex and difficult memories or feelings. A brief fictional example of this is below.
Client – Sometimes I feel like a decaying rusty anchor, lying on the ocean floor.
Therapist – Can you say a little more about what the image of an anchor might represent?
Client – It represents feeling unused and forgotten. It represents feeling heavy.
Therapist – Can you say more?
Client – I feel unable to stop decaying, that I am destined to remain on the ocean floor.
Therapist – Does the anchor represent you and your depression?
Client – Yes, and right now I feel chained to it. I do not know if I will ever leave the ocean floor. I may rust over some much, that I will be incapable of life.
As the above example shows, the metaphor of a rusty decaying anchor, held behind it a powerful feeling of helplessness, depression and sadness. The use of imagination in place of words enabled this person to explain the depth of their sadness, which was equivalent to the depths of the ocean itself.
Imagination is a personal and private part of our lives, to which we alone can attribute meaning, value or feelings. The vastness and complexity of the mind, means that often thoughts, feelings and ideas become jumbled up, confused or lost. Therapy can assist you in detangling these aspects of your mind, and provide you with a greater sense of clarity, and allow you to see things in a different light.
Imagination could be viewed as providing a symbolic bridge between our conscious and unconscious thoughts, as a container or a conductor of psychological energies, feelings and sensations. Ultimately, it gives us a platform for expression, offers a wide array of tools to understand ourselves at greater depth, and when used within therapy, provides us with the chance to consider and reflect upon what could be, what might have been, what was, and what is.
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About Joshua Miles
Joshua is an experienced integrative psychotherapist. He has assisted people in exploring their internal world & imagination, & assisted them in linking these processes to the real world, & allowed them to make connections between imagination and their current and historic difficulties. He works with adults of all ages in Shoreditch, East London.