Why imagination is essential for effective counselling

There are many well established and accepted principles in therapy, and in the pursuit of well-being in general, that are seen as good practice. Avoiding binary, black and white thinking; increasing one's self-awareness; finding forgiveness; developing compassion for ourselves and others; healthy lifestyle choices regarding nutrition, exercise and sleep; being open to change... the list goes on. However, there is a capacity that we all possess that is rarely emphasised or given its due – imagination. 


You may respond by thinking, ‘that's just openness’, or, ’openness to change is imagination.' However, there's an important distinction that needs to be made between openness and imagination. Openness is the space within which our imagination can best function; it is a passive, still condition of being. On the other hand, imagination is an active, intention-based movement of the mind. A person 'is' open, but 'uses' their imagination. 

Of course, using the imagination in visualisation practices has been employed for millennia in various forms of self-development and religious meditative practices. However, there is a subtle aspect to whether an imaginative, visualisation exercise results in significant change.

For example, if we regard a visualisation exercise as simply contained and limited to within the place and time we are occupied by it - we open our eyes, we end the visualisation, and that's that, back to our habitual perception of ourselves - then change is not so likely to occur. However, if we regard our visualisation as 'the shape of things to come,' as if we are carving out a new shape, a new position that we will occupy. Via our imagination, we can loosen our grip on a previous sense of identity, that may have been perpetuating our suffering, and allow a fresh, authentic, flexible sense of identity to emerge. 

Another response may be 'but my imagination is the problem! I'm always imagining people thinking or saying negative things about me or negative scenarios in general'. It's a fairly universal experience that our imagination can conjure up or exacerbate a difficult situation or experience, but imagination can be directed positively too.

So why is imagination important? Because it plays a crucial - yet largely under recognised - role in enabling positive change to happen. Without exception, everyone that seeks out counselling is looking for some form of change, externally, internally or both (both often being the case, even if it's not intended).

Yes, we need to be open to change but, equally, effective change requires us to actively imagine that change taking place at some point in the future or right now. A person who is not able to imagine or envision a better future would not try to change – what would they be aiming towards? What would be the motivation? It is the imagination to conceive of our life, or ourselves, as changed that gives us the openness towards its eventual happening. Being able to imagine ourselves with a happier living situation, relationship or work life clearly helps us to feel motivated and think, feel and act in a way that helps us to achieve that. 

Equally, internal change requires a potent imagination. For example, to regard ourselves or others with deeper compassion, that change requires imagination. We need to be able to identify with being someone who thinks, acts and possesses fuller compassion - that requires imagination, to visualise and identify with that change. Of course, openness to change is a necessary factor but simply being open without actively contributing to the potential new, emerging identity or situation will only leave one at point of its potential, not actual, manifested change. Imagination must always precede real change.

The obvious question we are left with is 'So? What can I do with this new perspective on the imagination?' Well, in a sense, the new perspective is all we have to 'do'. We can value our imagination as a powerful catalyst for change and respect that how we employ our imagination can result positively or negatively depending on how we occupy our minds with it.

So, next time we want to initiate change, instead of being sabotaged or obscured by our imagination, we can draw on the power of our imagination to create a new, positive experience and lived sense of ourselves.

We may think 'yeah but it's just imagination, it's not real.' The apparent insubstantial, intangible nature of the imagination is precisely what gives it its power because it can transcend our current situation, that we may feel trapped or stuck in, precisely because it's not 'there' to be stopped. There's no box or tethers that can limit our imagination, we have the freedom to take it wherever we like, if we allow ourselves to do so.

All human achievement and endeavour had its genesis in imagination and what more worthwhile achievement than our own ongoing growth and development? Self development is not selfish, achieving internal peace isn't selfish, the only way we can achieve collective 'peace on earth' (to coin a grand sounding phrase) is through individual inner peace. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Manchester, Greater Manchester, M2
Written by Roger Jayamanne, M.A., Psychotherapeutic Counselling Dip, MBACP
Manchester, Greater Manchester, M2

I run a practice in the heart of Manchester. With a previous background in education, developmental psychology and teaching (and time as monk, mentioned in the article). My greatest motivating factor in my therapy practice is to facilitate my clients' own awakening to their true potential, happiness and peace.

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