The Power of Imagination in Psychotherapy
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 myriad of complex thoughts or feelings.
Sharing our thoughts, ideas and imaginative processes is important in therapy, because it provides a platform to think about those 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 change or shift as our mind explores further.
Imagination matters because it is fundamental to who we are. It is inherently linked with dreams, ideas and what makes us individual. No one will ever see, understand or engage with our imagination as we will ourselves. We are connected to imagination throughout life from an early age and it assists with development and growth in infancy, helping us learn the boundaries of the world we are exploring.
In therapy some may benefit more from working with metaphor and imagination, than exploring what is more factual or ‘real’. The idea that progress can only be made if one is real with oneself and explores absolute truth or absolute untruth, is not an absolute and imagination is rarely this black and white. In fact, abstract or creative patterns of thinking, can lead to meaningful avenues of self-exploration.
Imagination in therapy not only assists with healing, growth and understanding but also contributes to personal and mental development and actively assists with transpersonal development, meaning it allows people to understand experiences which extend beyond the personal level of their psyche. It can assist someone in making links between their experiences and help them form detailed connections.
Free association, metaphor and imagery
Freud believed in the importance of imagery, metaphor, symbols and dreams and thought 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. Exploring the mind without hindrance, censorship or embarrassment is a key tenant of Freudian therapy, and is known as Free Association. The idea is that by speaking freely, a person will, through imagery, metaphor and language, reveal deeper aspects of their unconscious mind.
It could be said that in therapy no image, thought or idea is too small, and all hold value and meaning, and that expressing any thought that floats in our minds is worth examining. Of course this is not always the case, and to quote author Allen Wheelis, ‘A cigar is sometimes just a cigar.’
Metaphor in therapy is not easy to define, and depends 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. Through imagination, we can add or remove meaning as necessary, and there is no wrong or right.
The reason imagination matters in therapy is because it allows 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 so much, that I will be incapable of life.
As the above example shows, the metaphor of a rusty decaying anchor, held powerful feelings 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 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.