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Home arrow Psychology arrow Using Mental Imagery in Counselling and Psychotherapy: A Guide to More Inclusive Theory and Practice

The first stage of the work

In the following process, the term ‘plant’ is used as shorthand for all possible kinds of plant forms, e.g. flowers, bushes and trees. It also encompasses all possible stages across the continuum of plant growth - one end being ungerminated states (e.g. seeds, bulbs, etc.) through immature stages (plant shoots, tree saplings, etc.) through to mature stages (e.g. fully grown trees, annual plants at the end of their growth cycle such as sunflower plants with seed heads, etc.).

Bringing the plant into view: using the framing function

The initial diagnostic procedure is designed to elicit a clear picture of the plant form. It is important to make sure that the person understands what this image is designed to represent. If the concept of psychological growth is a bit too abstract then I would use a question such as, ‘If you were a plant, what kind of a plant would you be?’ (for some more general guidance on introducing imagery work to clients, see Chapter 12). I would also reassure them that they will be in control of this process and that this is purely an information-gathering exercise.

Sometimes people might think that this method sounds complicated so it is a good idea to reassure them that this is a simple process. I would usually emphasise that the aim initially is to gain a picture of the plant form just to see what condition it is in and if it needs any particular attention. It is also important to let clients know that they can stop the procedure at any time if they are feeling uncomfortable (for further elaboration on preparing the client for imagery work please see Chapter 12).

Adapt the following procedure to the individual client. When instructions are followed by bracketed terms, this indicates that you will need to select one that is suitable for your client. Suggested verbatim instructions or questions are given in quotation marks.

  • 1 Make sure the client is sitting comfortably with uncrossed legs and both feet on the floor. Ask them to close their eyes. Then take them through a simple relaxation procedure of your choosing.
  • 2 Instruct them to imagine that they are standing somewhere outdoors. State clearly that it is neutral territory and that for the time being the surroundings are unclear. It is not an environment they recognise. Make sure they are imagining themselves actually being there, i.e. not viewing themselves from a third-person perspective. I will say something along the lines of: ‘Be in your body, imagine you can feel the ground under your feet.’
  • 3 Ask them to silently request their subconscious mind (inner self, etc.) to produce a picture of something growing such as a plant, flower, bush or tree (it is important that you specify the full range otherwise the instruction will restrict the scope of the response) that is a representation of their psychological growth and development. You can phrase this in more simple terms by asking them if they were a plant form what would they be? Suggest that this plant form will appear directly in front of them. Tell them not to worry if it is vague at the beginning, you will help them to see it more clearly. Recommend that they accept the first picture that comes and not to censor it. Give them a couple of minutes to begin to get a sense of the plant.
  • 4 Tell them you are now going to ask some questions to get a clearer picture of the plant form. Reassure them at this point that they are not to worry about getting it right but instead just let their imagination work with it. Use the following as starting points to get a basic picture. Begin by clarifying the basic type of plant form, i.e. tree, bush, flower, plant. Usually this is a straightforward matter and most people will be able to identify the type. Although, there is a possibility that the person might produce an image that is difficult to categorise and will require some further exploration (one client, I recall, pictured what appeared to him to be stones in the desert - it took a while for both of us to work out that these were a form of cactus that looked like a stone until the flowering season when a brightly coloured flower emerges from the plant). Use the following questions - dependent on the type of plant form - to elicit a clear picture:
    • • If it is a tree, find out the following if possible: type of tree; stage of maturity; and what season it is in.
    • • If it is a plant, flower or a bush, find out the following if possible: type of plant; and what stage of growth or flowering it is in.

Other clarifying questions if appropriate can be asked about its condition (is it healthy, neglected, wilting, damaged, etc.)

• Find out about its growing environment: ask if it is growing in the ground or a container - if the latter then elicit a description.

By the end of this stage, clients will usually have produced a reasonably clear picture of their inner representational plant. However, this is not always the case.

Sometimes people visualise plants that exist in their known world, e.g. a house plant that they own. Or they may see their representational image in a familiar landscape, e.g. their childhood garden. As discussed in the instructions for eliciting the building image, it is important to gently explore the significance of these autobiographical references. The main question to resolve is whether this is an indication that the person is strongly identified in some way with a particular environment (see the vignette, titled The Rose with No Thorns, presented later on in the chapter).

Sometimes people are unable to visualise a plant form. This could be an inner resistance that indicates that the plant form is not going to be a helpful starting point (see the discussion and illustration of multiple starting points in Chapter 11). Or it may be that the plant form is unusual in some way. Some gentle inquiry can be used to help the client explore this lack of obvious imagery. Sometimes, as with the other framing images discussed in this book, it may be that the person is censoring imagery that does not appear to them to fit the conventional plant forms - such as the previously mentioned image of desert plants that look like stones. Another possibility is that the plant form is represented in an ungerminated state buried under the earth (for a discussion of this particular condition see the vignette titled The Underground Bulb). However, it is important not to press clients too much, and if the resistance persists then I would usually suggest that we abandon the procedure for the time being.

  • 5 Then get some sense of the initial response to their plant form by asking clients to identify their main emotional reaction to it. As a prompt it can sometimes be helpful to remind them that they are looking at a picture of themselves.
  • 6 Suggest that they are going to explore their plant form a little more in order to get some more information about it. Then, depending on what is appropriate to the individual and the particular image, it is worth attending to the following:

Ask the person if they sense there is anything about the plant that needs attention. This might be obvious, for example: the plant could be wilting; a branch might be splitting off from the trunk; the stem is bending; or the container might be too small. Or it could be less apparent, for example: the trunk of the tree looks solid but it is in fact hollow; the root system of the plant is too shallow; or the soil is very poor. It could also be something with more positive connotations such as a flower that is blossoming.

Then, whatever the person indicates as noteworthy will need some further exploration. If at all possible, gain some indication from clients as to how long ago they think that a particular development occurred in the plant. Ask them what was happening in their life at that time that might be linked with this particular feature of the image. This information is important because it can help the person to begin to make correspondences between the internal image of growth and related outer events. It will also suggest ways in which psychological growth can be promoted. An example of this might be asking how long the client thinks that the tree has been in its winter season; if it has been like that for a long time it could indicate an arrested depressive state (see the vignette titled A Tree Stuck in Winter). Other examples could be: if the plant is damaged, how might this correspond with a traumatic event? If the flower is opening then what positive life events is this connected with? In order to elicit these links I would try some general questions along the following lines:

‘What do you feel the. . . . (specify what this is).........means?’

‘Can you get any sense of how long that . . . (specify what this is).....

has been like that?’

‘How do you think that . . . (specify what this is) . . . shows up in your current life?’

It is important to do this in a sensitive way as the corresponding events or conditions may have been traumatic. It is a good idea to let the client know that you are not going to initiate any further exploration at this point. Reassure them that you are looking at it purely to gain basic information in order to understand the plant form better and see what it needs in order to grow.

  • 7 When the above steps have been completed, advise the person that you are now bringing this initial procedure to a close. Ask them to stand in front of the plant. It can be useful to give them a minute to visualise it clearly. Then instruct them to turn around with their back to the plant form and create a blank screen.
  • 8 Instruct them to switch their attention back to their physical body. Let them know that you are going to bring them back into their everyday state of mind. Then use a simple basic procedure designed for this purpose.
  • 9 Finally, at the end of the procedure, it is helpful to summarise their account of the plant form as a preparation for a discussion of their experience.
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