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Strategies for helping clients make more effective use of mental imagery

As mentioned in previous chapters, most clients will present culturally conditioned attitudes towards the imagination and little experience of consciously and purposively using mental images. It takes time and experience for people to understand how mental imagery operates. One of my aims is to help consolidate clients’ knowledge and understanding of the communicative process operating between the rational and imaginal perspectives that is mediated through imagery. Sometimes it can take a long period of patiently reinforcing the links between inner and outer experience symbolised in the imagery before the person grasps its possibilities and begins to use it more autonomously. In this section I consider some strategies that can be employed with specific common blocks experienced by clients.

Resistance to the image

Over time, I have noted that one of the biggest stumbling blocks in inducting clients into working with mental imagery is their distrust of the truthfulness of their images. I have discussed the historical reasons for this and also the implications for practice at some length in previous chapters. One of the complicating factors is that there is some truth to this common objection - the mind can use the imagination to create illusions. One of the main strategies that I employ with clients is to explain the differences between types of imagination, in particular, that the images produced by the imaginal perspective have a different quality to the ones produced by the rational perspective. Sheikh gives a particularly clear succinct description of the former type of imagery:

It is fixed and cannot be altered at will by the patient. Even if the patient should succeed in temporarily altering an image, it will not fail to return to its original form as soon as he loses conscious control or relaxes. The image can be manipulated and mutated only under concentrated attention and only in accordance with the laws under which these images function. Furthermore, when a series of changes are made, they have a corresponding impact on the psyche.

(1978: 203)

In the early introductory stages of mental imagery work, an additional strategy is often required to help clients get past this initial resistance. Over time I have found that the best way to do this is to acknowledge with clients the possibility that they might be producing ‘false’ pictures. I will sometimes say explicitly that it is fine to think they are just making up the pictures and to go ahead in this way; they will be able to judge how ‘real’ they are afterwards. This strategy can often bypass the resistance. The imagery that the client produces can then be assessed as to its validity. Superficial images are usually fugitive and often appear to be two dimensional with little associated affect. Images generated by the imaginal perspective remain consistent, as Sheikh notes above, and are accompanied by physiological and emotional responses. There is a sense that the client is experiencing the image rather than merely seeing it projected onto a screen.

Other forms of resistance can arise when clients see a mental image that is quite different to the one that they expected; a not uncommon experience as Sheikh notes, ‘It needs to be highlighted that the experience that emerges in the eidetics often is at variance with the patient’s conscious views of it’ (1978: 218). This mismatch between the imaginal and rational perspectives can often be implicated in the client’s presenting issue and would therefore indicate a potentially fruitful area of exploration and reflection. As a point of interest, I have noticed a tendency for clients to be resistant to framing images that convey intimations of significant maturity and stature. In my experience, it has been quite common for clients to react with surprise when their imagery representations are large buildings or mature tree forms. Their responses are usually along the lines of a perceived mismatch between the picture and their sense of self. The converse is rare in my experience, i.e. people appear to find it easier to accept representations of the self in the form of modest-sized structures and smaller plant forms. However, the majority of my clients have been British and this tendency might be reflective of cultural conditioning.

Finally, it is worth noting that people might use another objection to their mental images that is informed by a view that the imagination just reproduces whatever the person has previously seen or experienced. Similar objections are made to dream imagery. This mechanistic view can be traced right back to Hobbes’s (1588-1679) assertion in his philosophical treatise, Leviathon (Hobbes, 1996) that imagination is just a record of decaying sense impressions. I would try to counter this position by encouraging the client to question why, out of the vast number of images previously seen, this particular one has been selected. I would then explore with them the possibility that this particular image has something meaningful to communicate regarding their current situation. Of course, the client’s attachment to a mechanistic view to the exclusion of other perspectives might be too powerful to dislodge at this time.

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