The story of using mental imagery in counselling and psychotherapy

This chapter picks up the story of imagination as a healing modality at a pivotal moment in the late 19 th century when the therapeutic potential of mental images was being rediscovered. A creative modern reworking of the premodern practices seen in the Asclepian temple tradition was starting to be crystalised in early psychotherapeutic methods. Although, as previously noted, there were significant differences; psychotherapeutic practice focused on healing psychological problems and the potentially helpful source of imagery had been relocated from a mythic reality to an unconscious part of the mind.

The story of using mental imagery in counselling and psychotherapy from those early beginnings up to the present day is a complex one. However, two main themes can be picked out in this narrative: the first theme consists of the way in which different schools have theorised and applied the therapeutic function of mental images; and the second one comprises the influential individual pioneers working outside the mainstream schools who have developed and formulated image-based work. Of course, in reality, these two groups are not so clearly distinct - each one has influenced the other - and their interweavings form the fabric of this story. However, for the sake of clarity, this chapter addresses these two themes separately. It begins with an account of the way that the use of mental imagery was developed within the main therapeutic approaches of the 20th century - I am grouping these into three very general orientating categories i.e. psychodynamic, humanistic and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). These approaches will be presented chronologically starting with Freud’s initial experiments with mental images then moving on to Jung’s pioneering work and the flowering of mental imagery in the humanistic approaches of the 1970s, and ending with the imagery methods currently being developed within contemporary CBT approaches. It will also include a consideration of some of the influential image-based psychotherapies that were being developed in parallel through the course of the 20th century. Some of this narrative will be familiar to the reader, in particular its development within the mainstream approaches and, consequently, these sections will be delivered in summary (for a more detailed treatment of this subject, readers are referred to Singer’s [2006] scholarly account). Other presumably less well-known parts of this story will be dealt with in more detail, particularly the European waking dream tradition and recent developments within contemporary CBT. The chapter ends with some reflection on the current state of theoretical development and practice in mental imagery in the early 21st century.

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