The relational turn and the decline of interest in mental imagery

In the last couple of decades of the 20th century there were two interrelated factors that contributed to a general wane of interest in the therapeutic use of mental imagery: both of these factors were connected to the relational turn in counselling and psychotherapy.

The first factor relates to the impact of changing intellectual fashions in Western culture. Nearly all of the main therapeutic approaches that were developed before the last couple of decades of the 20th century share a modern psychological conception of the self as autonomous and bounded. Within this general model of the self, change is posited as an intra-psychic process, and mental imagery would be viewed as being generated from and within the subjective interior of the individual mind. However, a postmodern perspective on the nature of the self is very different: it is not understood to be a fixed psychological construct. Instead, the self is a fluid and socially constructed identity, or a ‘multiplicity of self-accounts’ (Gergen and Kaye, 1992) - selves are only realised as products of relatedness. In other words, our self-identity is fictive with no ontological basis.

By the beginning of the 21st century the impact of this new understanding of the nature of the self on the field of counselling and psychotherapy was evident in the increasing emphasis on the co-constructed nature of therapy. New therapeutic approaches were emerging, such as narrative therapy (White and Epston, 1990; McLeod, 1997), that do not depend on psychological models of the self: difficulties that the clients bring would be theorised as arising within the intersubjective field of action rather than the individual subjective interior. This postmodern perspective on the nature of the self has significant implications for a therapeutic practice with mental imagery as the source of the client’s presenting issues are no longer situated subjectively. Furthermore, a postmodern-informed perspective asserts the primacy of language in therapeutic practice as language is the means by which social narratives about reality are constructed.

The second factor relates to developments within the field whereby research in counselling and psychotherapy had established the fundamental importance of the therapeutic relationship. Research findings from the 1970s that indicated there was no real difference between particular therapeutic approaches generated interest in identifying the common factors implicated in successful therapy. In their influential reviews of the research literature, Asay and Lambert (2000) estimated that the therapeutic relationship has twice the impact that the use of therapeutic techniques have on therapeutic progress. These findings cemented the shift of focus in psychotherapeutic theory and practice away from subjectivity and onto intersubjectivity.

It is not surprising then that the relational turn in counselling and psychotherapy with its emphasis on the linguistically constituted nature of human experience combined with research evidence for the importance of the relationship has resulted in a general lessening of interest in mental imagery as a therapeutic technique. It is also not surprising that the one place where mental imagery is being developed is in the therapeutic approach least influenced by postmodern perspectives on the self, i.e. CBT and its contemporary variants. However, before I discuss these recent developments, it is important to consider other influential clinical approaches to imagery produced by the clinical innovators working outside the mainstream.

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