A matter of interpretation

Interpreting mental imagery is a contentious issue. Although, on balance, interpretation or making meaning of the image is generally regarded as part of the therapeutic work, not everyone would support its necessity. The oneirotherapists (Fretigny and Virel, 1968), for example, take the view that making connections between the images and daily life, although useful, is not necessary or sufficient for a cure - instead the cure arises through getting in touch with symbolised material and moving more freely within it.

How matters of interpretation are approached vary widely in terms of who does the interpretation and what is used to inform the interpretation. There are also differences in relation to whether the image is viewed as important in its own right, i.e. meaning-laden or is viewed merely as a symptom of something else. For example, historically in CBT approaches, intrusive imagery has been seen as just a symptom of a pathology. Only very recently have clinicians and researchers begun to consider whether the image is meaningful in its own right through providing an emotional bridge to the original cause. Approaches also differ regarding the emphasis placed on the latent or manifest content of the image. However, despite these significant variations, the three main schools discussed in earlier chapters of this book do agree on one fundamental point: that the images produced by the imaginal perspective can be understood as forms of communication.

A more inclusive approach to imagery interpretation would attempt to synthesise an interpretative approach from across the range of strategies and positions adopted by different schools and clinical innovators. In order to do this the client is regarded as the person best placed to understand the image. However, the therapist also has a role to play in terms of expanding the client’s interpretative repertoire. Therefore, interpreting imagery is viewed as a collaborative process.

In order to support a more inclusive approach to making sense of the client’s mental imagery, I would argue that there are three general levels of interpretation that need to be taken into account and these comprise the personal, cultural and universal dimensions of human experience. All of these dimensions need to be considered in the meaning-making process. These levels are defined as follows:

  • 1 The personal level. The mental image is a personal individual representation that is unique to the individual and draws on personal memories, individual experience and personal beliefs.
  • 2 The cultural level. The mental image is shaped by a wider cultural/historical context. The culture in which the individual lives will have a set of pictorial representations and symbols with particular meanings assigned to them. A good example of this is the different meanings assigned to colours - in the West, death and mourning are associated with black, whereas in China, the colour white is linked to funerals and bereavement.
  • 3 The universal level. The meaning of the image is self-evidential without reference to the personal or the cultural. This level of interpretation is based on the understanding that there are some images (or aspects of imagery) that would have the same general meaning for everyone. Examples taken from the three framing images presented in the following chapters would be: a building that is collapsing indicates an unstable self-structure; a crossroads indicates a time of decision; and a plant that is blossoming indicates a time of positive self-expression and the beginning of a new cycle of growth.

How these levels of interpretation interrelate and operate in practice can be seen in case study illustrations and further discussion in the following chapters.

Furthermore, the model’s focus on a balanced interactive communication process between the rational and imaginal perspectives is mirrored in the interpretative process. Any move towards understanding or decoding the communications delivered through mental images would aim for retaining a balance between the two perspectives. The commitment is to find a way to enhance the communication process between the two perspectives without distorting either one; one of the best descriptions in the literature can be found in the following account given by Watkins:

Integration between the ego and the image may be seen more as a system of fine silk threads that pull both into connection and relation without destruction, without losing the nature of the image. In this sense interpretation is not a reductive process, but more an attempt to pull into relation gently and through the dimension of time. Our associations to the image then do not lead us away but rather form the threads that bind the consciousness of the imaginal more closely to the real, the real to the imaginal. Interpretation in this way does not destroy and betray the image. It tries to aid the metaphor in continually placing the material and the imaginal side-by-side, with their own natures retained. By keeping both elements of the metaphor together, the interpretation allows for the material to be seen in relation to the imaginal background that couples it.

(1984: 139)

In practice, a more inclusive approach to interpretation would involve paying equal attention to both the imaginal and rational perspectives. In terms of the former, an interpretative strategy would be to allow the mental images to unfold on their own terms without conscious interference (sometimes termed the ‘amplification of imagery’). In terms of the latter, the interpretative process would involve cognitive meaning-making informed by the client’s experiential understanding and the therapist’s considered questioning.

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