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


It is quite common, in my clinical experience, to encounter clients who feel that they are struggling to either achieve something specific or to get to a particular place that they might conceptualise as an emotional state, e.g. feeling more secure, happy, confident or fulfilled. Very often they report that it does not matter how much energy they invest or how much willpower they apply, they are not getting to where they want to be. The path image can be very useful diagnostically because it can shed light on the nature of the struggle which, I have noticed, is often caused by a conflict between the rational and imaginal perspectives. In other words, the person is attempting to impose a set of conscious goals that is not in harmony with other processes operating in the person’s life. An example of this can be seen in the path image produced by Julia whose work has been previously presented in Chapter 8 (in the vignette titled Resisting the Building). Julia’s aim was to rebuild her confidence after a damaging experience of being bullied at work. She believed she would achieve this desired state if she found another job. However, the main thrust of the work we undertook together over a period of two years focused on her becoming more conscious of the negative impact of her early childhood on her sense of self. Nevertheless, throughout this period Julia continued to invest a great deal of her energy in a frustrating and fruitless quest for employment. The conflict between her rational and imaginal perspectives showed up in the image she reported of her journey through life - struggling to move through an enormous shallow box containing a jelly-like substance. This image remained exactly the same until Julia completed her work on the foundations of her building and reported a new sense of inner confidence. I will return to how her path image changed in the following section on monitoring the image (in the vignette titled Released from the Jelly).

The following vignette, titled Pulling a Heavy Truck, is an example of trying to continue with a goal despite fundamental changes occurring in the person’s life.

James, an insightful and engaging man in his early forties, came for counselling because, after the death of his father, he found he was no longer able to manage his day-to-day life. He said that he found it very difficult to cope with the way in which he had changed from a dynamic and self-motivated businessman to someone who could not manage all the competing demands on his time. In the assessment session he explained to me that his coaching business relied on helping his clients create and realise very clear goals in both their business and also in their personal life. He was very concerned that his own goal-setting strategies were not working.

James’s landscape revealed his struggle - he reported that he was pulling a heavy truck and that he needed to get through a dense wood in order to reach a fairy-tale castle. It was clear to James that this picture showed that he needed to stop trying to force himself to achieve his goals but instead to take some time to understand what the truck contained. Over the course of three sessions James investigated the truck and began to understand how it seemed to be linked to a relationship that he had experienced as damaging and destructive. As he gained further insights into the way that this relationship had mirrored his early life circumstances of being an adopted child, the image of the truck began to change: the wheels fell off and it sank down into the mud. Furthermore, he also had the liberating realisation that he could leave the truck behind and he was also able to let go of the ropes that had harnessed him. In our final session together James said that he felt calmer and had more clarity about how to manage his life. He believed he had done enough work so he could now move on. In his inner landscape he reported that an open green pathway had formed up, and, interestingly, the image of the fairy-tale castle had faded away.

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