Overview of the plant image

In the early days of my clinical practice with substance misusers, I experimented with a range of images to represent the self and I discovered that plant imagery was particularly helpful in shedding light on the person’s psychological state. I observed that the clients were able to represent themselves as plant forms quite easily and that the image revealed the person’s current condition and also symbolised earlier developmental issues. Not surprisingly, many of the plant images looked in poor states due to long-term neglect and required immediate reparative interventions. However, despite often revealing damaged conditions, the plant image also conveyed a hopeful perspective, i.e. no matter how damaged the plant, the image, by its very nature, also contained the possibility of regeneration. I believe that this is one of the reasons that the substance misusing clients seemed to find it helpful and acceptable to represent themselves in this way. Later on,

I continued to use this framing image with a wider range of clients and presenting issues, which allowed me to further develop and refine its use in therapeutic practice. My clinical experience leads me to conclude that the plant image can shed light on two important aspects of the self.

First, the type of plant form reported by the client can indicate the dominant personality traits or the characteristic way of being in and responding to the world. The imaginal perspective appears to draw on the available cultural, personal and self-evidential repertoire for an appropriate plant form to symbolise these characteristics; an example of this would be the self-representation in the form of an oak tree to convey the dominant trait of strength (‘as strong as an oak’ being a common expression in English). Another example would be a self-representation in the form of a cactus that highlights characteristic self-reliance - a self-evident interpretation.

Second, the plant image also represents processes of growth and development. This feature is a useful diagnostic tool because it can identify how and when these processes have been arrested. Furthermore, it can also offer a helpful corrective to an over emphasis, evident in contemporary Western culture, on the linear progressive dimension of development. In nature, development is cyclical - not only through the course of the life cycle of the whole plant but also through seasons of growth and dying away of parts of the plant, e.g. flowers on a tree. I have noted how helpful it has been for clients to have a non-pathologising way of viewing their life as going through natural cycles of expansion and contraction. Although in reality both the type of plant and its stage of development are interdependent aspects of one phenomenon, and cannot in truth be separated in therapeutic work, I have retained this distinction here as a means of structuring the presentation of the work in the following sections.

In general I would suggest the framing image of the plant to clients if they reported any of the following: a sense of unease, a feeling they were not flourishing, or struggling to thrive. Sometimes clients use clear metaphoric language that would indicate that the plant image could be helpful. When one of my clients said that she felt she was ‘dying inside’, I immediately suggested that she could visualise herself in the form of a plant. Her image of a drooping tree that was not gaining the right nutrients from the soil gave her a clear insight into the nature of her current difficulties. I also noted from my experience of many years of working in a cancer support agency that this was often the preferred framing image for the patients there. Therefore I would recommend this as a starting point if people are experiencing physical illnesses.

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