Excerpt from Imagery and Symbolism in Counselling


This book explores the fascinating world of imagination and its use in counselling. For me, it has been a personal journey that has added depth to my work, but more than that, it has been a liberation. Prior to ‘discovering’ imagery, my work as a counsellor had relied very much on feeling and thinking, and my intuition had not been allowed to develop fully. When I started using imagery, I was aware of entering a whole new world, full of exciting, and totally unpredictable possibilities and truths.

My ‘baptism,’ as it were, came through two channels: Transpersonal Psychology training, and a dream analysis by a Jungian counsellor. I date my ‘conversion’ to the meeting of those two channels, about fifteen years ago. As I say, the experience was personally liberating, but it also revolutionised the way I worked with clients. I like to think that I was fairly empathic before that, but what the conscious use of my intuition did was to enable me to ‘think’ in terms of images to represent the client’s feelings and to present these images as a possibility. It would be arrogant of me to suggest that I was always right, far from it, but not being always right doesn’t matter, any more than it is possible to always say the right thing. What it does is to let the client see that we are trying to get somewhere near.

One of the very first incidents which is etched on my memory was of a lady who had come to see me because of tensions between herself and Barry (names have been changed) over Jane’s inability to have children. That was the focal point, underlying that Jane was a very tense person, always working and living under great pressure. I taught both Jane and Barry the technique of deep relaxation, which helped the general tension. When Jane had mastered the relaxation, and she and I were together, I introduced her to imagery, and found that she was adept at using her imagination. In one scene, she found herself on a path that led into a, and then into a clearing. She was visibly distressed as she looked around the clearing, particularly as she looked at one large tree.

A Freudian counsellor may have said to himself, ‘Aha, a’, and it may well have been, but I rarely interpret symbols, either to myself or to the client. Instead, I asked her to view this tree from all angles, and to describe how she felt. Jane had her eyes closed, concentrating on her inner pictures, but had they been open, my guess is that she would have looked terrified, and certainly her face was flushed. I encouraged Jane to get as close as she felt comfortable. ‘Can you put your arms round it?’ Jane shook her head. ‘It’ll hurt me,’ she said. ‘Can you just reach out towards it?’ As she reached out towards it, although not yet touching it, she started to cry and shake. Why I asked her, ‘How old are you?’ I am not sure why, but I did. She replied that she was two years of age, standing in a cot in a hospital, crying for her mummy, who had left her. By now she was really sobbing, as she relived that memory of nearly thirty years before, a memory she had never consciously thought of until that moment. She had gone in to have her tonsils out.

I would like to say that this solved all Jane’s and Barry’s difficulties, but counselling is seldom like that. So far as I am aware, they never did have children, but through that one incident, both Jane and I had been taken into the realms of possibility, and both of us were aware that deep within there is tremendous potential for growth. From then till now, I have gone on to develop this wonderful power, a power that is within all of us, the power of the imagination. Some people are certainly more adept at using it than others, and I hope throughout this book, you and I will share some of the journeys I have been privileged to accompany people on in their quest for wholeness.

I hope that you will decide to travel with me in your imagination, and I sincerely trust that this journey will be as liberating for you as it is for me. I hope that the introductory chapters, that deal with theory, will not be desert-dry, or as laborious as climbing a mountain, or as depressing as going down into the deepest cave, but if it is like this, please try to use your imagination to understand what is happening, and seek for ways to change the image into a feeling that is more acceptable to you and more enlightening.

This book is written as Journeys, rather than Chapters, for the word seemed in keeping with the basic idea of journeying towards greater understanding. Certainly for myself, the writing of this book has proved to be a fascinating journey, and I hope that you, too, will experience something of the thrill as we travel together.

Many of the concepts, ideas and themes in this book are universal, and have been worked by other people. What I have done is to show how I use them, even though this may not coincide with the work of other counsellors or therapists. A concluding point is that in the References I have quoted only those authors whose work I have consulted, rather than provide a comprehensive bibliography, or to show how other counsellors use imagery.


Imagery can be used at any time in the counselling session. However, its effectiveness is dependent upon the psychological awareness of the counsellor This awareness is the product of personal therapy, training and experience. I hope that this book will add to both your personal development as well as your experience. If you wish to develop your skill of imagery, I would strongly recommend that you undertake either a course of personal therapy with a counsellor who focuses on imagery, or that you find a group that is working along these lines.

Certain words evoke images. It is useful, therefore, to pay attention to the words the client uses to express feelings and to say something like; ‘Could you use your imagination to put that word into a picture to describe how you feel.’

One person may say of the word ‘trapped’; ‘Oh, I imagine myself in a swamp’. Someone else may say; ‘I see myself in a dark, underground dungeon’. Each of these answers gives both counsellor and client a little more understanding. Some words are powerfully evocative.

A case study - Anna

During a workshop demonstration of counselling, Anna, the client, said, ‘I feel very insecure at present’. When she was asked to put this into an image, she imagined herself faced with five closed doors, uncertain as to what lay behind any of them.

When she was asked, ‘So you are in a room with these door all round you ?’, she realised that the doors were in the open and arranged in a half-circle. Using the principle of Extension (Task four), I asked her to turn and face away from the doors.

This instruction was based on the principle that if the doors represented the future, then turning around she would be facing the past. As she did so, her face lit up in total surprise and delight, as she exclaimed; ‘The landscape is all beautiful and light and green. What lovely country!’

When she had admired the scenery, and still in her imagination, she was encouraged to identify the doors, which she did. One of the doors she wanted to open, just a little way, but didn’t want to go beyond the threshold, at that time. She then decided to close the session.

During discussion with the group, Anna commented on the revelation of turning round and looking at her past. She had thought of her past as being dark, difficult and traumatic. Looking at it at the crossroads of her life, she realised for the first time that although there were scars on the countryside, the overall feelings were good and comfortable, the scars had healed. She felt, having realised this, that she had greater freedom to start exploring what lay behind the doors of the future.

Some people seem to have a natural gift for creating inner images. If you are one of these, using imagery is likely to prove very rewarding for you and your clients. For many of us, the imagination we were born with has been overlaid with left-brain activities. Careful nurturing and use will help it to resurface.

Therapeutic imagery has several names – Guided imagery, Symboldrama, Active imagination, Visualisation – but whatever its name, it means working with images, where imagination is facilitated by the therapist, who prompts, encourages, develops and brings the fantasy experience to a close. The material may then be analysed in terms of its meaning and symbolism - similar to dream analysis. A word of caution needs to be introduced here: interpretations of symbols must always be tentative, and not delivered from a purely theoretical standpoint. While it is true that certain symbols mean certain things - red usually means danger - circumstances alter the meaning. To a red colour-blind person, red means nothing, so taking this as an analogy, interpretations should be ‘what do you think of this meaning?’ or ‘the books offer this as an interpretation, what do you think?’ or ‘What does that image (symbol) mean to you?’ It is arrogant to assume all knowledge, and by so doing, to ignore the insights of the client.

Symbols, which may conceal or reveal, always derive from archetypes. The fundamental truth of therapeutic imagery is that the psyche will always strive to represent itself in fantasy using images. Imagery takes us into the realms of such richness, in which the psyche is given freedom to explore, unhampered by the conscious mind, whose language is reason and logic.

I rarely set out to work with imagery, for this would mean that the client would have to fit in with my preconceived ideas. Rather, as I indicated earlier, I will introduce the idea of imagery when the client gives some indication that she/he is already working in terms of pictures.

Glen was a surveyor who had been referred to me because of panic attacks that were interfering with his work and his daily living. At one stage he said, ‘When I think what I was like...’ This indicated to me that he was looking at something in his mind’s eye, so I said, ‘If you were an artist, and you were painting a ‘before’ and ‘now’, what would you paint?’ ‘That’s strange’, he said, ‘I do like painting, and often take myself off down the river.’ He then went on to talk about two pictures, one of himself as a happy-go-lucky chap, with bright colours on the canvas; the second picture was him all screwed up, looking haggard, and the scene was cloudy and overcast. Towards the end of six months counselling, he looked again at the paintings; the second had changed, bright colours had replaced the dull colours, and he was stood with his hand to his eyes, looking into the future. The image he had created clearly depicted the dramatic change in his outlook and in his feelings.

One of the fascinating characteristics of the imagery journey is that client is all the characters in the inner theatre – the script writer, producer, director, and players. What is often surprising is when clients produce complicated images they have no knowledge of ever having seen, and these are in full, glorious Technicolour and delicate hues. Sometimes the scene is taken from actual memory, and that, too, is perfectly acceptable; if that what the client wants, then that’s where the client needs to be at that particular moment. Others create scenes that could very well fit some particular science-fiction movie. What is important to remember, is that what the client produces from the imagination is what is significant to the client, in some way.

Six guiding principles of imagery

The Principle of Confrontation

The client is encouraged to be courageous and to confront images that cause anxiety. Successful confronting causes transformation and removal of anxiety. The feared symbolic figure is generally a part of self. Confrontation takes courage (Jane, referred to in the Preface had to draw on her courage to be able to confront the tree). Very often, though, confrontation takes place in frightening creatures’ the dragon that emerges from the from the cave, the swamp or the sea; or with the snarling animal that dashes out from the forest. All of these – swamp, marsh, sea, and forest – represent the unconscious.

The natural instinct when startled is to freeze or turn tail and run. One of the curious aspects of imagery is that although the client knows it is imagination, the reactions are still real. I have seen clients blanch with fear, tremble, flush with anger, shrink back into the chair, and present all the indications of panic. Although I have never taken the pulse or blood pressure, I am quite sure that there would be physiological indications in keeping with what they were experiencing. I have seen clients at the end of a session ringing with sweat; I have seen them cry and rock in their chair, as a child would when distressed. So, imagery is certainly never a soft option!

How should the counsellor continue, when the client is confronted by something terrifying? Firstly, it is vitally important to remember that, at the moment, what the client is imagining is as real as the chair in which she or he is sitting; in exactly the same way as when we are dreaming, the edge of the precipice on which we are teetering is real, as is the one hundred-feet drop. Should we advise the client to run, fight, kill the creature by putting a sword in her hand? Confrontation is not attack, it is standing one’s ground, determined to be in control, and this may require a lot of encouragement from the counsellor. However, it is not a simple thing like saying, ‘Stand your ground; look at it; be in control.’ What the client is imagining represents some aspect of the unconscious, something that holds some power over the client. It presents in this fearsome form to exert the maximum effect.

Sometimes it is necessary for the counsellor to take control, but rarely have I had to do this, and it would only be if there were indications that the client had become too terrified to do anything. Normally I would say something like, ‘What do you want to do?’ This leaves the client firmly in control, and I think this is essential. If the client says, ‘I want to run away,’ my next response might be, ‘Where do you want to run to?’ Again this leaves the client in control. I would probably follow it up with, ‘What would happen if you didn’t run away?’ If the client says something like, ‘I want to kill it,’ I would advise against this by responding with, ‘What would happen if you did kill it?’ This type of probing response is encouraging the client to explore the symbol further, and not accept it at face value.

From my knowledge of symbolism, and of some of the workings of the unconscious, I know that fighting the creature, and killing it are not the answer; for that would only be destroying a vital part of the client’s self. I would probably say, ‘What name would you give this creature?’ Naming something often removes much of the fear attached to it.

Before engaging in imagery which is potentially dangerous (although danger can appear from the most unexpected quarters), I would suggest that the client look around for some sort of to offer protection. Again, the choice of talisman is interesting and revealing. So, when the client needs to confront, I would draw attention to the talisman, but also ask, ‘Is there anyone you would like to be with you just now as you confront (using the name given to it by the client). As with the talisman, who the person brings into the scene is interesting. Sometimes I will suggest that there is a approaching, someone who will be there just for them. I will then suggest that the client enter into a dialogue with the wise person, as to what to do.

If there is no such wise person, and if the client wishes to confront, rather than flee, I would then suggest that the client studies the creature closely, in great detail. This often leads to a change in the client’s feelings, as critical analysis is used to bring the creature into some sort of reality. What often happens is that the creature diminishes in size and fearsomeness, or it may spontaneously be transformed into something more acceptable and less frightening.

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