Using The Imagination In Gestalt Therapy

Vincent Humphreys


This article first presents a theoretical framework for understanding the different
 phases of a therapy session. Within this framework the use of the imagination in 
working with dreams, with metaphor and in exploring relationships is discussed.
 At the end some general points are made about the use of the imagination in 

Cycle Of Experience

Any human activity has a “natural flow that begins with sensory awareness and 
ends when we are satisfied” (Clayton 1996). The cycle starts with a feeling of
 readiness, of anticipation (sensation phase), moving on to a growing awareness of 
needs, a connecting to self (awareness phase). Next we move on to becoming
 energised, and choosing to fully involve ourselves, with the process (action phase).
 This leads to a feeling of something complete, a sense of something having 
happened (full contact phase). Next we reflect or digest the experience (integration 
 Thus the cycle of experience can be summarised as follows.

Cycle of Experience

Cycle of Experience

A therapy session might contain a movement through all these phases. The client 
enters the session letting themselves settle and then gradually coming to an 
awareness of some need, then this is heightened, perhaps moving to some action
 that experiments with the awareness, leading to full contact, and then some 
integration of what has happened. In using the imagination it is usually at the 
awareness, action and integration phases that creativity and metaphor come into


Perls (one of the founders of Gestalt therapy) called dreams the royal road to 
integration. Dreams probably access the most creative parts of ourselves. Perls saw 
every part of a dream as expressing part of the dreamer and in exploring the dream 
he would get people to act out the different parts, thus getting them in touch with
 and integrating different parts of themselves. This is a short account of a 
dreamwork session with a client.

He had this dream while in a hotel room. He
 dreamt that an old man dressed in Victorian costume came rushing into his room and went over to the window and looked anxiously out and then went over to the
 opposite wall where there was a blocked up window and tried to look out that
 window. In the dream the client spoke to the old man and asked him to bring the
 cups down to the kitchen. The old man pinched him and hurt him and said I can’t
 stop now; I am looking for my wife.

In exploring the dream the client, in turn, became and spoke as the old man, the
 clear window, the obscure window and himself. The old man represented a part of 
him that was anxious and searching. At this point in his life he was unclear about 
his relationship with his wife, he was unsure of where he stood with her, in other
 words of where she was. In being himself he discovered that he will have to be 
prepared to be hurt in order to further explore his relationship with his wife. The
 clear window represented the part of him that can be very aware of himself and
 clear to other people, while the obscure window represented the part of him that is
 sometimes unaware of himself. There was a relationship between the two windows
 in that being clear meant he knew where he was and this sometimes left him
 unprotected in relationships and being obscure meant he had a way of protecting

There is a classical way of working with dreams that follows the cycle of
 experience. First the client remembers the dream (sensation phase), then the
 therapist usually asks the client to tell the dream in the present tense. This
 heightens awareness and identification with the dream (awareness phase). Then 
the therapist asks the client to become and speak as different parts of the dream
 (action phase), leading to full contact with different parts of self (contact phase).
 This facilitates the client to integrate the different part of themselves (integration 

Another way of looking at dreams is to facilitate the client to be aware of an
 existential statement in the dream. An existential statement is a core statement that 
represents the current existence of the client. Thus a core statement from the above 
dream might be “I am anxiously looking”. After a car accident I had a very
 traumatic dream. In working on the dream the core statement which emerged was 
that “I was suffering a trauma” and needed to talk about the trauma of the car
 accident. A client told me a dream which included the statement “I was pinned up 
against a wall and could not move.” This client felt stuck in her present job which 
she hated but didn’t feel able to leave. By acting out the position of being pinned 
against the wall the client got in touch with some of her own power and possibility
 for movement.

Another way of exploring dreams is to look at the movement in the dream and see
 the movement as approaching or contacting the particular parts of oneself. So the 
movement in the above dream is the old man moving from window to window.
 This can be seen as the client approaching or making contact with the polar 
opposite parts of himself, the clear self and the unclear self. Thus the dreamwork might be to explore what it is like to approach and touch the clear self and what it 
is like to approach and touch on the obscure self. Working with the movement in
 the dream is at the energy/action part of the cycle.

If someone has difficulty remembering dreams, a creative possibility is to make up 
a dream. Possible ways of doing this are to let go with your imagination or just
 simply be aware of where you are now and let the situation take on a life of its own
 and develop from there. I did this in a bar and my dream consisted imaging some
 dance beat music playing in the pub and everybody moving in rhythm to the music.
 When I told the dream to a friend she pointed out that I was moving much more 
than I normally do. In this dream I was getting in touch with the rhythm inside 

Working with Images and Metaphor

As Marcus points out, images make use of subjective symbolism, thus by – passing
 the rational mind. They are a powerful tool of connection between our outer world
 (for instance pushing too hard) and our inner world. Images are a way of changing 
the context and often it is a safer and more flexible context for exploration.

The following is a brief account (from my personal therapy) of a therapy session
 which used metaphor. I started by saying that I was aware that I seemed to be 
pushing against every thing, trying too hard. The therapist asked what had an image
 for this pushing too hard. The image I had was of me in a wood cutting down trees
 with a blunt saw. The therapist asked what I needed as I did this and I said I needed
 someone to come along and give me a chain saw to do the job. What I did not need
 was someone giving out to me and telling me I am doing it wrong, I simply needed 
support and encouragement. The image built out to me cutting down various trees
 with the chain saw and then returning to the village and being part of a community
 and each person doing a specific job with the support of someone else. Immediately 
after the therapy session I found myself much more relaxed (as opposed to 
pushing). The therapy session also helped me change my relationship with my son.
 Until then I was always pushing him and criticising him for not doing things whereas
 now I focused on what help and encouragement he needed.

Kepner Describes a Therapy Session Using Metaphor:

This woman complained of her promiscuity, describing herself as a “a mattress” 
(awareness phase). I wanted to enliven her deadpan expression of the very
 important issue in her life and so suggested that she lie on the floor “like a 
mattress” while I placed pillows symbolising men on top of her one by one (action
 phase). As the experiment progressed her passivity and helplessness changed to
 resentment and then fury, as each pillow was added to the pile (contact phase). By
 acting out the metaphor in physical and exaggerated terms, she came to feel her 
passive and disowned resentment to being a mattress for men. Thus working with 
the metaphor translated into a definite physical experience of the part of her that
 abhorred being in such a position.” (Kepner 1993 p158.) (brackets mine)

Images are also useful at the integration point on the cycle. Imagination “operating
 at the levels, sensation, feeling, thinking, and intuition has an integrative effect: it 
simultaneously uses right and left brain functions.” (Marcus 1979 p. 127). At the
 end of a weeklong intensive therapy group the facilitator gave us an exercise to 
draw or write or make a collage or express in some symbolic form our participation 
in the group over the past week. I felt the image of a bodhran player. The bodhran 
player is someone who waits to join in the music. He picks up and follows the core
 rhythm of the music yet at the same time the rhythm he plays must come from deep 
inside himself. If he plays too loud or out of rhythm the music stops. Listening to 
the music of others, the bodhran player discovers his own music. The image of the 
bodhran player reflected my struggle in the group: a struggle of mainly waiting and 
responding rather than initiating.

Working with images not only facilitates integration, in a paradoxical fashion, it 
can also be cathartic. At the end of an intensive residential group we broke into 
small groups to review the group process. Our group saw the process in terms of
 the film, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” This image not only helped us 
integrate the group experience, by acting out the film and assigning roles amongst 
us, it also helped us move from the intensity of the process into some more 
lightness and hilarity (getting it out of our system so to speak). This 
integrative/cathartic process can be seen at the end of many training programmes
 where the students do a skit on the training programme.

Physical awareness, such as tensions or symptoms, can also be explored as 
metaphor. The classic Gestalt way of working with a symptom is to heighten the
 awareness, getting to know it in as much detail as possible e.g. where it is, how
 strong is it, is it throbbing, etc. Next the therapist suggests consciously making the
 symptom worse and then giving it life, letting it speak and listening to what it says.
 Thus when I explored some backpain I was feeling I discovered that it was a 
metaphor for my inflexibility and rigidity in other areas of my life; I also 
discovered how I was carrying myself in a rigid and inflexible posture.

Kepner Describes Working with Physical Symptoms as Follows:

“Many figures of speech have an explicit body orientation: “to stand on one’s own
 two feet” or ” to have backbone”, and these can be readily expanded into physical
 expression. We can explore the physical dimensions of standing on one’s own two 
feet: how you feel strong and how you feel weak when standing, how your self-
support is undermined (the resistance) what you have do to mobilise to withstand 
outside pressures or burdens (by my action as the outside force through pushing or 
loading you down.)” (Kepner 1993 p 158.)

In Working with Physical Symptoms Marcus Describes the Use of Guided 

“I ask the person to see himself very small and to go inside his body (he can either 
go alone or take someone with him or call on someone at any time he wants); I ask for a description of where he is entering, how he is travelling, and what he is seeing 
along the way. The trip itself is very different with each client and even on repeated 
trips with the same client. Sometimes it is very symbolic, like fixing electric
 equipment or cleaning filters: at times there are encounters with past or present 
situations (which may reinforce the theory that different parts of the body contain 
their own memories). At the end of the trip I am careful to bring the person “out”
 and resume his normal size.”(p. 129)

Working with Relationships

Gestalt Therapy is a holistic therapy which includes a focus on all aspects of human
 experience. This includes thoughts, feelings, images, physical sensations, and the 
person’s relationship with others. It often happens in therapy that a client is talking
 about a difficult relationship and their focus is mostly on the other person. They are
 struggling to have a sense of themselves in the relationship. The following
 exercise, which draws on this holistic approach often facilitates clients to gain a 
separate sense of themselves in relationships.

“Close your eyes and go inside yourself imagine being with the person. First of all 
imagine the surroundings, then imagine the other person. Picture what they are 
saying and doing. Imagine how they are moving and imagine how physically close
 or distant they are from you. Now pay attention to yourself in the situation.
 Discover how you are physically, where you feel tense, where you feel relaxed.
 Discover how you are feeling as you are with this person. Pay attention to your 
breathing. Discover any thoughts or images you have. Pay attention to the distance
 or closeness between you and the other person and how you are moving in relation 
to this person. Now let the situation take on a life of its own and develop and see
 what happens. Now when you are ready, come back to the room here.”

In exploring this I usually ask the person to tell me what has happened and also to
 say something about what it was like to do the exercise. This latter question can 
bring out resistance such as “I found it hard to get into the exercises” or “I could 
imagine the other person but I found it hard to imagine myself. These processes
 can then be explored. The above exercise is also useful in a supervision to facilitate 
a therapist to discover more of themselves and their own process in a particular 
client – therapist relationship.

Morgan (p.997) describes how the use of images can be useful in exploring 
relationships in the workplace. He suggests thinking of the relationships in terms
 of “any image that occurs to you – whether bird, plant, animal TV or storybook 
character, or whatever” or using “different images to capture the person’s approach
 in different circumstances”. He then describes how communicating these images 
may lead to changes in the relationships. In gestalt therapy, the images 
would be seen as a projection. The image is part of the client and can be explored as such.

Imagining another person in one particular role it can bring out the complementary 
role that the subject is playing. Morgan gives the following example of a client who
 described their manager “as a kennel dog…. a pampered poodle living in a make-
believe world… I am more like a field dog familiar with the challenge of the
 wilderness. I know how to survive… the poodle runs around in his yard and thinks 
that he knows what it’s like to be out here in the field.” (Morgan 1997 p.23)

In working with such an image I might suggest a conversation between the field
 dog and the poodle where the field dog begins by telling the poodle exactly what
 it is like out in the field. The field dog might discover what it needs from the 
poodle, perhaps a chance a to come in out of the field and rest in the kennel for a
 while or to show the poodle some of the tricks of survival.

Images are a useful way of exploring unfinished experiences in relationships. This
 is particularly true in processes of bereavement. So for instance in mourning
 someone might say “I wish I said goodbye to them”. Suggesting they imagine 
saying goodbye might help complete that wish. In bereavement therapy, imagining
 the symbols associated with the person can be a powerful way of connecting with 
that person. I did this in relation to my father and the strongest symbol that came 
to mind was that of a hurling stick. My father was a very good hurler and taught
 the whole family how to play hurling. In exploring this image I got in touch with 
and appreciated what my father had given me.

For seemingly intractable relationships, with which someone seems obsessed and
 can’t leave behind, I sometimes use what I call the “Put the person on the ceiling
 exercise”. This consists of picturing the other person and in your mind making 
them smaller and then moving the up the wall and on to the ceiling upside down
 and then leaving them there. At the very least this exercise can help people get
 some respite from obsessing about the relationship. Often it helps the person touch 
their own power. Other times it enables people to become aware of their care for
 the other person e.g. when they discover how carefully they put them on the 

General Comments

A key question is when to use images and when to avoid using them. I only touch
 on this briefly here. I tend to pick up on images from the client rather than 
introducing them myself. If a client introduces an image as they talk, they are
 usually ready to explore it. I tend not to use images at the beginning with clients or 
especially with groups, preferring to first get people grounded in the relationship
 with me or with other people in the group. I also tend not to use imagination with 
people who are very well versed in images and metaphor e.g. writers and artists,
 whereas I do tend to use it with clients who struggle with projecting e.g., clients
 who take everything literally or are very concrete.


Clayton S., Gestalt – A Philosophy for Change Training Officer Jan/Feb 1996
 Vol.32 No.1

Marcus E.H. Gestalt Therapy and Beyond Meat Publications, 1979.

Kepner I.L. Body Process, Jossey Bass, 1993.

Morgan G. Imagin.i.zation, New Mindsets for Seeing, Organisation, and
 Managing, Sage Publications, 1997.

Vincent Humphreys is a Gestalt Psychotherapist, supervisor, trainer and
 organisational consultant in private practice. He is founder and director of the 
Dublin Institute of Gestalt Therapy.