Imagery in Therapy

by John Rowan

The use of imagery in therapy goes back a long way – in fact, Mesmer used to use imagery in his work in the 18th century, although of course he confused it with his much more invasive idea of animal magnetism. Later the idea of hypnotism took over, and one of the great exponents of this was Charcot, who spoke of “the mythopoetic function of the unconscious” (Ellenberger, 1970: 11) and who was known to Freud, who in fact studied hypnosis with him.

However, Freud was not very interested in imagery, because for him it was insufficiently scientific. It was not until Jung came along with his notion of active imagination that the idea of using imagery in therapy became naturalised and usable. Robert Johnson (1986) tells us that “Active Imagination is a dialogue that you enter into with the different parts of yourself that live in the unconscious” (138). And he gives quite full instructions as to how to pursue this idea.

Imagery was for a number of years restricted to the Jungian school, because of the rise of behaviourism in the years after 1910, with the work of Watson and later, Skinner. It is a little-known fact that some of the behaviourists did in fact use imagery in their work: I remember reading about using imagery to crush unwanted behaviour, but I cannot now lay my hands on this reference. But for the most part it was not known and even discouraged – after all, you cannot use such methods with rats or the other favourite research subjects of the behaviourists.

It was not until the 1960s that the use of imagery revived. “It is not strange that an American society for the study of mental imagery was not organised until 1976” (Shorr, 1980: v). But once launched, uses of the imagination in therapy grow rapidly. “Psycho-Imagination Therapy, based on the interpersonal personality development theories of Harry Stack Sullivan and R D Laing, involves both therapist and patient in an existential phenomenological duet” (Robin, 1980: 191).

But once the boat was launched, so to speak, a number of famous names joined up and contributed: for example, Eugene Gendlin.

It was in the 1970s that I discovered imagery, at first through the discovery of what was then called symboldrama, and included the idea of subpersonalities, which of course is well known in literature, drama, film and so forth, and easily understandable by everyone. There are about 25 synonyms for subpersonalities, but there was never much research done on them. Later they were redescribed and better researched through Hubert Hermans’ discovery of the Dialogical Self (Rowan, 2010). Once discovered, it seemed obvious that the creative use of imagery could be one of the great planks in psychotherapy and counselling. The psychosynthesis school (Ferrucci, 1982) was of course one of the great sources of ideas in this area, and very creative in its contributions. It is only a step from saying ‘Imagine a rose’ to saying ‘Be a rose’. And then it is only a step from there to saying – ‘Imagine a meadow’ and then ‘Walk into the meadow and tell me what you find.’

One of the great contributors to the new thinking was Jean Houston. ‘Her book The Search for the Beloved describes the importance of the mythic journey for personal growth and elucidates the process of spiritual opening…’ (Earley, 1990: xxv). She has written a number of books, perhaps the best known of which is The Possible Human (1982). She teaches us over and over again that our imaginations are one of our richest therapeutic resources.

Perhaps the best book on imagery and its use in therapy comes from Mary Watkins (1976), who was a great pioneer of this way of working. She speaks of the ‘mythopoetic function’ and describes in great detail how to use it in the work. She gives what is, I think, the best account of the work of Jung (1964) and how to use it in practice. She also gives some of the history and origins of the directed daydream or guided fantasy. This is also to be found at greater length in the book by Leuner (1984), himself one of the pioneers of this way of working, and who used a standard series of suggestions. But Mary Watkins covers all of the following:

Controlled visualisations of symbols (of course, these would have emerged naturally out of the work in therapy); Controlled visualisation of symbolic scenes (these would always be based on material from the client, such as an ideal peaceful place or a scene from the past); Symbolic visualisation of somatic states (sometimes making a journey through the body in search of new ideas or a fresh vision, see below for an example); Symbolic visualisation of emotional states (the anger coming to life, the fear coming to life, or whatever); Symbolic visualisations based on projective techniques (here of course sandplay would come in, with its rich range of symbolic contents, but also more common-or-garden techniques such as drawing, painting, plasticine, etc.); Symbolic visualisations based on dreams, daydreams, hypnagogic images (letting the dream content come to life, so to speak, in one way or another); Symbolic visualisations of thought content (there is virtually no limit to this, and it can be extraordinarily powerful); Guided fantasy technique (which was introduced by Desoille and Leuner in the 1930s and has been developed so powerfully in psychosynthesis); Fostering of desirable qualities (and desirable figures such as the Goddess or the future self of the client or the Nurturing Mother); Technique of inner dialogue (and here of course chairwork is a powerful resource – I remember my therapist saying – ‘Don’t talk about your mother, talk TO your mother!’).

It can be seen how wide-ranging these ideas can be. But they can even go further, deep into the world of mythology and the mythic path, as can be seen in the exciting work of Stephen Larsen (1990), which goes much further into the spiritual world, the world of dreams and the imagination. This was also taken forward by Feinstein & Krippner (1997), who offer complete workshops and other materials to explore this wider and deeper territory. They speak of personal mythology, a rich and rewarding way of seeing the world and opening up its fullest range of potentialities.

One word of warning: do not confuse any of these therapeutic methods with what is called ‘pathworking’ (popular in New Age circles). In pathworking it is quite common to tell the client what to feel. In therapy we never tell people what to feel.

Levels of the work
It is obvious that the work of imagery can be conducted on various levels. For example, I have sometimes asked a husband or wife – ‘When you first met your partner, going back to that time, if I had asked you then what animal might they turn into, what would you have said? And if they can answer that, the next question is – and how about today? What animal would it be now?’ This is very basic, but it can be very revealing.

On a quite different level, I have sometimes asked a client with a difficult decision to make to imagine themselves in five years’ time, having made one of the two or three possible choices – speaking to that person and then becoming that person and answering back. This goes much further but is still in the realm of the everyday.

Some standardised tests have been developed in this area. Penny Robin (cited in Shorr, 1980: 200) mentions one, which is to ask the client; ‘Imagine climbing a flight of 1000 stairs to the top. What do you feel? What do you do?’ Very interesting results can emerge from such an exercise.

On another level, I sometimes ask a client who has had a dream to take up the position of someone (or something) else in the dream and speak from there. This is particularly useful in cases where the client is being chased by a criminal or a monster. Taking the position of the frightener rather than the frightened often throws quite a fresh light on the dream, and can be very encouraging for the dreamer.

On another level again, I sometimes ask the client to imagine someone who would have the answer to the problem that is bothering them – choosing anyone they like, real or imaginary, from the past or the present. They ask their question and then move into the helper space, pausing and then giving an answer from there.

Indeed, it is not uncommon for the client to meet a god or goddess, and get help from such a source, or in some other way get in touch with the spiritual realm. Some very fine extended examples are to be found in the book by Feinstein & Krippner (1997). In Dialogical Self work this is called invoking a Promoter Figure (Hermans & Hermans-Konopka, 2010), although I prefer to call them Helper Figures.

I recently did a piece of work with a client which involved them being very small and walking around inside their body, looking for the Creative Centre. When they found it, the next step was to look around and find the character who lived there, the individual Creative Person. The next step was to talk to the Creative Person, and ask for inspiration and guidance. The final step was to become the Creative Person, and give all the answers required.

It now seems clear that here is a wide-ranging gamut of activities, capable of being used by any therapist, and opening up a wider and deeper range of activities and suggestions than is usually envisaged in therapy. I myself have used many of these ideas, both the more modest everyday and often spontaneous ones and the more elaborate ones, amounting to complete one-day or weekend workshops. Here be riches indeed.

Dr. John Rowan is the author of some 20 books, the most recent of which is The Reality Game (3rd ed), 2016. He lives in Chingford, North- East London with his wife Sue and their dog James. He is particularly interested in the theory of the Dialogical Self, and his book on this, entitled Personification, came out in 2010. You can find out more about him on his website,

Earley, J. (1990). Inner journeys: A guide to personal and social transformation based on the work of Jean Houston. York Beach: Samuel Weiser.

Ellenberger, H. E. (1970). The discovery of the unconscious: The history and evolution of dynamic psychiatry. New York: Basic Books.

Feinstein, D., & Krippner, S. (1997). The mythic path: Discovering the guiding stories of your past – Creating a vision for your future. New York: Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam.

Ferrucci, P. (1982). What we may be: The visions and techniques of Psychosynthesis. Wellingborough: Turnstone Press.

Hermans H. J. M., & Hermans-Konopka, A. (2010). Dialogical self theory: Positioning and counter-positioning in a globalising society. Cambridge University Press.

Houston, J. (1982). The possible human. Los Angeles: J P Tarcher

Houston, J. (1987). The search for the beloved: Journeys in sacred psychology. Los Angeles: J P Tarcher

Johnson, R. A. (1986). Inner work: Using dreams and active imagination for personal growth. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Jung, C.G., von Franz, M-L., Henderson, J.L., Jacobi J., & Jaffe, A. (1964). Man and his symbols. London: Aldus.

Larsen, S. (1990). The mythic imagination: Your quest for meaning through personal mythology. NY: Bantam Books.

Leuner, H. (1984). Guided affective imagery: Mental imagery in short-term psychotherapy. New York:Thieme-Stratton.

Rowan, J (2010). Personification: Using the dialogical self in psychotherapy and counselling. Abingdon: Routledge.

Shorr, J.E., Sobel, G.E., Robin P., & Connella, J. A. (1980). Imagery: Its many dimensions and applications. New York: Plenum Press.

Watkins, M.M. (1976). Waking dreams. New York: Harper Colophon.

Additional Reading:

Charles, R. (2007). Your mind’s eye: Self-fulfilment and healing with the visualisations of psychosynthesis. Woodbridge: Selfheal Books.

Corriere, R., & Hart, J. (1978). The dream makers. New York: Bantam. [Relating fantasy to dreams – very useful.]

Segal, J. (1985). Phantasy in everyday life. Harmondsworth: Penguin. [A psychoanalytical approach, also applying to life outside the therapy room.]

Schwartz, A.E. (1995). Guided imagery for groups. Duluth: Whole Person Associates. [A very useful compendium. Covers a wide range of options, and gives all the instructions for using them well.]

Shorr, J.E. (1972). Psycho-imagination therapy: The integration of phenomenology and imagination. New York: Intercontinental Medical Book Corporation. [Brilliant pioneering book which is a classic. Shorr is a leader in the field.]