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  • Writer's picturePeter Golder

Make-belief. The real benefit of counselling with the imagination.

I often incorporate the use of imagination in my counselling work. Whether it’s asking someone what images come to mind, using guided imagery where I set the scene or sharing what I imagine, that may represent what I am hearing. I believe our imagination can really help to paint a picture of what is going on in our mind. Using the imagination in counselling may seem like just make-belief, but studies have shown that how the brain processes imagined situations, events and people is comparable to how it processes real stimuli. Therefore the imagination provides a rich source of information in counselling and a useful way to access thoughts, feelings and memories in a safe and supportive space.


As children we often used our imagination to role play and conjure up fantastic places or situations. Like imagining castles in far off lands, being a pirate or a princess or owning a sweet shop and negotiating with your customers how much things cost. All this is an important part of growing up, learning to assimilate knowledge and understanding about the world. Using our imagination like this also has an important effect on how our brains develop, affecting the construction of the self and the relationships we form with one another.

Small child, wearing a stephoscope holding a teddy bear. They are listening for the bear's heartbeat.
Even lifeless things can feel alive when we want them to be

Once we become adults, we like to see the realism in the world. It helps to deal with situations face on and perhaps, using imagination can feel childish. Yet our imagination is a gateway to an extraordinary part of who we are, our unconscious. In counselling part of the work is coming to understand what lies in the unconscious, because it holds a lot of information about what makes us who we are.

The fact that we can imagine a situation in our minds is hugely significant and says a lot about what our brain can do. We can travel back in time and imagine if things had turned out differently for us. Or we may look ahead into the future and hold in our mind, what we hope or fear something will turn out to be. We can imagine things that have never happened, things that don’t exist or places we’ve never been too. We can imagine what goes on in others minds, predicting what they will do. All these musings, when looked at closely, can lead to significant understanding of a person’s mental health. So using and analysing the imagination, can often be extremely significant in counselling.

Here is a simple example of how I might work in counselling, using the imagination. Perhaps you might try it.

  1. I would ask you to take a few long deep breaths in and out and ask you to perhaps close your eyes if you wanted to and clear your mind.

  2. Then I would ask you to imagine a garden and to focus on a plant in the garden.

  3. What first pops into your mind?

  4. I would ask you to take a close look at the plant, taking notice of what you sense.

  5. How do you see the plant, growing, existing and surviving in that garden?

  6. Perhaps you would describe the colour, mentioning how rich the shade of the plant is or how pale it is. You might tell me about the texture of the leaves, stem or branches. The plant might be very small or very big. This can have an impact on how you feel the plant is in this garden.

  7. If I were to ask you where the plant was in the garden, you might say it is in the middle, exposed for everyone to see. This might be a good or bad thing. Or perhaps it's nestled at the side near a fence or wall that offers it some protection.

  8. How much light or shade is it getting? Does it need support to grow? Is it moving or is it still? Where is it getting food and nourishment from?

  9. Perhaps as you reflect on the plant, you might think it wants to be something different, it wants or needs more attention. Perhaps you feel it would be better placed in the centre of the garden or to the side. There are no rules. This is your imagination and you can allow your mind to think whatever it wants to.

  10. After the imaginative process had finished, we would discuss what your images meant to you and whether what you thought about, related to any aspects of your life. It may be that the plant in your image symbolises you or something going on in your life.

Accessing the imagination like this can shed a lot of light on who you are, how you are living your life, where you see yourself, where you want to go or how you want to be. It increases the possibility of accessing your unconscious mind.

Image of iceberg, with small part of iceberg above water, set against a light blue sky. Under the water, the iceberg descends far down into the deep blue water.
The unconsious. Out of sight but not out of mind.

Our unconscious holds all the stuff we have forgotten about over the years. Like day to day information, that looked and felt the same and wasn’t remembered distinctively by the brain. This might include what people said to us over the years, the experiences we had or how it felt to live our life in the world we grew up in. The stuff we remember easily is in our conscious awareness. This is just the tip of the iceberg of what makes us who we are. Hidden under the water, descending down into the dark depths are all the thoughts, feelings and memories accumulated over our lives. It’s so deep that often we can’t remember what lies there or we don’t want to remember. Our unconscious remembers though and the way we think, feel and behave can be significantly impacted by what the unconscious contains.

Using the imagination can also help people to deal with thoughts and feelings related to traumatic memories or situations that generate a lot of fear and anxiety. In exposure therapy the imagination is used to help think about difficult memories which will evoke feelings associated with the memory. Neuroimaging shows imagining stressful stimuli has a similar effect on the brain as experiencing a real event. The difference for the person imagining the situation is that they are in the safety of the counselling room. By exposing themselves to an emotive memory or situation again and again over time, people can begin to process the memory in a way that helps them to feel calmer, stabler and ok.

Inside a long metal container, that has very dark ribbed walls. The image focuses the lookers attention to the end of the container where there is a bright light, which contrats with the darkness inside the container.
What lies in the dark before we get to the light?

Undoubtedly great care must be taken when working with the unconscious. For good reasons, such as for the protection of the mind, people can bury difficult thoughts, feelings and experiences into the abyss of the unconscious. Counselling though allows someone the opportunity to slowly and safely access parts of their mind in a supportive space.

We all use our imagination every day in general conversation, when we talk about how something symbolises something, the we use metaphors or the way we describe something by saying ‘it's like…’ When we read, our imagination comes to life, creating a world in our minds, along with the characters, that can significantly affect how we are feeling. We can all day dream, we all worry about different things each day, we are using our imagination all the time.

Ultimately, our imagination holds unlimited potential, to create new possibilities, for ourselves and for others.


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