By Glenn A. Peters, Ph.D.

“Movement in the depths of being is the way the psyche performs its guiding function in man; the contents of this movement is imagery” - Iva Progoff

Most of us are aware of how much information can be contained in a picture, hence arises the saying that a picture is worth a 1,000 words. Guided imagery, which works with and relates to images or pictures from the psyche allows us to access a great deal of information about ourselves. It also allows us to form relationships with potent parts of ourselves that often remain hidden to our normal conscious, rational perspective. Guided imagery gives us an opportunity to become aware of and develop hidden resources, which can help us to resolve current issues and problems. It is a form of “Inner Work” that also has beneficial effects on our outer relations. It is an approach that connects us to levels of our psyche that are different than the rational, logical, verbal, analytical, sequential, and causal. It is an approach that focuses and attends to those aspects of our mind that are emotionally laden, non-linear, yet, meaningfully connected. It is also an approach that has been seen to have more influence on our physiological systems, in particular the autonomic nervous system, which is not as accessible to voluntary control. Guided Imagery grants us access to the Big Picture, to our intuitive hunches and deeper meaningful connections. It is the language of poetry, of creative writing, of artistic productions and of the unconscious.

Interactive Guided Imagery is a specialized psychotherapy approach in using imagery that was developed by Dr. David Bressler, Ph.D. and Martin Rossman, M.D. Unlike one-way or non-interactive guided imagery, interactive guided imagery is lead by the client’s images that come to conscious attention. In interactive guided imagery the imagery guide, does not use a script that induces planned specific images. In interactive guided imagery, the client in some sense leads the process by describing and relating to images that come from him or herself, rather than from the guide. It is rather a spontaneous process that happens at the moment, whereby an image or symbol is called forth from the client. The interactive guide serves as a facilitator who creates a safe and supportive environment and helps the individual to gain access to and develop a relationship with his or her inner images or symbols. There are numerous ways that interactive guided imagery can be used in helping people to change. In the following paragraphs, I will describe three ways that interactive guided imagery can be used, which include symptom dialogue, ideal model imagery and parts work.

Symptom dialogue involves the inner dialogue with an image that represents a symptom that the client is experiencing. This symptom can be anything from a physical symptom such as a headache or arm pain to more psychological symptoms connected with anxiety or depression. The idea is to help the client gain access to a symbol or image that represents that individual’s experience of anxiety, depression, pain, etc. For example, Dr. Bressler describes a client who reported experiencing a good deal of physical pressure throughout her body. This client recently had some surgery that was successful. A medical doctor had physically checked her out and there were no physical reasons for this pressure. During the first session the client mentioned that she felt like an elephant was on top of her. Through interactive guided imagery a meaningful dialogue was set-up between the client and this elephant, which remained on top of her. At first the client hated the elephant for giving her so much pressure. But as the inner dialogue developed she learned that the elephant did not dislike her, but genuinely cared about her. Through a pattern of dialogues, with this image, this client learned that the elephant’s name was “Dumbo” and that what it wanted from her was to slow down, and reflect more on her feelings and on the circumstances that were occurring in her life. She accepted and took seriously the messages from this image and eventually she decided to slow down her hectic lifestyle. As her lifestyle changed the elephant became lighter and lighter until it eventually used it ears and flew away. At the same time the experience of pressure also decreased and eventually vanished.

Clients often view symptoms such as physical pain, depression and anxiety as the enemy that must be destroyed. Yet interactive guided imagery can teach us the meaning of the symptom. This doesn’t always mean that the symptom will vanish but through this process at least a deeper level of acceptance can be developed. In some cases, like in intractable physical symptoms, a deeper level of acceptance is the goal and can help people to more effectively cope with their limitations. Of course interactive guided imagery is never meant to take the place of a medical evaluation or medical treatment. In fact, interactive guided imagery can often be a collaborative adjunct to primary medical treatment.

In ideal model imagery the client develops imagery around his or her “ideal”. This can consist of ideal personality attributes, or character traits that the client admires. For example, one client, who was rather passive and inhibited as to expressing herself, was able to form a close relationship with her, “ideal”, an image of John Wayne. John Wayne represented strength through assertiveness, and an ability to be independent and stand up for one’s beliefs and principles. Through continual communication with this “ideal image” this client became more assertive in her own life and was able to change a more negative intimate relationship into a constructive relationship that further served her emotional needs. She also was able to make changes in her work situation that were in her best interests.

In the beginning, parts work consists of helping an individual to identify the conflict or polarity that is difficult for him or her. After an initial identification is made of the conflict than awareness becomes focused on the two sides or rather two parts that are opposed to each other, in this identified conflict. Imagery work involving these two parts includes getting a comprehensive understanding of the feelings, needs and wants of each part. It also may involve finding any values that they have in common, what they may need from each other, what they may offer each other, how they may help each other and finally their best vision of how they can work together, i.e., what are they willing to do for the benefit of the whole. The purpose of this imagery work is to find a way to help resolve the conflict and integrate the two parts of the personality, which keep feeding the conflict through antipathy toward each other. For example, a man, who we shall call Fred, worked on two parts of a conflict; one part represented a demand for harsh judgmental discipline while another part represented playfulness. The playful part was childlike and in the imagery work, revealed Fred at a much younger age of 5 or 6 years old. This was a child that felt angry and constantly judged by others, he really never felt heard, because of rigid harsh judgment and discipline. A Judge represented the rigid demands and harsh judgments. In the imagery work, Fred was able to experience the Judge and Child starting to come together when the child started to play in a sandbox. At first the Judge took off his robes and watched the child, but later in the imagery the Judge was able to play with the Child in the sandbox. They both built a sand castle together and the Judge also showed an interest in getting to know the child. For Fred, the Judge’s change in attitude along with his ability to play with the Child started a process of healing for this Inner Child that started to allow Fred to integrate playfulness with discipline.

Interactive guided imagery, like a barometer, gives us access to internal conflicts that previously were the hidden aspects to our current difficulties and conflicts. It enables us to learn more of why we are suffering. Furthermore, the images that are elicited in interactive guided imagery often act as potent healing forces, therefore giving us an opportunity to find ways to constructively cope or even resolve past or current issues that deeply impact on our lives. Interactive guided imagery can be used to help people in more ways than what is reported in this article. Perhaps in a future article I will go further into other uses of this helpful approach to healing.

Dr. Glenn Peters is a psychotherapist in practice in Glendale and Encino. He is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network, and can be reached at (818) 475-2666, or at [email protected]