In this paper I wish to describe the technique of visualisation in the process of psychotherapy as applied to clients in a counselling setting. There are two purposes for visualisation, the first being a technique of relaxation in a therapy session, guided imagination and ability to project thoughts and feelings onto the scene. The second, for home use, where imagery through art or illustration can help to projection and relaxation of the client (patient) in a controlled setting. The first part I shall show the verbal imagery in therapy and in the second the ability to use the technique for self-growth and cognitive insight.
Visualisation has been talked about and used in a haphazard way for many years, mostly in art therapy as a form of self-expression. This type of use is particularly helpful with children to non-verbalise feelings and thoughts, also with adults who find it difficult to communicate emotions verbally and need the support of art or visuals to enable them. In psychotherapy and mainly with adults my (1. 2017 SFM) form of visualisation is both expressive and revealing to the therapist and patient in the form of projection. Projection means transferring your feelings onto an object – in this case a verbalised visual image or a selected painting. In psychotherapy projection is often seen as a transference of feelings, emotion or identification with the therapist or object of interest. This has mainly been used with Thematic Appreciation Tests (2. 1930 Murray) or Rorschach Ink Blots (3. 1921 Rorschach) Both requiring analysis by a skilled practitioner in psychotherapy from historical data provided by the patient. Psychiatric use has mainly been a failure as to the medicalised nature of the interpretation leading to false outcomes and patient confusion.
In the first application of visualisation the client is attending a normal therapy session, usually the therapist has already determined the biographical history of the patient and is beginning to know his life position in relation to others and themselves. There is also by this time a certain understanding of cultural background and societal stance. To set the scene the therapist asks the client to relax, close their eyes and listen carefully to the description of a place, scene and story. The patient is told that at some point they will be asked to take over the story themselves and verbalise what they see and feel. What follows is the script often used to begin the process. Remembering the visualisation is in the mind of the client as verbalised by the therapist.
Script Example: technique one;
Therapist: I am going to talk you through a short journey, try to imagine inside your mind the scene I describe.
You are walking down a street that seems familiar to you
The house on both sides of the road are normal and with small gardens to the front
As you walk you can feel a cool breeze over your face – it is a very sunny day – warm and fresh
You feel relaxed and content – not particular worry or thoughts
As you go further down the street you notice a gap between the houses and a small railing in front
As you get nearer you notice the railing has a small gate leading to a park
You decide to enter the park and go through the gate
The park is small and rises to a small hill and dips out of sight
The park is mostly grass and bordered by trees on each side
As you enter you see a winding path lined with occasional wooden benches
In the distance you see a man walking his dog and a small child following him with a red balloon
You can not hear them as they are some distance away
You decide to sit down on one of the benches
You look up and can feel the warm sun on your face and the coolness of the light breeze
Birds are flying over with light tweets
You take off your shoes and let your bare feet gently touch the grass – it is still wet with morning
due and feels pleasant and relaxing
After a while you decide to walk on, the man and boy have long gone
As you reach the rise you can see down the other side of the park
You notice a gate and railing leading to a small lake with a beach area
It is deserted and peaceful – you decide to go and explore
Through the gate you find soft sand leading to the lake shore and take of your shoes and enjoy the feeling of the sand that is warm to the touch – you can hear birds overhead
You lie down on the sand, the sun is hotter now and you feel relaxed and warm
In the distance you see a figure walking towards you… the person seems familiar
Therapist: Now take over and tell me what is happening?
Client: I see…
At this point the client can verbalise their own imagined ending to the visualised story. Some patients with good imagination can go on to talk for sometime about who they met what was said, others can only identify the figure or express a fear response to the new character in the story, all can be very revealing as they allow the client to open a door of the unconscious to express their projected fears and desires including wish fulfilment. The therapist should tell the story in a low key voice with a steady delivery without emphasis on any particular point. The different suggestions enable the client to immerse themselves in the story as they imagine being there. The differing modalities are expressed in touch, feeling, sounds and sight, all enabling the client to realise a cognitive event inside their minds. The touch of the grass, the smell, the sound of birds, the feel of the Sun, and cool breeze all help to stimulate the visualisation of the story. Afterwards clients are asked specifically what they experienced and many report having heard the birds, felt the wet grass, the soft sand for example. The power of the mind to invent and elaborate is truly amazing experience for many clients in psychotherapy.
Once the client has experienced this in therapy the second way to use visualisation in a home setting is explored. Here the therapists suggests certain types of classical paintings that can act as the doorway into their own visualisation experience. The client having seen it work in practice with the therapist feel more empowered to try the technique for themselves.
Paintings: technique two:
In order to enable clients to self visualise at home (or office) they need a stimulus in absence of the verbal visualisation of the therapist. This is best achieved through classical country scenes that are familiar to most people. Artists such as Constable (UK) or Shishkin (Russian) often painted woods, distances of scenery and background country cottages excreta. These type of scenes can enable the client to create a walk in the countryside and imagine a story for themselves. The technique to be explained to the client is as follows;
Therapist: Find a comfortable place such as a sofa with the painting directly in front of you at a comfortable distance. Start at the closest point of the picture such as bottom right or left depending on the scene itself. Relax and get comfortable, your should be alone, with no distractions of noise or interruptions of phones or other disturbances. Allow yourself to start travelling within the scene, follow the path, the riverside, the treeline excreta, do not be in a hurry, notice real distances and your ability to walk gently and slowly through the scene. Imagine the characters you might meet, the feel of the ground, the wind, the sun, the trees, the terrain for example. It is OK to fall into a light meditation or even drift into sleep. After about 30 minutes it is alright to stop and review
The client should have a notebook to record sensations, thoughts and feelings as well as any storyline that came to pass. This can be taken to therapy sessions for joint analysis with the therapist’s support and insight. Painting are available in the internet very easily but a full scale painting or print is more desirable as this gives depth and better for projecting yourself into the imagined place. Clients often report an enhancement of mood with a relaxed feeling of well-being after they have been in visualisation for about 30 minutes each time. Those patients with anxiety can find this technique extremely comforting, depressive patients can seek inspiration and a sense of life’s purpose. Both techniques can invite insight and realisation from a cognitive perspective.
In this paper we have discussed and explored two techniques of visualisation and their therapeutic advantage for meditation, stress relief, insight therapy, verbalisation through art and story telling. The first technique by being explored in therapy and then the second to allow the client to experience the cognitive benefits for themselves in their own time as homework or just a new way of relaxing from a high pressured lifestyle. Either technique in conjunction with their therapist can have profound insight into the mind of the patient (client) and allow for more insightful psychotherapeutic sessions to come. Along with dream analysis, visualisation can be a cornerstone of successful insightful therapy.
- Myler S F (2017) All the above techniques and scripts are the copy-write of the author (unpublished)
- Henry A. Murray (1930) Thematic Appreciation Tests
- Hermann Rorschach (1921) Rorschach Inkblot Test