Drawing from the imagination has always been a favourite activity of mine, but because of my skills deficit it usually ends up as some abstract doodle. Now I’m being challenged to take it further, and the results are surprising. The task in the drawing class was to use this collection of dried cordyline leaves as a basis for some imaginative work using charcoal.
After an hour or so of various attempts, largely in the form of landscapes and ponds, this picture emerged. It seemed to draw itself, very quickly in the last thirty minutes of the class and it took me by surprise. It’s not my usual stuff at all, and I felt quite moved by it.
Later it made me think about the phrase ‘drawing out’. In the conversations that make up psychotherapy, we are often drawing things out; trying to see more clearly that which has been obscured, buried, denied. Sometimes what emerges is painful and shocking, but not always. There moments when what emerges is surprising and beautiful. We can think of this as revealing something already present but hidden, or as I would want to claim, as a more creative process. In the conversation, a new possibility or image is co-created by client and therapist. It is a drawn from the interplay of memory, intuition, experiences – and imagination.
The relationship between psychotherapy and imagination has engaged many theorists and practitioners for years. All of the writers that were influential in my development as a psychotherapist find a significant place for it – Marion Milner, Stephen Mitchell, Bob Hobson, and Winnicott, of course, are just a few that spring to mind immediately.
I think of empathy and imagination as different but related. The capacity to tune in to another’s emotional state seems partly hard wired into our neurological systems, although we could all cite examples of people who seem to have missed out on this particular piece of wiring! But imagination takes us beyond this. When I am trying to grasp, intellectually and emotionally, the other’s reality, I am not only tuning in to ‘what is there’, but translating it into language. I use visual imagery a lot, sharing with clients the image that comes to my mind in the attempt to understand them. Sometimes it doesn’t speak to them, and is discarded. At other times the image seems to capture something significant for them, and enables them to see their own experience in a subtly different way.
This can be very powerful in group settings, where one person’s image can serve to draw out others that complement or animate each other in surprising and refreshing ways. Drawing together, whether with charcoal or with pictures in the mind, can bring us to some unexpected and stimulating places. Imagination is fundamental to the task of doing things differently. We can together imagine all sorts of scenarios and emotions that go beyond those familiar rehearsed experiences that often bring people into therapy in the first place. Without this creative element, we could only draw the same picture over and over again.