Tag Archives: Stephen Mitchell

Imagination and psychotherapy: Drawing things out

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. 20130502_145822 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.the wig

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.

Linking how you draw and the books that you read.

I’ve had some interesting feedback about the possible links between the books we like to read and how we draw. At my drawing class, struggling with the still life, I asked my two neighbours what sort of things they liked to read, and I could immediately see the connections. The careful and sensible collection of pots seemed to fit nicely with ‘Call the Midwife’, and a bold splat of shapes with ‘I’m dyslexic –  I only read magazine articles’. You may be sceptical – of course we all hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see. But I also asked Neil, the tutor, and it’s not too hard to join up his current reading – Haruki Murakami, magic realism – to these paintings, is it?

Then I visited one of my favourite blogs, ‘A Sketch for the Day’, and asked the artist what sort of books he read. He quite reasonably asked me to guess:  I see his sketches as very contained but full of narrative so, I went for short stories – and was right!

I was completely defeated by Norman Ackroyd though. I watched a BBC programme about him going out in a boat to sketch the northern most rocks off the Scottish coat – fantastic forms and tones, along with a great sense of space and wilderness.  Watching him at work translating these sketches into a copper plate etching, it was impossible to imagine that he ever picked up a book as he was so entirely engrossed in the landscape that he was recreating in the studio.

It’s important to challenge simple theories and connections, anyway.  They generate poor art, bad writing and threadbare therapy. Lives are far too complex, multidimensional, messy and unpredictable to describe in terms of simple links. One of my favourite psychoanalytic writers, the late Stephen Mitchell, talked about our lives as works of art.   I don’t have the direct quote, as I lost all of my books in a house fire 18 months ago, and haven’t replaced everything. But I described it like this in my own writing

Every stimulus or experience is fashioned and organised into a subjective world by an active organism. A self is created like any work of art, from the interplay between an imaginative process and available material such as relationships and contexts. The materials offer potential and constraints that the process must work with, but the product is more than the materials.

Chris