Psychology of imagination
Wright, N. ‘Dreaming Reality – Psychology of Imagination’, Coaching Today, British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy, Issue 36, October, pp14ff.
‘People have a knack for getting trapped in webs of their own creation.’[i]
If you have seen the Leonardo DiCaprio film, Inception (2010), you will remember how this hi-tech film plays vividly and dramatically with the idea of manipulating dreams. Dreams are one way of experiencing our ‘image-ination’ at work, quite literally by experiencing images that appear, within the dream, as-if reality. Ordinarily on waking, we feel able to differentiate what we perceive and experience as ‘actual reality’ from what we perceive and experience within a dream state as ‘apparent reality’.
I want to propose that a client’s perception and experience of reality are, similarly, mediated by imagination. I want to challenge fundamentally the notion that, with expert coaching, it’s possible for a client to perceive and experience actual reality, as if, in some objective sense, he or she is able to perceive and experience reality as it is, reality per se. I want to suggest that a client’s imagination acts as the interface between him- or herself and reality; that is, that he or she perceives and experiences reality as created, filtered or projected by his or her own culture and imagination.
Philosophically and psychologically, the distinctions and boundaries between dream state and wake state may not be as clear and definitive as we normally assume. After all, what does it mean to be ‘awake’? Does it mean to be fully-conscious; to be fully-aware of what is happening in and around us; to be able to take deliberate decisions and actions? This begs deeper questions that are difficult to answer. For example: what does it really mean to be conscious? What does it mean to be fully-aware? How is it that we are able to do so much on apparent ‘auto-pilot’?
Here’s an example of such blurry boundaries from personal experience: I once had a dream in which I discovered my older brother was having an affair with my girlfriend. It was a powerful and painful emotional experience and, even when I woke and realised it was only a dream, it still affected how I felt about and behaved towards my brother the next day. It’s possible that what we experience in dreams could reveal something of what we are experiencing in the present – in this case deep emotional insecurity – yet which lays out of our conscious awareness.[ii]
The notion that we may not always be conscious of some aspects of what we are experiencing challenges the very idea of awake-ness as a state of being ‘fully aware’. If we think about our ordinary day-to-day experience, we can see how we are only ever selectively aware. For example, here-and-now, as you are reading this article, notice how you have tuned out of other things happening within and around you, e.g. things you were thinking about previously, how you are sitting, your breathing, sounds outside of the room. It’s as if the article is your Gestalt ‘figure’, and the background has faded out.[iii]
This ability to perceive selectively, to filter out stimuli that would otherwise be distracting or, in totality, overwhelming, is the same ability that enables us to focus and to concentrate. What we notice and choose to focus on or concentrate on (and not) draws interesting questions of subconscious, contextual drivers and motivation into the frame; e.g. in the present moment, what is behind a client’s focus on A rather than B or C? Why is he or she more interested in X rather than Y or Z? What could this reveal about his or her values; who or what is most important to them now?
We are often motivated to move towards or away from people and experiences by hidden forces that lay outside of our conscious awareness, e.g. transference, projection or anxiety.[iv] Sometimes it may be an intuitive gut instinct, a subconscious learned response that we somehow experience physiologically yet find difficult to understand, rationalise or explain. (As a follower of Jesus, I believe sometimes it could be a spiritual intuition, a knowing from outside of ourselves that feels mysterious yet compelling, an insight, wisdom or revelation from God.)
This psychodynamic tradition proposes that the subconscious draws connections between what we experience in the now and what we have experienced in the past. We perceive and experience each new person, relationship, situation etc. through the filter of what we have experienced previously and what meaning we have derived from or attributed to it. In this sense, we encounter objective reality subjectively; that is, we never really perceive or experience people and things fully for what they are now, but always, to some degree, as distorted by what we project onto them from the past.
Picture, for a moment, holding a data projector on your shoulder each time you meet a new person or situation. The encounter triggers and evokes subconscious memories and emotions within that you automatically project, like a translucent image, onto that person or circumstance. What you then perceive and experience of the person or situation is a product of the actual person, the actual encounter, combined with metaphorical ‘images’ and feelings you project onto them resulting from previous encounters with other people and situations that they, in some ways, remind you of.
Here’s another example from personal experience: I once met a co-leader of a training group for the first time. I found myself relating to him warmly, confidently and humorously, and, after a while, noticed that he looked a bit bemused by this. I realised on reflection that there was something about how he looked, talked and behaved that reminded me of a very close friend. It was as if I had projected an ‘image’ of my friend onto this stranger and then, subconsciously, perceived and related to him as if he was that friend. I had to snap myself out of it to see him better for who he was.
Social constructionist theory proposes that who and what we notice, how we perceive the world, what images we hold of it, what sense we make of ‘reality’ and the meanings we attribute to it are psychologically created and sustained through interactions with others.[v] Our perceptions and experiences of reality are not simply of what is objectively there, but are personally, relationally and culturally-constructed. We use language to reveal our maps (or images) of the world within and around us and, in doing so, shape and reinforce those ideas, both within ourselves and with others.
In this tradition, the goal of coaching is to raise a client’s awareness, as far as is possible, of the various influences that shape his or her beliefs, assumptions and world view, and to enable greater openness to other possibilities, ways of perceiving, experiencing and construing reality. There is no single, objective reality to be discovered or revealed. Reality is perception. A client’s experience of reality is inescapably governed by what he or she imagines it to be, how they have learned culturally to perceive and experience it and how they shape it by the way they think, talk, act and interact.
The psychodynamic and social constructionist traditions combined lead to a conclusion that human perception and experience are mediated by memory, imagination and interactions with others. A client never fully experiences reality, in an objective sense, for what it is, but as a curious mix of what’s ‘in here’, what’s ‘out there’ and what value and meaning he or she superimposes personally and culturally onto it. At best, a client perceives reality in terms that the New Testament describes as, ‘a poor reflection’ (1 Corinthians 13:12). Reality is, in essence, a created image that presents itself, to us, as truth.
So, how can this inform and enhance our coaching practice? Here are some examples:
*First, notice how a client expresses their sense of reality and experience using e.g. gestures, metaphors or images. Reflect back or invite the client to enact physically the metaphors or images, or variations of them, to see what new insights or possibilities rise into awareness as they do so.
*Second, pay attention to what the client notices or is preoccupied by, what emotion they experience as they relate or express it, what meaning they attribute to it and, similarly, what the client isn’t noticing. Reflect back to the client, inviting them to explore from very different perspectives.
*Third, be aware that a client never imagines or experiences an issue, relationship, opportunity or challenge from a neutral place, as if for the first time. Every experience is influenced by previous experience. Explore the past insofar as it impacts on the present, and on an imagined future.
*Fourth: notice how a client construes the issue they present, and themselves in relation to it. The facts never speak for themselves; a client’s framing always reveals hidden beliefs and assumptions. Experiment with creating alternative constructs to see what fresh insights and ideas emerge.
[i] Morgan G. Images of organisation. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications Inc; 2006.
[ii] Griffin J, Tyrrell I. Dreaming reality. Chalvington: H G Publishing; 2006.
[iii] Pelham G. The coaching relationship in practice. London: Sage Publications Ltd; 2015.
[iv] Beck U. Psychodynamic coaching. Abingdon: Routledge; 2018.
[v] Burr V. Social constructionism. London: Routledge; 2015.
[This article appeared in the October 2020 issue of Coaching Today, which is published by the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (c) BACP: https://www.bacp.co.uk/bacp-journals/coaching-today/]