Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist. Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together. The corollary of this is that where playing is not possible then the work done by the therapist is directed towards bringing the patient from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to play.
-D.W. Winnicott, (2005, p. 51)
The following is an excerpt from my master's thesis, The Hungry Feminine and a Patriarchal Gag Order: Binge Eating in American Women.
Although observing and responding to symptoms from a behavioral, solution focus is helpful in therapy, the thing about weeds is that they grow back until their roots are tended to.
Tending to the roots of behaviors goes deeper than just the managing of personal myths (unhelpful core believes about self in relation to other) and gaining consciousness of developmental trauma; it calls for a more spiritual relationship with psyche, where psyche is asked to speak without the manipulations of anxiety-ridden conscious cognitive functioning.
Playing with the imagination is one way to sneak behind the curtain of the socialized mind and see what lies beneath the surface. Active imagination, or “a series of fantasies produced by deliberate concentration” that can be elaborated on “by observing the further fantasy material that adds itself to the fragment in a natural manner” (Jung, 1954/1959a, p. 49), is one particular execution of this theory. In active imagination, images are asked to make themselves known, and cognition functions serve only as a tool to understand context and communicate images via language.
Imaginal work allows an understanding that clients otherwise cannot gain, and often creates characters or meanings that can be used as allies in clients’ attempts to alter behavior (as an example of this technique, see below for the complete transcript of an active imagination exercise I did in a session with my therapist).
Somatic Attunement and Active Imagination
In one of my therapy sessions as a client, I began detailing an experience I had during the week where I had just eaten a meal but still felt hungry. I tended to that feeling of hunger with some somatic consciousness, which is to say I quieted my mind with some meditative breathing and honed my focus in on sensations in my body. I had never explored the path of digestion in this manner before, but I began feeling into my stomach.
My stomach felt full, that was not the part of my body that was sending the message to my brain asking for more food. I continued down my belly, placing the tip of my index finger in the top center of my rib cage and moving it down until I could identify the feeling of emptiness that resembled hunger. My finger stopped when it hit the hollowness shouting from behind my belly button—I found it.
I explained this to my therapist and noted that the belly button, as an image alone, was obviously related to humans’ original nutritional needs - the place our umbilical cord connected us to our mother. But I also sensed an emotional component, one that might not entirely make sense.
Some part of me, this unspoken hunger, thought that resources were being sent in one direction but was disappointed to discover that they were not. This generated feedback of emptiness and a request for more food to be sent. Throughout this exercise, my imagination offered three characters that would provide insight into the transfer of energy and preoccupations unfolding within me. The personality of each character represented the uneven power dynamic within my psyche; I found a helpless child, a controlling yet ambivalent bully, and a clumsy but eventually competent superhero.
While the exercise began with the bully holding the power, that dynamic shifted as I engaged with my imagination. I asked my anxious ego to step aside so imagery could be revealed, and this left my mind cloudy and my physical state feeling dream-like. That was just the disconnect to my tangible reality I believe I needed.
Because confronting the unconscious requires the suspension of ego, my therapist was first responsible for ensuring my ego strength was healthy enough so that a safe departure and return could be achieved.
As this session wrapped up, and I was eventually able to re-orient myself to the room, it became apparent that something had shifted in me. There was a new sense of awareness of what energies were living within me, where my preoccupations were, and what personas I could use to help mobilize new action. These characters that I met were not anyone I had been aware of before, and yet they were projections of my Self. Now, having a relationship with the little boy allowed me to understand his needs, his limitations, and what is required for me to help him. With this new knowledge, I can implement awareness and new action into my daily practice, all through the spirit of play.
Now exists a little boy and a superhero who need my help to further explore a side of myself I have not yet met. Active imagination gave voice to an unconscious part of me I could not have accessed through the rational mind and talk therapy alone. In the days following this session with my therapist, which you can explore below via its transcript, I drew some of the characters I met, which further amplified their therapeutic function.
Active Imagination Transcript
Therapist: Who’s down there waiting and who’s in charge of sending down the resources?
Me: One of the things I’m noticing is that who’s waiting in that empty space behind my belly button is a male figure who looks like one of those stick figure emojis. He feels young—maybe 8, all black, big head, big hands and big feet, wobbly, dancing, no expression on his face—he has eyes and maybe a mouth but it’s not expressive. The only way I can understand his desperation is by his movement and body language. He wants to know how he’s separate from this, separate from the rest of me. He’s in a glass box in this empty space behind my belly button. He can see everything but he is trapped. There’s someone further up the road that’s directing traffic from a construction detour. This man is intentionally diverting traffic away from the boy. This man is older, 50s, angry yet complacent—just doing what he’s supposed to be doing without putting too much autonomous thought or choice into it. He’s very overweight and he’s wearing an orange vest and using orange flags to move traffic in one way. He won’t be easy to connect to, he’s unconscious, lacks empathy, doesn’t care if you don’t like what he’s doing, he’ll continue to do it. There’s a construction blockade with cones and flashing lights. However, he’s directing traffic the way it’s supposed to move through my digestive system. He’s sending it down the right path of stomach to intestines and missing the boy in the glass box. But the way he’s doing it, or perhaps because he’s doing it at all, it seems intentional, like he’s trying to make sure the boy starves.
Therapist: So it sounds like it’s going to take someone in special consciousness—a superhero, of sorts—because everything you’ve described is going the way it’s supposed to go. This is an extraordinary exception.
Me: Yeah, the boy doesn’t have the right to ask for anything, really. He’s not where he’s supposed to be.
Therapist: Yeah and we can find out how he got into the box in the first place, but that story may come after we get him out of it.
Me: He doesn’t know how he got there—it was just chaos and he’s so worn down that he couldn’t remember if he tried.
Therapist: Yeah, and he’s 8.
Therapist: So sit with the whole picture, and maybe even zoom out a little bit. Feel into it a little bit. He’s in there, there’s the overweight, unconscious guy directing traffic. Just conscious enough to do his job—we need those guys. But he’s not going to be the point of change. The kid in the box isn’t either because he’s trapped.
Me: [Laughs] I just saw—and you put superhero in my head—and it’s weird because I can actually see all of my internal organs—and just behind an intestine I saw a head pop out. Like just from the eyes up, someone’s head appeared and I think he’s one of those superheroes that’s not very good at being a superhero. He’s well-intentioned but clumsy. He’s like “did you need something?” (to me). He’s not a go-getter. He’s got a lot of potential but he’s pretty scared.
Therapist: What’s he scared of?
Me: Failing. He doesn’t know how strong he is. He’s afraid of being humiliated. He doesn’t look very strong—untested in his confidence and ability.
Therapist: What is the limit to trying? Who would he fail in front of?
Me: He’s aware that he’s only one of three people involved. The overweight guy directing traffic probably wouldn’t even notice him. The boy in the glass box needs him and is so worn down.
Therapist: So your superhero really is the most powerful person there. You need to convince him of his power and strength and how much you all need him. It can shift his feeling state for you to tell him how much you need him and that he’s your only hope. Me: [Laughs] He’s my Obi Wan. But I see his own fear of himself, being his own witness to his own failure and I had so much empathy for that that I haven’t tried to encourage him.
Therapist: So you’re understanding his fear. But what if you said “I understand AND let’s see if you can do it because I really need you”? Is that fair?
Me: Yeah. Okay. I think he’s starting to get it. He’s negotiating with his doubt but I think he knows he will have to accept that doubt will just have to come with him.
Therapist: Ah, so that’s courage.
Me: Yeah. He’s still kind of hiding his body.
Therapist: Bodies seem to be up. You have a stick figure, and overweight guy, and someone who’s hiding his body.
Me: And what I can see, he’s very skinny and tall and lanky, he looks awkward in his little superhero costume. And yet he’s still my best bet. He’s doing a lot of looking around, waiting for someone else to either save him or be another pair of eyes he’ll have to humiliate himself in front of.
Therapist: And you can help him. Let him know what tools he can use or what powers he has. What’s he capable of? Crawling on a tank? Using a glass-cutter?
Me: He’s snuck his way over to the glass box, taking the covered route so he’s not seen or out in the open. But now he’s looking the box up and down the way my dad looks at pieces of the house that need to be fixed, examining the corners and angles, not even noticing the child inside of the box. He’s just now focused on the task at hand and feigning some sense of confidence. Now the image jumped. I don’t know where he got the tool, but he has a glass cutter. He’s started to cut the glass in a strange way. He cut a hole near the floor that was too small. The boy would have to crawl and squeeze his way out, it’s ridiculous. There was no reason for the hole to be so small and low to the ground. It seems like he just didn’t think it through – he was so worried about cutting the hole in the glass that he overlooked the purpose of why he was asked to cut the glass. But to him the kid in there still doesn’t exist, so of course he doesn’t know why he’s cutting the glass.
Therapist: And what’s the kid’s experience of seeing this man come cut the glass?
Me: Well he’s not even really seeing a whole lot anyway. He doesn’t have much agency for himself, he’s laying down on his stomach so his face is kind of down and he barely sees the superhero anyway.
Therapist: Yeah kind of like an animal in a cage that’s given up. They open the gate and it’s like I don’t even have enough of a concept of freedom to know to walk through that door. Why would I do that?
Me: Yeah. And that the hole is so small becomes another excuse to not leave. An obstacle not worth fighting for even if it was worth fighting for. Because I myself doubt that his head could fit through the hole. The superhero is pleased with himself for cutting the glass, but I need more from him. He’s ready to call it a day, he did what he needed to do. He’s patting himself on the back yet he missed the whole point.
Therapist: So he needs some help. It sounds like it’s not even conceivable that the boy in the glass could talk to the superhero.
Me: I don’t actually know if he can talk. I just realized that. I think every bit of communication we’ve ever had has been through his body language.
Therapist: Right. His body’s important.
Me: Yeah. And his body language now is just communicating helplessness. I’m trying to tap into the empathy of my superhero to get his head out of the clouds. I just want him to understand and pick up on the emotional cues of what’s happening right in front of him. The kid will need to be coaxed out.
Therapist: And what you can do, if it fits, is have someone else arrive on the scene as an intermediary. Someone who might be bigger, wiser, and stronger, can’t cut the glass but can do the next function.
Me: Yes, although my superhero’s feelings are very hurt by that idea. Yeah, I kind of don’t want to give up on him.
Therapist: Okay, so you’re the arrival. It’s your relationship to him that enters. So what would not giving up on him mean?
Me: It’s almost like I didn’t really have a lot of faith in him when he first showed but we had this ping pong back and forth of convincing each other of his own strength and ability so now we’re both sold on the idea that he can defy odds and make this happen. We know we need to finish this together. He’s just hung up on something which is the same thing he was hung up on when he was hiding. Oh, and he just got really sad. He just realized—it clicked for him. That naïve thought . . . oh shit, the hole needs to be bigger, what did I do? He was so into his own success that now he realizes the context of it and the importance of it. He realizes it’s bigger than his insecurity. He’s coming back down. He needs to figure out how to act for the project, not for himself. And also less in a pass/fail kind of way but getting into the meat of meaning and what’s actually happening here. He’s trying to coax out the boy but the boy won’t respond. He wants to cut the glass more but now that he’s conscious of the boy, he’s afraid of hurting him by cutting the glass. He’s trying to reach in to get him but it’s too tight.
Therapist: Any change in the state of boy having someone be conscious of him?
Me: No. Although I feel like we’re losing him more. Which makes it easier for the superhero to cut the glass because it’s almost like the fear of him getting up and moving and getting hurt is not an issue. He’s not moving, he’s not going to get up.
Therapist: So we lose him for sure if we do nothing. So we have to do something even if it has some risk.
Me: Yes and the superhero gets the urgency of it now. And he got a little out of control and made a huge—almost needlessly huge—hole large enough for him to walk into. So now he’s in the glass box with him, standing over him awkwardly trying to wake him up. Realizing it’s not working, he bends down to pick up the boy and carry him out.
Therapist: So the little boy’s getting contact he might never have had before.
Me: Yeah and as soon as he picked up him the boy woke up. He carried him out and I’ve noted that the superhero had another moment of his own personal victory because he was so easily able to pick up the boy. But the boy’s a stick figure so it’s not really that much of an accomplishment. So he’s still a little ridiculous but he’s serious and understands the gravity.
Therapist: And he’s a hero, nonetheless.
Me: He’s a hero. So he pulled him out and now they’re sitting next to each other. The boy looks lost and confused, he’s not interested in figuring it out. This is not a celebratory moment for him.
Therapist: So the boy sounds like he needs some orienting to where he was, where he is now and what happens next. He needs the adult to help him make sense of the world.
Me: Yeah I don’t know what he’s saying to him but the superhero is pointing over at the box (to show him where he was) and then he’s pointing up. As if he’s telling the boy “you weren’t supposed to be here, you need to go up there.” And it’s very dizzying and overwhelming for the little boy because now he can look up and the perspective is so different from where he’s been stuck for so, so long. It’s very bright up there, there’s a sunshine, compared to what ended up becoming very dark down where he is. And now they’re climbing my intestines, like they’re scaling a mountain. It was like “eh, what do you say?” Like all of a sudden there’s nothing to lose. Superhero’s going up first and keeps looking down at the kid to make sure he’s making it up okay. And now they’ve perched, maybe on my gallbladder or something? They’re just sitting there, admiring the new view, like once you’ve hiked up to the top of a mountain and can suddenly see everything, and it’s breathtaking and you never thought you’d get there. But you can see the bigger picture from there, as well. And the little boy, his emotions still aren’t entirely known to me because he’s limited in how he can express. But he used his body to get up. He did not use his body get out of the box, but he used it to climb. He’s got more agency now. And a friend. They’re bonding. The superhero’s being healed just as much as the little boy is because they understand each other in a way no one ever has understood them before. So it feels like they don’t know where to go next, my heart or stomach. They just knew they needed to get out of there. So it’s a moment post-escape where you get to just be, and you let the panic of the escape run by you. And also each of them became more important to each other than where they’re supposed to be going. It’s about acknowledging the distance they’ve traveled and how much better it feels and looks, now they can figure out a plan since they can see it. And now that the little boy is more engaged in his own rescue they can team up. The superhero isn’t alone anymore.
Therapist: He’s become enlivened a little bit. So as we start to come back into the room, we’ll have to say goodbye to them for now. Let’s thank them for visiting and being so brave, and let them know there’s more work to be done and that you’ll come to see them again soon. What do you notice as you say goodbye?
Me: That I totally do not feel like a human on Earth.
Jung, C. G. (1959a). Archetypes of the collective unconscious (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 9, 2nd ed., pp. 3-41). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1954)
Winnicott, D. W. (2005). Playing and Reality. London: Routledge.