ImageWork is the unique approach Dr Dina Glouberman has developed over 40 years, harnessing the power of the imagination to promote healing, creative achievement, transformational insight and practical wisdom
If you can imagine it, you can create it. The lives of our clients are the best they’ve been able to imagine; our role as coaches is to help them imagine better. This is what my work with imagery, ImageWork, is all about.
Ben, a successful young architect who felt he was seriously burnt out came to me for help. Ben didn’t like being an architect. He was an intensely creative man, and was brilliant at writing, painting, and music, but he firmly believed that he had no choice, that he couldn’t earn a living and support his family doing what he loved. So he stuck to architecture, working long and stressful hours in order to keep his job.
His approach is actually typical of people who burn out: they realise that their heart has gone out of a situation, but don’t dare to step back and consider their options because they are so invested in their old path. As a result, they drive themselves forward, divided against themselves, until they hit the wall (Glouberman, 2002).
I chose an exercise I call “Image as Life Metaphor”*, an invitation to get an image of what is going on below the surface. Ben had an image of a tree that was hanging over the edge of a cliff, holding on for dear life because it feared falling into the sea and dying. He drew a picture of his tree which made me shudder as I looked at this beautiful tree in an impossibly precarious position, desperately and fearfully trying to survive.
Ben’s image was a perfect expression of his “story”, the picture of the world he was living with and had never questioned: that he had to hold on for dear life to something he was completely alienated from, pleasing his employers at any price, and that if he didn’t, he would fail abysmally to support his beloved family.
Once you have an image, you can work with it dynamically, trusting the wisdom of the imagination, without even referring to the problem until much later. I invited Ben to step into the tree, breathe, and imagine actually being the tree. I encouraged him, as tree, to stop holding onto the cliff for dear life, and just to let go and see what happened. I thought the tree would manage to stay standing without all that effort. I was wrong.
The tree did fall into the sea, as he had feared it would. But it didn’t die. It transformed.
I pull out a big chunk of rock and I’m falling down and I land on the bottom of the cliff on this rock, and I am now the island in this ocean. It’s peaceful because I don’t need to worry about falling from the cliff. I can see the beauty of the ocean and how it changes and how it plays with the sky. I like that. The ocean is there and there is nothing to be afraid of.
As we worked further with this image, Ben was eventually able to say, I’m admitting to myself that I can make my own choices, and start building things according to my own choices. That’s something I’ve been pushing away from myself for a long time.
This was the start of Ben refusing to fit in with the office culture of long hours and overwork, giving himself time to consider how to create a new career using his creative powers. When I last spoke to him he had identified a new career path and was on his way to making it happen.
ImageWork harnesses the transformational imagination to help us make sense of what has brought us to where we are now, and to create positive life choices and profound life changes. Imagery can show us, as a student of mine once put it, “what we know but haven’t told ourselves.’ Ben’s tree and its subsequent transformation is such a good example of this process.
As a practitioner working to create positive change, you are already working with imagery even if you don’t know it. In a sense, all approaches to therapy, coaching or any kind of transformation, including physical healing and pain reduction, can be considered imagery approaches. (Pincus & Sheikh, 2011). This is because our thoughts, feelings, behaviour and wellbeing are grounded in our imagination. Deeply held pictures of ourselves and the world, just like Ben’s tree, emerging from our earliest childhood to the present, guide our lives – often without our realising it.
Transforming this powerful yet often invisible background imagery and creating a new picture of self and world that is more life affirming must therefore form part of any significant change process. Much of what is referred to as neuroplasticity
(Doidge, 2007) could as well be thought of as the plasticity of the imagination. As we transform old patterns and embrace new images and models, we actually create new brain maps that support this new approach to life (Doidge, 2007; Merzenich, 2013).
A personal experience
ImageWork may be the basis of my work with clients, groups and training course members, but it is also central to my own life. In fact, during lockdown, it was an ImageWork exercise that enabled me to commit to writing my book on ImageWork.
During the first lockdown in Spring 2020, I was finding it hard to focus on anything, to make any plans for the future, or even to consider following through with my longstanding project of writing a book that would train practitioners in ImageWork.
I suppose we were all in shock.
When I’m feeling troubled or confused, I turn to ImageWork to tap into the power of the imagination to help me understand and guide my life. I decided to do one of my own visioning exercises in which you time travel to two possible futures, one happy and one unhappy, and then look back and see how you got to each of them. You can then make a commitment to do whatever you need to do to get to the future you want.
Why vision a negative future? Counterintuitive though it may seem, there is no better way to find out how easy it is to get to the future you don’t want. When I do this exercise with clients and group members, people usually say that they reached the unhappy future just by doing what they were already doing.
I didn’t want that to happen to me.
I began with travelling to the unhappy future. I was flooded with painful feelings. I found myself almost unable to breathe, full of shame about how I had spent my year. What was the shame about? That I had done nothing, achieved nothing, created nothing.
Then I travelled to the positive future. Warm feelings of happiness and contentment flowed in. What was at the centre of my happiness? It was the manuscript of the new book I had almost given up on writing.
I wanted to get to that positive future (and definitely not to the unhappy one) enough to start writing my book proposal the very next day. That book, to be launched on 7 April, is called ImageWork: The Complete Guide to Working with Transformational Imagery (PCCS Books, 2022). I know that I would not have written it if I hadn’t seen those two futures and committed myself to the one that would make me happiest.
Visioning can help clients/group members to make the life choices and life changes they are seeking. You can indeed use imagery to help your client find out where they are now, heal doubts, fears and blocks that are holding them back, see more clearly where they need to go, align their will with their vision, make plans to bring about the change they have envisioned, and eventually arrive at their new beginnings. Moreover, there will be an imagery exercise* to help them find a balanced and mindful way to live their new life. It is indeed a one-stop shop.
Imagery can be used in an active way, to visualise what we want so we can make it happen and in a receptive way, to discover what the images are telling us so we know what is right for us. There is a great deal of literature focusing on the active approach to imagery, using a variety of guided visualisations. But my emphasis is always to start with receptive imagery to find out what the wisest part of you wants.
Why is this so important? If you decide what you want and then “create the life you want,” which bit of you wants it? You may well be creating the life you’ve always thought you wanted, or that your parents wanted for you, or that you decided you had to have when your father rejected you. However, you are designing a future in light of the past, and ignoring your own heart.
Dealing with fear of the future is another good example of how looking at the underlying image and transforming it can work wonders. We know people want change but also fear it, and that in order to embark on any new project, our clients often have to deal with a crippling fear of failure. Through in-depth interviewing or working therapeutically with more than 50 people suffering from extreme fears of the future, I discovered to my surprise that extreme fears of the future are not about the event that they fear, nor are they about the future.
They are actually about a picture of how they will deal with the feared event. Typically, when they visualise themselves in the feared future, their picture of themselves is of someone who is fearful, collapsed, shrunken, young or otherwise not coping with the situation. This picture, which is usually connected to a past experience, is what they are really afraid of. So the most direct way to heal the fear of the future is simply to change the client’s picture of themselves in the feared future.
I do this by asking the client to describe the feared future, and then imagine going with them into the future and looking at the future person with a look that combines “compassion for their pain and respect for their magnificence”. As we do this, the future person remembers who they are and connects to their own resources. The feared future picture changes, and the fear disappears. The client now realises that whatever happens, they will deal with it. Sometimes it works so well that when I ask the client later how they are doing with their fear, they have completely forgotten they had it.
I am reminded of James, who had a crippling fear of coming to the end of his employment contract and being homeless, penniless and unable to cope. When he described his picture of himself in the future, it was of a nine-year old boy in a school uniform in Liverpool, where he grew. The fear that seemed to be of the future derived from an experience when he was nine waiting on a train platform for his father and fearing his father would never come. Once we imagined going together into his future picture and sending that little boy love, compassion and respect, and then inviting in all the people who felt that way about him, James’ picture of the future changed completely. In his new picture, he was an adult sitting comfortably in an armchair in front of a fireplace. The fear was gone.
In my experience, imagery deepens and speeds up any healing, learning or creative process, whether it be recovery from an illness, or becoming a better football player or business manager or writer. Successful, highly skilled, healthy and creative people use imagery naturally.
Whatever you are dealing with, whether it is helping clients heal life-long problems, create a positive new future, make sense of their life purpose, or live a more balanced life, you will find that using imagery in this way will get to the heart of problems that are difficult to crack, and offer profound understanding and transformation.
Some people report it is almost like gaining an extra brain. This, I believe, is the mind of our heart and soul.
About the author
Dr Dina Glouberman is co-founder of Skyros Holidays, author of Life Choices, Life Changes, The Joy of Burnout, You Are What You Imagine and Into the Woods and Out Again, and an international psychotherapist, coach, and expert in transformational imagery.
Formerly a senior lecturer at Kingston University, more recently, she founded and directs the Aurora Centre in southern Italy, where she offers training in ImageWork to therapists, counsellors, coaches, consultants and health professionals, and also facilitates ImageWork retreats. She is a course leader on the Faculty of the MA (Clinical) in Psychotherapy of the Tivoli Institute in Dublin, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Humanistic Psychology (Britain).
Her new book for practitioners, ImageWork: The Complete Guide to Working with Transformational Imagery, launches on 7 April. Preorder at: https://amzn.to/3gL4mZC
Dr Dina Glouberman is offering a two-part masterclass on ImageWork showcasing two of the exercises in this article. You are welcome to attend one or both:
22 March 10am-1pm GMT: The Image as Metaphor: How to work as a coach with your client’s imagination to effect transformational change Book here
26 April, 10am-1pm GMT: Visioning for Coaches: the value of negative pictures alongside the positive ones in supporting clients to create change Book here
- N Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. Penguin Books, 2007
- D Glouberman, The Joy of Burnout: How the End of the World Can Be a New Beginning. Skyros Books, 2002
- M Merzenich, Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity can Change Your Life. Parnassus Publishing, 2013
- D Pincus and A A Sheikh, David Grove’s metaphor therapy, in Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 30(3), 259-287, 2011. https://doi.org/10.2190/IC.30.3.d