[Listen to the audio recording of “Psychology’s Taboo Against Imagination.”]
Over the last few decades, the teaching and practice of psychology has veered into a dark abyss. The overuse of diagnosis — a misguided attempt to codify and categorize much of human behavior — has destroyed the imagination of practitioners and clients alike, leaving in its place a philosophy of pathology and system of practices that often do more harm than good to everyone involved.
The negative consequences of these practices compound over time — diagnoses, like bi-polar, or ADD, based on arbitrary concepts of “mental illness,” stick to clients like prison sentences damaging their self-esteem, usually along with prescribed medications that lead to addictions or produce long lasting side-effects, like impotence, cognitive decline, involuntary movements, and perhaps other even more serious results. And, not the least, the professional training of therapists that programs orthodox mindsets impoverished by the lack of imagination.
These practices result from “scientism,” the widespread trend toward the “medicalization” of psychology and away from holistic, humanistic, growth-oriented approaches established by such pioneers as Carl Jung, William James, Rollo May, Carl Rogers, and Erich Fromm, who believed the human mind could not be measured by the rules of science. In its attempts to seek scientific legitimacy, psychology today has come to reject approaches that appreciate the mysterious and enigmatic nature of the mind, referenced throughout history by philosophers, poets, and artists, whose knowledge of the human experience comes without the assistance of scientific inquiry.
Psychology today inhabits dark shadows. Therapists trained to fix their attention on what is lacking have no vision of how a client’s problem or symptom can be a solution to life’s complex dilemmas and how it might provide benefits for its bearer. Nor can they see the creativity it takes to invent and maintain a set of “symptoms.” Instead, clients are viewed as “mentally ill,” directed into therapies established on “lookalikes” who have manifested similar symptoms.
Clinicians “treat” clients rather than inviting them into a collaboration, in which they can be assisted in discovering what they want from their lives and how to attain the highest expression of themselves.
Rather, their “minds” are separated from the rest of their experience, as if it were a damaged body organ that could be repaired solely by medication and supportive therapy. In the process, clients’ humanity, in all its splendid originality, gets extinguished, as does the therapist’s.
The future of psychology does not lie in more precise explanations of how the mind, brain, or other biological systems perform, but in its radicalization based on a new consciousness — a synergistic philosophy that honors individuality and innovation, respects the fusion of mind, body and spirit, values positive thinking and meaningful action, and privileges ideals like purpose, faith, and self-determination.
Such a leap requires therapists to throw away the DSM (the psychiatric bible) and rid themselves of much of what they learned in the academy, eradicating such concepts as , “mental illness,” “normal,” and “abnormal” from the professional lexicon. They must clear their minds of all preconceptions in order to help clients understand how to take full possession of their lives. Therapists must find the courage and imagination to break free from old maps and focus on the originality of each encounter with a client. Every client’s problem or symptom must be understood and respected as a personal achievement that has real purpose and meaning, along with unwanted consequence. From this mindset, therapists can freely enter into a creative partnership with clients in which they can imagine together new ways to attain what the client wants, but without having to pay the self-defeating price for it. Imagination, among our most powerfully energetic forces, allows us to examine the infinite possibilities for our lives. “What the mind can conceive, it can achieve.”
By activating clients’ imaginations, we also activate those aspects of their mental faculties that lead to actions that will help them realize the life they desire, whether it is to succeed at marriage, attain peace of mind, or contribute to the world. Change can no longer be considered a medical issue; it is a fundamental choice that comes when clients develop the awareness that their actions in the world are not controlled by biology alone, or external circumstances alone, or from the past they inherited from their families, but instead derived from what they imagine about those circumstances. It is the story they create about their experience that shapes their actions in the world — for better, and worse. As Emerson said, “A man’s life is what he thinks about all day long.”
From this perspective, the goal of therapy is to help clients create a reimagined self, based on a narrative about who they wish to be and how they want to live their lives. When therapists start with that objective, every engagement with a client becomes an exquisite moment guided by faith, determination, and enthusiasm in the service of helping them achieve their true desires. Without a map to follow, practitioners follow the scent of their intuition, trusting the idea that clients will do in the outer world what they do in the inner world. As William Blake put it,
…in your own Bosom you bear your Heaven
And Earth & all you behold; tho’ it appears Without it is Within,
In your Imagination, of which this World of Mortality is but a Shadow
If, on the other hand, the field of psychology continues to be subverted by “scientism,” a movement that disrespects the artistic and poetic nature of human experience, the consequences will be great. By clinging to a conformist world of orthodox ideas, therapists will, as a breed, entirely lose the power associated with imagination. It is only when we dwell in the field of our imagination that we learn what we want and who we want to be. Every stage of man’s progress in the world has always begun with the conscious exercise of imagination.
It is the job of therapy to help clients discover and transform wishful thinking into those actions that produce a desired reality. If, for example, we can re-live in our imagination a single day exactly the way we wished it had been, we gain the capacity to enact it, to live the next day just as we want it.