“Shrink!” The constriction of creative imagination

Slang for therapist, shrink is an intriguing word; rather it is a fascinating image. One story goes that it arose from phrenology, the study of head size and shape and its correlation to personality. You go to a shrink to have your head examined and undesirable qualities shrunk. That’s one way the image plays out. Here’s another.

When I worked in an inpatient psychiatric ward as a “mental health technician” (what a nightmare of a term) there was on occasion a “resistant” adolescent patient who complained about psychiatrists and psychotherapists trying to reduce them to what would fit in neat little boxes. A portrait of the genesis of their attunement to this shrinking is telling

They were in the unenviable family position of being “the problem”–in therapeutic vernacular, a symptom of a social system. To the family they were like an affliction to be cured. As “the problem” they were made to carry something that wasn’t altogether theirs. And in this pivotal time of identity formation, they were beginning to refuse the burden. The imaginal space of the family exerted a tangible pressure for them to be someone they were not–a figure in the communal imagination. They were simultaneous entangled and set apart. As what they carried was split off, they felt ostracized and more at home away from the family.

The inner necessity of their becoming led them to this: Their emerging identity bore the conviction that they were not identical to what others had made them out to be. They became acutely aware of any attempt to make them live as alien figures in someone else’s landscape.  To be free to imagine who they might authentically be they had to extricate themselves from the unconscious undercurrents of family life and of anyone else who didn’t see them for who they were becoming. Their “resistance” was the tenacity of a sapling rooting just far enough from the grove to find light. Their irritation was an awakening of the creative imagination.

Applying a reductive diagnostic and therapeutic framework constricts and redirects imagination and so risks stifling the play of becoming. Winnicott makes this point and reminds therapists that “it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self” (D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, Routledge Classics, 1971, p.73). A therapist’s theoretical framework can serve to clarify complex realities within a therapeutic narrative. It can also shut down the creative imagination by imposing a foreign imaginal context. Caught up in the collective myth of objectivity we as therapists might forget that our theory maps an imaginal landscape populated with figures who live the treasured therapeutic tales told there. Landscape and figures shape the figural identity of patient and therapist and their relationship in the work. Forgetting this by taking our theories literally shrinks the patient. Remembering this opens the possibility of tending the landscape (and even reimagining it) to insure it remains habitable and hospitable to all sorts of figures. This hospitable dwelling for the creating imagination offers a place for our “resistant” adolescent who sought a home for becoming.