Woman rubbing her back - Listening to Your Symptoms

Listening to Your Symptoms

Your inner advisor may have told you what you need to know about your symptoms or illness and how to go about resolving the problem. If so, you may not need to use the technique in this chapter, which begins a dialogue with an image that represents your symptom. If you need to know more, however, or if you are for any reason uncomfortable with the idea of an inner advisor, this exploration will be worthwhile. In a sense, you will be “eliminating the middle man,” and attending directly to the source of the problem. You can use receptive imagery to help you understand the purpose of the symptom and what it will take to allow healing to proceed.

In this article, I will expand on the idea of a symptom as feedback, describe the most common meanings and functions of symptoms, discuss some concerns and precautions about using imagery to explore your symptoms, and give you a script that will lead you through an imaginary dialogue with your symptoms.

While symptoms are usually unpleasant, they are not the “enemy.” In fact, they serve as a natural warning system that, seen in the right perspective, can help keep you in the best possible health. Symptoms are like warning lights or gauges in your car. When the oil light goes on in your car, would you take it to the closest gas station and ask the mechanic to rip out the light? Or tape over it so you can go about your business? Then why go to the doctor looking only for relief of symptoms? You may miss a warning that can prevent a future catastrophe.

Careful histories of people who come down with serious illnesses almost always reveal earlier warning signs that were ignored or treated superficially. Doctors commonly see patients who have treated their stomach pain for years with medications–palliating, tolerating, or ignoring the signal that something is out of balance until something more serious, like a heart attack, brings the message home.

Unfortunately, we are not usually taught that our bodies are intelligent and can communicate with us. We are disconnected from our body language, as we are from our emotions. We have somehow given away our birthright in the area of health and healing. We have come to assume that, yes, a symptom is a message–but all it says is “Go see your doctor”!

What would it be like if you were able to under-stand your symptoms and use the self-healing intelligence of your body, your feelings, and your spirit? Why not ask yourself what you need and be receptive to the answers that come from deep within? Is it so strange, after all, to think that the intelligence that created your body in the first place would be able to let you know what it needed in order to be healthy? Whatever created your body–whether you call it God, nature, life, genes, or DNA–was smart enough to make your head. If it can make your head, why not a headache? And if it can make a headache, why not a thought that can tell you what the headache means?

The Common Meanings and Functions of Illness

Illnesses may simultaneously express a person’s distress and represent an attempt to relieve that distress. It is often useful to consider any benefits an illness may bring as a means of understanding its possible function.

In Getting Well Again, a. P. Tarcher, Los Angeles, 1978), the Simonton group describes the five most common benefits their cancer patients listed when they were asked to identify positive things about having cancer. These are: (1) Having permission to get out of dealing with troublesome situations or problems; (2) receiving attention, care, and nurturing from others; (3) having the opportunity to regroup psychologically to deal with a problem or find a new perspective; (4) finding incentive for personal growth or for modifying undesirable habits; (5) not having to meet the high expectations of themselves or others.

Whether these factors play a role in the formation of cancer is unknown, but they are certainly important in the development of many other common illnesses. Further, even if they are not causative, benefits derived secondarily from illness may interfere with your motivation to recover. Identifying the possible advantages of having your symptoms or illness lets you begin developing healthier ways to accomplish the same objectives.

At worst, if you recognize any benefits that come with being ill, you can make the best use of them.

Other potential benefits of illness have been identified by many clinical observers. Gerald Edelstein, M.D., is a psychiatrist and hypnotherapist in the San Francisco Bay area. In his book Trauma, Trance, and Transformation, he reviews and paraphrases the work of another well-known psychotherapist, Leslie LeCron, who suggested that there were seven common unconscious reasons for the development of symptoms. These are the symptom may be a symbolic physical expression of feelings you are otherwise unable to express. This can be called “organ language”–a broken heart, a pain in the neck, not being able to stomach something, getting cold feet, feeling weak in the knees, putting something behind you, and so on.

The symptom may be the result of an unconscious acceptance of an idea or image implanted earlier in life. Thus, the message “you’re a bad girl, and no one worthwhile could ever love you” repeated often or under particularly emotional circumstances could result in poor self-image, depression, self-destructive behavior, and difficulty in relationships later in life. In a real sense, we are all hypnotized as children. We look to our parents, and later to teachers and peers, to define our sense of self. The images we form of ourselves in these early years often form the unconscious basis for patterns of feelings, behavior, and physiology later in life.

The symptom may result from traumatic past experiences that have been highly emotional and then generalized. Edelstein feels that such experiences are often at the base of phobias. Someone badly frightened by a dog, for example, may expect all encounters with dogs to be similarly bad. While these symptoms tend to be behavioral or psychological, they may also manifest physically, as in the case of the asthmatic delivery man discussed in Chapter Seven.

The symptom provides benefits or solves a problem, as the Simonton list indicates. If so, the focus needs to be on ways to enjoy the benefits without having to be sick. A symptom may be the result of an unconscious identification with an important, beloved person in your life. The “anniversary illness” is a well-known phenomenon in medicine. People may fall sick on or near the anniversary date of someone’s death.

Frequently, the symptom is similar to the symptoms the deceased person experienced. The identification may also be with people still living, or with historical or fictional roles. One patient of mine with cancer was shocked to find through her imagery that, as a child, she had always imagined herself as an actress playing roles where the heroine dies a tragic, dramatic death. She was struck by the similarity to feelings she was experiencing about her current illness and its effects on the people around her, and began imagining herself instead as a heroine who overcame and survived adversity.

A symptom is often a manifestation of an inner conflict. There may be an unmet need or desire that is forbidden by family, friends, society, or one’s own inner judgments. The symptom may prevent you from carrying out a forbidden action, or may allow you to fulfill the desire symbolically. Sometimes it does both at once.

A priest I once saw as a patient had an extremely painful, immobile right shoulder. It prevented him from using his right arm and had not responded to extensive conventional treatment. He said it was so painful that he wasn’t able to carry out his responsibilities as a priest and had asked his superior for a sabbatical leave. In an imagery session he saw himself angry, righteous, and carrying a placard in his upraised right arm. The anger and placard spoke directly to grievances he had with the church bureaucracy, but hadn’t been able to express effectively. As he began to share these feelings, he saw how his painful shoulder simultaneously allowed him to stop doing work he didn’t believe in and express his pain and anger to his organization.

He also saw, however, that the message was disguised, unclear, and less effective than it would be if he were to articulate it openly. He realized the need for him to come to terms with the issues involved. Over the weeks that followed, he was able to clarify his own values and bring his grievances to the proper authorities. His physical healing paralleled his psychological and emotional healing in an almost linear manner.

Symptoms may be a result of an unconscious need for self-punishment. This often results from the “childhood hypnosis” mentioned in the second dynamic above, where you have unconsciously accepted a message that you are bad and need to be punished. It may also be an unconscious attempt to atone for a traumatic event for which you feel responsible, or an attempt to prevent something from happening again. Children often feel they are to blame for their parents’ unhappiness, illnesses, alcoholism, or divorces. They may carry this unconscious sense of guilt until it is unearthed and worked through. Disguised and under the surface, it may manifest in many ways in their lives–as physical pain’ illness, failed relationships, or underachieving.

There may be more than one reason at work in the formation of a particular symptom. When you explore your own imagery, any of the above dynamics may become apparent, or there may be other needs or functions represented by your symptoms. For now, notice whether any memories, images, or strong emotions were triggered by any of the dynamics mentioned above. They may be helpful clues as you continue to explore the personal meaning of your symptoms.

The Saving Grace of Illness–A Personal Experience

The first time I was aware of the possible benefits of an illness was when I was at the University of Michigan Medical School. I had just started my three-month rotation on pediatrics, and had been assigned to the university hospital ward where the sickest children were treated. As we made rounds with the chief resident, he told us each child’s history, both medical and personal. I felt increasingly depressed as I heard the stories of these small children with serious illnesses. I had at that time very little awareness of my own emotions.

I was learning to be a doctor, and in the 1960s medical students and doctors I knew didn’t talk about their feelings in the face of illness. Then, a remarkable thing happened. As we sat around the conference table after rounds, the chief resident put his head in his hands and began to cry. His crying turned into deep sobbing, and through his tears he was saying, “I can’t take it anymore . . . I can’t stand to see one more kid die….” The attending staff physician told us to go home for the day as he moved to comfort the chief The next day, the chief resident quit. The day after, I developed severe nausea, a fever, and extreme weakness.

I underwent the kind of medical work-up that is only possible in a university medical center. My liver was enlarged, and my liver enzymes were abnormal, but everything else was normal. I had some type of hepatitis (the cause never was identified) and was not allowed to return to the wards until my lab tests were normal. I was very ill for a few days, then moderately ill for a few days, and felt fairly well after that, though I tired easily. My liver function tests remained elevated, however, for two and a half months. I had my first normal lab panel the weekend my pediatrics rotation ended.

While I never thought at the time that I got sick because of my pediatrics experience, I was aware that, after the first few days when I was really sick, I was grateful not to have to go back to the wards. If I consider this illness in light of the functions I have reviewed, I can see that it relieved me from a responsibility I didn’t want to have, and it gave me time to think a great deal about whether or not I wanted to continue in medicine. To some extent I imagine I identified with the chief resident, whose feelings and honesty I admired. Looking back, I have no doubt that this illness served an important function for me.

It is often easier to see the benefits of illness in retrospect. It may be useful to you to review previous experiences you’ve had with illness before exploring what is happening now. Dennis Jaffe, Ph.D., a noted health psychologist and author of Healing From Within, offers a helpful way to do this. Dr. Jade recommends you take a large sheet of paper and draw a timeline across the bottom, with marks for five-year periods. Above this line, mark important health events in your life serious illnesses, recurrent health problems, and accidents. Above that, note the important events and changes in your life during those periods. Notice if there seems to be any correlation between stressful events, or clusters of change, and your health.

Be open, receptive, and nonjudgmental as you consider illness from this perspective. Few people would ever choose illness consciously for any of the reasons I’ve presented in this chapter. Your purpose is to discover what your unconscious response may have been to a difficult situation, so that you can more consciously play a role in your recovery. When you discover the purpose of your symptom, you have a chance to develop ways to fulfill that purpose that may not require you to be ill at all.

Using Imagery to Explore Your Symptoms

While you may have found the previous considerations useful, they are essentially “left-brain” methods of analyzing the meaning of your illness. A simpler, more direct way to understand your symptom is to relax, focus your attention on it, allow an image to come to mind that can represent the symptom (as you did in Chapter Five), and then have an imaginary conversation with it. Ask it why it’s there, what it wants from you, what it needs from you, and what it’s trying to do for you. A script will follow later that will guide you through this process in detail.

As you begin to work with imagery this way, several points need to be addressed. One of these is the difference between a diagnosis and the personal meaning of your illnesI have already discussed the necessity of making sure you have a dear understanding of your medical condition and the options you have for treatment. While no one should be forced to have medical treatment, I believe you deserve the best possible assessment of what conventional medicine has to offer. Once you understand your condition on that level, however, you need to explore the personal meaning of your symptoms. To do this, you must temporarily put aside the diagnosis you have been given.

Most people, doctors included, don’t realize that a diagnosis is not a “real” thing. A diagnosis is the way we Massey a certain pattern of findings in a given system of medicine. Patients with the same symptoms and signs of illness will have different diagnoses depending on when and where they live and the systems of medicine practiced there.

For instance, a patient with vertigo and ringing in the ears may be diagnosed as having “Meniere’s syndrome” by a Western physician. A practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, however, might diagnose the same patient as having “Yang Fire of the Liver Rising.” In another culture, a shaman might diagnose that an evil spirit has entered the sufferer’s head. To most of us, the Western doctor’s diagnosis sounds the most authoritative and scientific, until we look closely at what it means. Meniere’s syndrome is defined as “A syndrome believed to be caused by some derangement of the inner ear, characterized by hearing loss, tinnitus, and vertigo, which may be severe and chronic.” In other words, by diagnosing your problem as Meniere’s syndrome, your doctor is telling you that you have ringing in the ears and dizziness. The diagnosis is simply a label.

In this instance, as in many others, our medical system of classification fails to meet the two most important criteria of a diagnosis, as seen from the standpoint of the patient. It neither clarifies the nature of the problem, nor does it lead to an effective remedy. This is why it is important to realize that a diagnosis is a name, not a sentence to a particular outcome.

People have widely varying reactions to most illnesses and to most treatments. While there is an “aver-age” or “typical” course, there are almost invariably exceptions which are important to know about. You should learn about the typical course of your illness, but also ask your doctor about exceptional patients he or she has known. Do some people do better than others? What seems to make the difference? If you have a serious illness, has anyone ever recovered from it? What’s the best possible course of the illness? Will your doctor be willing to support your efforts to recover, or does he or she think they are “unrealistic”?

Hope is very important to healing, and there is a difference between hope and false expectations. A patient of mine with breast cancer told her radiation oncologist that she had great faith in him and felt that he was going to help her overcome her cancer. He told her that he would do his best but didn’t want her to get her hopes up. Shocked, she told him, “Doctor, I’m doing everything I can to get my hopes up! Without hope, what do I have?” As Dr. Bernard Siegel, a cancer surgeon at Yale, says, “In the absence of certainty, there is nothing wrong with hope.”

The point is, diagnosis is important so you can assess your medical treatment options. When you use imagery to explore your symptoms, however, focus on your symptoms as you experience them and temporarily set aside what you have been told about your illness. If you have back and leg pain, and it has been diagnosed as coming from a herniated disc, use the pain, not the disc, as the focus of your investigation. If you have an illness without symptoms, then focus on the involved area of your body.

Anxiety and Resistance

A second concern about using imagery to explore your symptoms is the fear you may have of encountering something traumatic. While this is possible, it seems to be quite rare in the self-care setting. Several thousand people have used my self-care imagery tapes over the past five years without reporting a single such problem. Emmet Miller, M.D., a physician in Menlo Park, California, has produced an excellent series of relaxation, self-hypnosis, and guided imagery tapes. With tens of thousands of his tapes sold over more than ten years, he has yet to hear of such a problem.

Psychological defenses against remembering traumatic events are generally quite effective, and the most sophisticated therapeutic attempts to work through them are often frustrated. If a really traumatic insight were to burst through Tom using these methods, I would assume that it was just below the surface and would have soon become apparent. Nevertheless, by using imagery this way, you are inviting your unconscious to tell you what’s going on inside, and it may well do just that. You need to cultivate an attitude that allows you to look at what comes back and explore its meaning without judgment or fear.

If you feel anxious as you consider the kind of self-exploration I am suggesting, pay attention to your fear. How strong is it? Is it mild anxiety or a feeling of excitement that comes when you venture into a new area? Or do you become really tense, have trouble breathing, get headaches, and experience worrisome levels of fear? If you experience a lot of anxiety, you are probably better off exploring this area with qualified professional help.

One common reason for anxiety at this point is the fear that your symptom may ask you to give up the thing that is closest to your heart, or hardest to let go of Sometimes it will, but often it won’t. If this is your concern, remember two things. First, you do not have to do what you imagine your symptom wants you to do. Instead, you will weigh the benefits against the risks and look for the safest, easiest way to use what you have learned from your illness to symptom. You always have the choice of doing nothing and maintaining your position as it is. Second, while healing sometimes requires difficult changes, it doesn’t always. You may be surprised to find that what is called for has little or nothing to do with what you feared. Your symptom’s need may be easier to satisfy than you ever imagined, and may bring you benefits beyond your expectations.

Anne, a thirty-five-year-old writer, had experienced eight months of recurrent respiratory and intestinal infections and was frustrated with the repeated rounds of doctors’ visits and antibiotics that brought her short-term relief but no improvement in her general health. As we discussed her life, she revealed that she was unhappy about certain aspects of her marriage though she didn’t want to leave it. She was terrified that her illness signaled a need to break away from her husband.

We began to work with imagery, and after several sessions I asked her to allow an image to form that represented something she could do to help herself regain her good health. An image of a large beautiful oak tree appeared. It was strong, old, stable, and calming. As she sat beneath this tree, she felt calm and protected. Then she experienced an urge to climb the tree. As she reached the top, she found she could comfortably sit in its branches and enjoy a “vast over-view” of her world. She felt it indicated that she needed to use her inner strength and wisdom to get a better perspective on what was important to her in life.

Over the next few weeks, as she looked at various aspects of her life from this high perch, she realized that her love for her mate was still strong, but needed to be nourished. She saw how she had become buried in worries about money and her writing, which had been sporadic and unproductive. She took steps to renew the warmth in her relationship and found her husband quite happy to have her attention again.

Anne was also surprised and pleased to find herself inspired with creative ideas for writing as she relaxed in her “crow’s nest.” Two months after beginning to work with imagery she told me that she not only was fully recovered, but was writing productively and felt better than she had in years. She was amazed and pleased to see that out of her attention to her illness had come not only physical healing, but the restoration of both her relationship and her creativity.

If, like Anne, you have more than a little anxiety as you consider exploring your symptoms, it may be best to explore those feelings before moving on. I believe in respecting fear, in treating it as we treat a symptom–not as an enemy, but as a signal that something needs to be considered before taking another step. If this feels right to you, please skip to Chapter Eleven now. It will help you clarify your fears and take a look at how best to deal with them as you explore.

Imagery Is Not Just Wishful Thinking

Another common concern about imagery is that it may just be indulging in wishful thinking. By imagining your fondest dream coming true, by seeing your hopes manifest in imagery, you may risk being unrealistic and being led down a primrose path. This, of course, is certainly possible. Your hopes and fears both exist in your imagination along with your “realistic” images of life. If you know that, you are unlikely to be led astray. As always, discrimination is needed. If your imagery of how to go about healing seems “too good to be true,” you may need to test it, as you may have tested the information you received from your inner advisor.

Though I have described testing of imagery information before, it is an important enough process to merit a second discussion. To test a vision that seems far-fetched or unrealistic, ask yourself the following questions: What is required of me to have this vision come true? How will I know if it’s coming true? Is there any way to track my progress objectively? If I follow the lead of this imagery, what am I risking? Are there safeguards I can establish that can protect me or minimize my risk as I test it? Is the risk acceptable, considering the potential gain? Can I bear the loss if it doesn’t work?

There are times, of course, when it’s just not possible to proceed with absolute safety. Life is a risky business, and there are no guarantees in any kind of medicine or healing. The most sensible approach is not to take unnecessary risks, minimize those you do take, and look carefully at the relative potential for benefits.

As you begin to work with the imagery process that follows, you may become aware of negative feelings toward your symptom or illness. These are perfectly natural. They hurt you, frighten you, limit you, and interfere with your life. As you encounter an image that represents your symptoms, you may notice similar feelings arising. Expressing your feelings to the image, then letting it respond, may be the beginning of better understanding, as you will see when you practice the exercise in this chapter.

How to Listen to Your Symptoms

I am indebted to Dr. Naomi Remen for developing the larger part of the script included in this chapter. Dr. Remen originally recorded this script as part of our self-care tape series. In her introduction to this tape, she explains, “If you have a chronic illness, you already have a relationship with it. That relationship is often not the best it could be and may be characterized by mistrust, hostility, and fear. Dialoging with the symptom or with an image that represents it opens up lines of communication that may have been closed, and may lead to an improvement in the relationship. This improvement is often experienced as a decrease in pain, anxiety, or depression, and in some cases, as improvement in the illness itself.”

Expressing your feelings in imagery can be the beginning of a dialogue, and it is possible to express anger, fear, or sadness, yet allow communication to continue. Take the attitude of a good negotiator or arbitrator. Find out what the “opposing” party wants, what it needs, what it will take, and what it has to offer if its needs are met. This is the essence of the inner dialogue process, and an attitude free of judgment will facilitate this conversation. In diplomatic circles it is said “There is no good and bad, only opposing views of the good.” A diplomatic attitude in your imagery exploration may lead to inner peace, where before there was only conflict. Your goal is relief of the symptom or healing of the illness, but your approach will be negotiation rather than warfare.

As you work with the following imagery process, allow yourself to relax and accept what comes to mind. Let the images you encounter speak for themselves, and consider what comes to you carefully. Give yourself room to explore by maintaining a nonjudgmental, curious attitude. Approach this as an investigation, a consideration of your problem in a broader perspective.

When you are through with the process that follows, you will, as always, reflect on, weigh, and analyze whether what you learned is relevant or important to act on.By now, you know to take a comfortable position, make sure you will not be interrupted for about thirty minutes, and either have a friend read the following script, make a recording of it, or work with our pre-recorded tape.

SCRIPT: Listening to Your Symptoms

Begin as always by taking a comfortable position, loosening any tight clothing, . . . have some writing paper and a pen or pencil close at hand….

Take a couple of deep, slow breaths, and let the out breath be a real “letting go” kind of breath . . . imagine that any unnecessary tension or discomfort begins to flow out of your body with each exhalation . . . then let your breathing take its own natural rate and rhythm, allowing yourself to sink a little deeper and become more comfortable with each gentle breath….

Invite your feet to release and relax any tension that may be there . . . notice them beginning to let go . . . invite your calves and shins to release as well . . . your thighs and hamstrings . . . your pelvis, genitals, and hips . . . feel your whole lower body releasing and relaxing as it has so many times before . . . just allowing your body to head for a deeper, more comfortably relaxed and focused state . . . and as your body relaxes, your mind can become quiet and still as well . . . easily and naturally … without effort…Allow your low back and buttocks to join in the releasing and relaxing . . . allowing these large muscles to become loose and soft and take a well deserved break . . . allow your abdomen to relax as well . . . the muscles of your abdomen, flanks, and midback relaxing more deeply . . . the organs in your abdomen as well . . . your chest muscles . . . your shoulder blades and in between your shoulder blades . . . letting go . . . easily . . . naturally . . . the organs in your chest . . . your shoulders letting go . . . your neck muscles . . . your arms . . . forearms . . . wrists . . . hands . . . fingers . . . and thumbs . . . releasing and relaxing . . . comfortably and easily . . . releasing your scalp . . . forehead . . . face . . . and jaws . . . the little muscles around your eyes….

And to relax more deeply . . . to become quiet in mind and body . . . imagine yourself in that special, quiet inner place you’ve visited before . . . a special inner place of peacefulness . . . serenity . . . and security for you . . . take a few moments to look around and notice what you see there . . . and what you hear in this special place . . . and any odor or aroma . . . and especially the feelings of peacefulness and safety that you feel here . . . and find the spot in which you are most comfortable . . . and become centered and quiet in that spot….

When you are ready, direct your attention to the symptom or problem that has been bothering you . . . your symptom may be a pain, weakness, or dysfunction in some part of your body or a mood or emotions that are uncomfortable for you . . . as you focus on the sensations involved, allow an image to appear that represents this symptom . . . simply allow the image to appear spontaneously, and welcome whatever image comes–it may or may not make immediate sense to you … just accept whatever comes for now….

Take some time just to observe whatever image appears as carefully as you can . . . if you would like it to be clearer, imagine you have a set of controls like you do for your TV set, and you can dial the image brighter or more vivid . . . notice details about the image . . . what is its shape? . . . color? . . . texture? . . . density? . . . How big is it? . . . How big is it in relation to you? . . . Just observe it carefully without trying to change it in any way . . . How close or far away does it seem? . . . What is it doing? . . .

Just give it your undivided attention . . . as you do this, notice any feelings that come up, and allow them to be there . . . look deeper . . . are there any other feelings present as you observe this image? . . . When you are sure of your feelings, tell the image how you feel about it–speak directly and honestly to it (you may choose to talk out loud or express yourself silently)….

Then, in your imagination, give the image a voice, and allow it to answer you . . . listen carefully to what it says . . .

Ask the image what it wants from you, and listen to its answer . . . ask it why it wants that–what does it really need? . . . And let it respond . . . ask it also what it has to offer you, if you should meet its needs … again allow the image to respond….

Observe the image carefully again . . . is there anything about it you hadn’t noticed before? . . . Does it look the same or is it different in any way? . . .

Now, in your imagination, allow yourself to become the image . . . what is it like to be the image? . . . Notice how you feel . . . notice what thoughts you have as the image . . . what would your life be like if you were this image? . . . Just sense what it’s like to be this image….

Through the eyes of the image, look back at yourself. . . what do you see? . . . Take a few minutes to really look at yourself from this new perspective . . . as the image, how do you feel about this person you are looking at . . . what do you think of this person? . . . What do you need from this person? . . . Speaking as the image, ask yourself for what you need….

Now slowly become yourself again . . . the image has just told you what it needs from you . . . what, if anything, keeps you from meeting that need? . . . What issues or concerns seem to get in the way? . . . What might you do to change the situation and take a step toward meeting the image’s needs? . . .

Allow an image to appear for your inner advisor, a wise, kind figure who knows you well . . . when you feel ready, ask your advisor about your symptom and its needs, and any thoughts, feelings, or circumstances that may make it hard for you to meet these needs . . . ask your advisor any questions you might have, and listen carefully to your advisor’s responses . . . feel free to ask your advisor for help if you need it….

Now, mentally review the conversation you have had with your symptom and your advisor from the beginning . . . if it feels right for you, choose one way that you can begin to meet your symptom’s needs– some small but tangible way you can fill some part of its unmet needs . . . if you can’t think of any way at all, ask your advisor for a suggestion….

When you have thought of a way to begin meeting its needs, recall again the image that represents your symptom . . . ask it if it would be willing and able to give you tangible relief of symptoms if you take the steps you have thought of . . . if so, let the exchange begin . . . if not, ask it to tell you what you could do in exchange for perceptible relief. . . continue to dialogue until you have made a bargain or need to take a break from negotiating….

Consider the image once more . . . is there anything you have learned from it or about it? . . . Is there anything that you appreciate about it? . . . If there is, take the time to express your appreciation to it . . . express anything else that seems important . . . and slowly come back to your waking state and take some time to write about your experience….

Evaluating Your Experience

Take some time to write or draw anything significant to you in the experience. Describe your image of the symptom in detail. How does this image seem to relate to your experience of your symptoms or illness?How did you feel about the image initially? Did your feelings change in any way as you continued to dialogue with this image? How do you feel about it now?

What did the image seem to want from you? What did it say it needed? What did it say it had to offer you in return for meeting its needs?

How was it to become the image? Did you learn anything else about the image from this part of the imagery? As the image, what did you ask yourself for?

As yourself, what was your reaction to the image’s request? Are there obstacles or barriers you became aware of to meeting its needs? If you chose to, how might you deal with them constructively? What would be a first step toward meeting your symptom’s needs?

Did the image agree to give you tangible relief of symptoms if you took that step? Is there something else it wanted instead? Are you willing to make a bargain with it, or have you reached an impasse in negotiations? If so, you may want to take some time to think about what you could offer in exchange for relief Consult with your advisor before returning to the dialogue with your symptoms.

You may not always be able to come to an agreement with your symptoms immediately. As with any negotiation, a good deal of exchange and consideration may need to take place before a bargain is struck. Make sure any agreement is mutually acceptable–one-sided pacts do not work. If you do make a bargain with your symptoms, keep your agreement and watch carefully for improvement.

The Next Steps

You may notice that as you write about this experience, you become aware of connections and information you didn’t notice during the imagery. You may even notice yourself becoming aware of related information over several days following your inner dialogue. You may find information in dreams, in flashes of intuition, in books you are reading, from people you talk with, and TV shows you watch. Once you have asked the unconscious for advice, it responds in many ways. You may also find that repeating this process in a few days will allow you to penetrate even more deeply into the relationship between you and your symptom.

Once you’ve developed some insight into the meaning of your symptoms, an important question is often “What are you going to do about it?” Insight can stimulate change, but it may take continued awareness and action over time to make the change a part of your daily life. Psychoanalysis is often criticized for producing patients who understand everything they do, but do the same things they did when they entered therapy. It’s not just the knowing, but the doing that counts. As Will Rogers once said, “You may be on the right track, but you’ll get run over if you don’t move.”

While in some situations the imagery itself will have the effects you desire, in many others it will only point you in the direction you need to go. The process of grounding your insight, of using it to make tangible change in your life, is the key to converting the imaginary to the real. Paradoxically, imagery can help even in this down-to-earth step of self-healing. You will learn how in the next chapter.

  • The Common Meanings and Functions of Illness
  • The Saving Grace of Illness–A Personal Experience
  • Using Imagery to Explore Your Symptoms
  • Anxiety and Resistance
  • Imagery Is Not Just Wishful Thinking
  • How to Listen to Your Symptoms
  • Script: Listening to Your Symptoms
  • Evaluating Your Experience
  • The Next Steps

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Written by Martin L. Rossman MD

Explore Wellness in 2021