Our site pal Mike Stumpf has asked me to explain the difference between imaginary and imaginal, because I mention our imaginal abilities in my book. It’s a good question, Mike!
I think we all know what imaginary things are: they’re unreal things we might fear or wish for, like a bogey man or the Easter Bunny. We mostly know that these things aren’t real, but we can easily talk ourselves into believing in them, and we can actually feel honest fear or comfort when we think of them.
Our brains also create imaginary, illusory images, sometimes through unusual sense perceptions (think of optical illusions, mirages, and auditory illusions), and sometimes through a neurological misfire that creates visual or auditory hallucinations. These imaginary things can be very tricky, because your brain can’t distinguish between what is real and what is imaginary, while your emotions will often consider imaginary things to be emotionally evocative stimuli (see our discussion about the difference between an emotion and a feeling). In some cases, these imaginary things can create misery, as in some forms of schizophrenia (where a person might hear very convincing voices that tell him to hurt himself or to distrust others). Your imagination is a very powerful thing.
Imaginal things, on the other hand, are useful ideas you create to comprehend the world and other people. Similes and metaphors are imaginal devices that can help you compare something real to something unrelated (for instance: My employee acts like a skittish horse when I give her a new chore, or My manager’s anger is like a whirlwind). If your simile is very skillful and apt, you may be able to organize your perceptions and perhaps even change your behavior based on the strength of the comparison.
For instance, if your employee is acting like a skittish horse, you can stay quiet and wait until she orients to the new task and calms herself down (in the way you might with a real horse). Or if your manager is fuming, you can batten down the hatches and wait until the gusts of his temper subside before you try to get any work done. Imaginal things, if they’re skillfully chosen and meaningful to you, can help you function better in the real world.
Movies, plays, poems, artworks, and songs depend upon our ability to interact with images and to feel alongside, or for, or against the images and characters we encounter. Our brains love to imagine things. It’s actually how our brains work.
Putting your imaginal skills to work for you
In the book, I rely upon your imaginal capacities to help you access your emotions, because emotions are deeply affected by imagery. Emotions can easily be evoked, changed, intensified, alleviated, and even suppressed by specific imagery, so in order to help you work with your emotions, I rely heavily upon your innate imaginal capacities. The book is full of similes, metaphors, analogies, poetry, and story-telling, because each is an intrinsic part of the language of your emotions.
My five empathic skills (Getting Grounded, Defining Your Boundaries, Burning Contracts, Conscious Complaining, and Rejuvenating Yourself) might just as well be called imaginal skills, because they recruit your natural ability to create and respond to imagery. I call them imaginal skills rather than imaginary or make-believe skills because they create real changes in your real world. Learning to imaginally ground and calm yourself, to set your boundaries, to let go of ideas or behaviors that don’t work, and to rejuvenate and comfort yourself — these skills can actually change your behavior, your outlook, your mood, and the tenor of your relationships. Imaginal skills rock!
Remember that when you’re stuck in a behavior that doesn’t work, or when you’ve learned a really unhelpful way to manage one of your emotions. Images are very powerful, and they can help you get right to the core of an issue that you might never understand with mere words!
Also see this related post about the imaginal skill that helps us create communities, boundaries, laws, and culture: Is it real, or is it reified?