Catherine Jackson: Dina, you are the founder and co-director of Skyros Holidays, the pioneering personal development retreats on the Greek island of the same name. You also have qualified and practised as a psychologist and lecturer, written and co-written five books, raised two children, and are just now establishing a new centre in Italy to train people in ImageWork, the approach you developed through your individual and groupwork. You’ve also just published your sixth book, on ImageWork itself. Is it surprising that your bestselling book was titled The Joy of Burnout?
Dina Glouberman: The answer is, of course, ‘yes and no’. We normally think of burnout as resulting from someone being overly ambitious, working too hard, keeping going no matter what and eventually they hit the wall and burn out. I have a totally different view of burnout. My view is that, as long as you are doing what you love and are wholehearted about it, you can surpass yourself. Your energy seems unlimited. Burnout happens when the situation you are in changes – the boss who supported your development leaves and someone who is critical and has a different world view takes over, or you change, outgrow what you are doing, and it’s not for you any more. Your heart goes out of the situation and that is the moment when you need to stop, step back and think about it.
You have three choices – do you change your attitude and recommit? Do you try to change the situation so you can put your heart back into it? Or do you leave the situation? In any case, you need to become wholehearted again. If you can’t do any of those with your whole heart – for example, because your identity is invested in this old past or you think it will threaten your relationship if you change, or you believe that if you looked at the situation you might have to do something you don’t want to do – you will drive yourself forward, and that is when burnout happens. Because now you are divided against yourself; your heart is no longer in it; you are like someone in a car pressing on the accelerator and brake at the same time and running out of petrol.
That is when you hit the wall. Then you have a choice. You can go to the doctor and ask to be made better so you can put the old show back on the road, or you can say, ‘There is no joy in this and I think I’m trapped but I’m not really trapped. I do have choices. I obviously need to find a new show where there is joy.’ And that is what The Joy of Burnout is about.
CJ: You have said you didn’t know what you were doing or how you were going to do it when you decided to set up Skyros, but what you came up with has proved to be so right for so many people. How did you arrive at the recipe for the elixir?
DG: There were so many things I didn’t know – how to run a business, how to market it, the things that people nowadays go on training courses to learn how to do – but I did know how to create a world where people can be happy and where they feel safe to be themselves, to go deep in themselves and find a turning point in their life. That was something my deepest wisdom self knew how to do. Partly it came out of my experience with communities as a humanistic psychologist, and partly I was also influenced by the American community-oriented summer camps, which I went to as a child. But I think everybody has something that they just know how to do, and when you find it, it’s really wonderful.
I think there’s a number of elements to Skyros Holidays. First there’s creating a community that honours people for who they are and who they are becoming, not for what other people think they should be. That is very crucial, and there are lots of methods for creating that very quickly, some of which come from humanistic psychology. For example, we start off the first day with a community meeting and break all the usual social rules and get people talking intimately about themselves to complete strangers in a way that feels safe. Also, people are asked to join a work group, to contribute. Like any community, for it to work you have to give as well as receive; it isn’t just a hotel with groups. And if you don’t like what is happening, you don’t vote with your feet, you say so and you work with it.
Then there are the courses – at first they were personal self-development courses, then we added writing courses and then we started Atsitsa, where the approach was more holistic and people could learn things like windsurfing, art and theatre, and also personal development if they wanted. But the idea of all the courses is that they were about the whole person – you aren’t just learning a skill; you are learning who you really are and what you are capable of.
The third aspect is that this all takes place in a beautiful, warm and healthy environment. And the fourth thing is that it is a holiday – it has to be fun as well. Normally, when you go on holiday, you open yourself to new experiences, but when you come back you just return to your normal routines. As the poet Hugo Williams said of Skyros, ‘This a holiday you can take home with you.’ We wanted people to learn something on the holiday that they could take into their daily life.
CJ: I sometimes wonder whether, for the many therapists who go, it offers what they all give to others in their day jobs but can’t give to themselves. I’m going to quote from The Joy of Burnout: ‘There was no one to say those simple words I never heard all those years: “Sit down, you’re tired”.’ And, ‘When we are in our role, our personal needs have to disappear not just from sight but from consciousness. We exist only to serve.’
DG: I think one of the main reasons that counsellors and psychotherapists come is because they really value deep communication, honesty, openness and sharing, and Skyros is perfect for people who want that level of communication with other human beings. Counsellors and psychotherapists thrive in that environment. It’s not just being taken care of; it’s being invited into a world where you can be yourself. And I think that applies to anyone. Nowadays it’s become much more the cultural norm that people want to learn skills on a holiday and not just lie on a beach. In a way, Skyros pioneered that kind of holiday where you have a learning and growing experience.
And it’s a learning community for everyone – for the staff too, and for course leaders. Even famous course leaders are treated for who they are, as part of the community, not as somehow elevated and different, and they love that.
CJ: You are currently setting up a new training centre in southern Italy, called Aurora, which was interrupted by the pandemic but I think is now back on course. Tell us a bit about the new centre. Aurora of course means dawn – is that significant?
DG: At first it was just called the Puglia Centre, but an Italian friend said, ‘No, you need a name.’ I thought of ‘Aurora’ and then I discovered that in Italian, aurora isn’t just dawn, it’s that precise moment between first light and sunrise. So it’s a very liminal space. And imagery emerges in a liminal space. So it was completely perfect, because I started Aurora to train people in my work with imagery. I was just about to begin the training and COVID came, but this October we will have our first post-lockdown retreat and training course.
The power of imagery
CJ: Which brings us to your new book, ImageWork: the complete guide to working with transformational imagery, which contains the core elements of your own model of working with imagery that you’ve developed in your 40-year career. What inspired you to do this?
DG: People do say it’s very generous to give away all my secrets. But to me, if you’ve found something good, you want to spread it around so you can make a difference to more people’s lives. I want people to understand the power of imagery – how to use it to enhance whatever it is you are doing, whether you are a counsellor, therapist or coach, a healer of some kind or, if you have a spiritual perspective, you want to use it to help people find their spiritual self. My belief is that, whatever you are doing in the fields of psychotherapy, coaching or personal development, working with imagery will enhance and multiply its effects.
But perhaps I need to explain a bit more about ImageWork. ImageWork is an interactive method that we can use to illuminate people’s lives and help them understand themselves better and make new choices and changes. Why imagery? Imagery is what we use anyway. Our whole life is guided by imagery. But it doesn’t have to be visual, it can be heard, felt, smelled or sensed in other ways. I am not visual at all. Most people, if I say ‘imagine a peach,’ they will see it. I don’t but I can feel it, smell it, taste it. That’s why it’s called ImageWork rather than visualisation. It uses the imagination.
Our imagination is guiding us all the time – what the world is like, whether it is dangerous, safe, satisfying – all of that is on some level using what I call the ‘everyday imagination’. It’s those taken-for-granted images of ourselves and of the world that rule our lives and make us do the things we do. We saw that with burnout – people think their old pictures of who they are and what they are are the right ones, that to lose these old pictures is dangerous, and so they do whatever they have to do to hold onto them and keep going.
The everyday imagination keeps us in the status quo. Sometimes we have good images, good experiences, but we all also have images that have outgrown their usefulness and some people have had really awful experiences in their lives. What I work with is what I call the ‘transformational imagination’ – the imagination you reach by going deeper inside yourself, into that creative imagination that geniuses and scientists all use, beyond the everyday, the usual, the practical.
When you go into the transformational imagination you first of all reveal what your everyday imagination is telling you and then you work with that to transform it. For example, I was working with someone who thought he was close to burnout. He was doing a job that he felt he had to do, to earn the money and status he thought necessary as a husband and father. So I invited him to draw an image of himself, and he drew a picture of a tree hanging on for dear life to a cliff, about to fall off if it didn’t hold on. Using the transformational imagination, we could reveal that image, which he wasn’t even aware he had. So I talked to the tree. I said, ‘What happens if you let go?’ I thought the tree wouldn’t fall, but it did – right down into the sea. But when it fell, it gathered earth around its roots and became a little island. From that point, he started to see he was holding onto an old picture that wasn’t working for him and that there was another picture and a different way of living, and he went on to give up his old job and start a new venture and flourish.
CJ: What are the psychological roots of ImageWork and how have you applied and incorporated them to shape what it has become?
DG: It’s rooted in quite a few and different sources. My first introduction to working with imagery came through some of the growth work of humanistic psychology – Fritz Perls and his work with dreams, for example. It also draws on Maslow and his theories of lifelong development and his view that healing doesn’t happen just in a consulting room; you can do it yourself and with other people. Another influence was a little-known American psychologist called Andras Angyal, a post-Freudian working in the 1960s. He talked about the organism as ‘psychophysically neutral’, by which he meant that we all have a basis of who we are that is neither purely physical nor purely mental – there is no mind-matter distinction. In that same way, to me, imagery is multidimensional and can express itself physically, mentally or spiritually, or all three.
I also trained with RD Laing and the Philadelphia Association. Laing was mainly concerned with psychosis but what he honoured was non-ordinary ways of experiencing the world. He said that things that don’t seem rational do make sense but it’s just that they don’t fit with conventional ways of seeing the world. And ImageWork is like that – but the difference between working with images and being psychotic is that, at some level, with ImageWork, you know you are working with images – they are simply metaphors for your life. The material world is still going on around you and you can leave the world of images at any time and rejoin it. But when you are psychotic, you don’t know that.
Then there’s Jung, of course, who saw the unconscious as a source of wisdom and talked about two levels of the unconscious – the personal and the transpersonal, or collective, unconscious. He also used interactive imagery, where he would work with an image that came up for a client, and this is central to ImageWork.
One of my teachers was Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, who died recently. I use a lot from his work and teaching on mindfulness and meditation. Another influence is the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, who believed that what we call objective is really intersubjective, or part of a shared world, in that we take as our measure of objectivity whether other people experience it too. If I measure a table and you measure it, we would come up with the same length and we call that objective. And if I saw a table and you didn’t, I’d be worried about one of us! In the same way, imagery is private and subjective, but if you, as a guide, talk about the images and to the images as if they are real, they become part of that shared intersubjective world for the imaginer and it feels more real and powerful.
For example, a situation I describe in the book is that of a young woman who came on a course, and we were all going out on a boat trip. She told us she was scared to come because her boyfriend, who had died recently, was telling her she should die too and join him. She was worried she would jump overboard and drown herself. So I talked to the boyfriend through her, and persuaded him to let her alone and let her live. Whether the boyfriend’s presence came from her guilt or whatever, it was very real to her and to the whole group. But she came on the trip and was OK because she believed he had let her go. That was because we had all talked to her image as if it were there in the room with us.
CJ: Would you call ImageWork a model of therapy? How might a counsellor, coach or psychotherapist incorporate ImageWork into their daily practice?
DG: Anybody who works with people to transform something in some way can use it. If you can think about it, you can use imagery to work on it. In the book, I have divided the scripts I use into categories to show people the possibilities in whatever work they are doing. So there are healing scripts, which include talking to the inner child, healing the past, transforming relationships and taking back your power; creative scripts, which are more what a coach would use to get people to take charge of their lives, such as visioning the future and creating a timeline for the one you want; ‘the bubble’, where you put a picture of a desired future or life change in a bubble and blow it into what I call the domain of potential waiting to be actualised, and the ‘magic cinema’, where you visualise you are in a cinema and watch two films on a magic screen – you as you are now and you as you will be after making an important life change – and you experience how to achieve what you see in the second film. These are all ways to help you create new possibilities.
And then there are the transcendent exercises that are about the bigger picture. That doesn’t mean you have to be spiritual; it simply requires you to have some sense of a meaning that goes beyond everyday life. They include, for example, meditation and visualisation exercises to use at the start of every day; an exercise in tuning into others; a brief one for listening to the perspective of your mind, your heart and your soul, and one that’s about meeting life and death and forgiving them.
CJ: Groupwork is clearly very important to you. What does it offer that is uniquely different to – perhaps even more beneficial than – individual work?
DG: I love working with individuals, groups and communities, and they all have a different function. If I am doing imaging by myself it is not as powerful as when someone else is present, even when they’re not saying anything, only listening, maybe because it tells me that what I am doing is of value, I am of value and I can do this. When you have a group, you have maybe 20 people who are all providing this kind of energy and that makes everything seem to be writ large – like a combination of therapy and theatre. Things can happen in a group that would be much harder to get to happen in an individual session precisely because there is that magnification. And if you make a point, as I do, of creating a group where people treat each other with love and respect, you are in a whole group of people who you feel are all sending you love and respect as you work.
What I’ve also found is that people want to be able to help other people, not just be helped. In a group, I teach people very simple principles about how to work with another person’s image: imagine that person’s image is in the room with you; speak in words a five-year-old would understand; speak to the image, not the person. Then they may pair off with another participant, or help me work with someone in the middle of the group, and they feel they are there to give, not just receive, and that gives them a profound self-respect. They feel they are of service as well as receiving help.
And in a group you get these moments of great drama. I will say to people, ‘If this was your image, what would it say to you?’ so the transformation isn’t just for that person whose image we are working with – everyone has an experience that is transformative.
CJ: The pandemic thrust us all apart and forced counsellors to work online. You say that ImageWork works even when the individuals are not in the same room together. How, when so much is so deeply relational and interactive?
DG: When lockdown happened and I started to work online, through Onlinevents, I had big groups of people coming, and at first I was worried about how it would work when I was not in the room. I discovered it depended on whether I believed it was going to work. If I said, ‘We are not in the same room but look around at everyone. We are all here seeking to learn. Send your love and receive their love,’ I could get them to key into the fact that they were in a group, not sitting alone, each in their room.
I have this creative exercise called ‘Stepping off cliffs’ where you imagine doing something you are frightened to do, which feels like stepping off a cliff, and then you imagine a cliff and step off it and actually it turns out you come to no harm – you find you can fly or the ground comes up to meet you. But it can be really scary. One woman in an online group said to me, ‘Please, I need help, I can’t step off this cliff.’ Which also tells you how powerful the imagination is! I said to her, ‘I am coming with you,’ as I would in an in-person group. I told her, ‘I am taking your hand, can you feel it?’, and she said ‘Yes,’ and at that moment I knew we were connected and I walked with her virtually to that cliff edge and she stepped off. So ImageWork does work virtually in some wonderful ways. And yet, of course, there is no replacement for in-person presence. I feel this with my clients. I have done very good work with them online, but when they walk into the room, so much more is available there, and it’s really wonderful to have it.
CJ: Do you have any favourite ImageWork exercises?
DG: An exercise that is often very powerful is the transcendent exercise ‘Living at the centre of your life/The boat’, where I ask the person to imagine they are on a small boat with the five most important things in their life and they must throw them overboard, one by one. They can be material things or ideas or people, even. And the person is left standing alone, in the middle of the boat, with nothing but themself. It’s a very emotional moment. You’d think people might feel bereft but what happens is they discover something about who they are. One woman was desperately crying, saying ‘I can’t throw God off my boat,’ but when she did – with encouragement! – she discovered, ‘Oh, it’s in me! God is in me!’
And then I ask them to bring anything they want back onto the boat. Some don’t want anything back. This doesn’t mean they don’t want those things or people in their life; it just means that they now know their being doesn’t depend on them. It’s like my burnout mantra: ‘Give up hope and keep the faith.’ If you lost these things, you would still have yourself.
I use these exercises myself, daily, and I recommend that the people who train as ImageWork guides do so too before they start running workshops. There’s a visioning exercise that I find very useful where you see yourself in a positive future and a negative future and look at how you got to each of these futures and choose which one you want. Then you envision what you need to do to get to the positive future and put it in a bubble and blow it into the domain of potential waiting to be actualised.
In fact, that is how I got to write this book. When lockdown happened I was in state of mind where I was asking, ‘What is worth doing?’ Everything had changed so dramatically. I couldn’t imagine writing a book because where would the world be when it was finished and would anyone want to read it? And then I did my own future visioning exercise, and the negative future was terrible: I couldn’t breathe, I felt so ashamed because I’d done nothing, created nothing, got nowhere. Then I imagined the positive future, and I was extremely happy and I was holding this book. I saw that the only way forward was to write it, and the next day I started on the proposal!
CJ: Thank you, Dina, for such a rich and rare interview.