Violation of the Imaginal

Perhaps more than any reaction an adolescent or young woman has to sexual trauma, sexual promiscuity and sexual fantasies of the abuse likely cause the greatest amount of shame and confusion. Although a young woman is particularly vulnerable of being judged for her sexuality, the greatest critic likely becomes a voice within herself. Overcoming the sense of being branded with a scarlet letter (or deserving such stigma) requires regaining the capacity for imaginal ‘play,’ which is often foreclosed by sexual trauma. 

To understand the connection between recovery from sexual trauma and the imagination, it helps to examine the first encounter human beings have with the imagination: the naturally imperfect relationship we have with our caregivers. We start life as part of our mothers, and continue to anticipate a state of fusion until we are forced to accept separateness. As we grow, inevitably our caregiver will fail to perfectly foresee our needs. This misattunement introduces us to a new reality: the distinctiveness of our inner world from the external conditions of our environment. According to psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, noted expert on play, this is when the imagination begins to stir. We look for objects that can bear the anxiety of lost connection — a teddy bear, a thumb, a favorite blanket that can ‘stand in’ for the sense of oneness we instinctively crave. 

From our first use of objects to replicate feeling our caregiver’s presence and protection, our capacity to use symbols begins to develop. Play becomes possible when the caregiver interacts with what Winnicott called transitional objects in new and interesting ways, giving objects names, much as she or he names parts of the body and helps us walk and gives us things to grasp. These actions expand our perceptions and create a sense of shared reality. As we mature, these rudimentary efforts become the ground for shared meaning with others, as well as creative and spiritual expression. Symbolic play continues throughout our lives. Winnicott wrote, “It is assumed the task of reality acceptance is never completed, that no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality, and that relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience….This intermediate area is in direct continuity with the play area of the small child who is ‘lost’ in play.”⁠1

As mentioned in a prior post, the human ability for cognitive discernment is limited during the first year and a half of life, and takes quite a few years to develop. We begin life relying on emotions and the imaginal to create associations and identify differences. This is one of the marvels of human evolution. We are born into a culture and use our imaginations, emotions, and body sensations to make sense of what’s happening (regardless if our conclusions are true or not). As we accrue more experiences, including running into the limits of shared reality, our imaginings are sometimes contradicted or ignored, contributing to privately held truths and fantasies. When we are fortunate, we find outlets for our imaginations that foster connection rather than isolation.

Because the modern West elevates cognition at the expense of the imaginal, we aren’t always good at recognizing the depths to which we depend on our imaginations, or how sensitive we are to the imaginations of others — especially when we are young and someone has power over us. CG Jung asserted that children are influenced more by their parents’ states of mind than their behaviors. “Parents too easily content themselves with the belief that a thing hidden from the child cannot influence it. They forget that infantile imitation is less concerned with action than with the parent’s state of mind from which the action emanates.”⁠2 Jungian analyst Jean Knox noted the importance of projective identification for child development — the role of parents’ emotions and fantasies in the creation of the child’s inner reality. “Parental projective identification has a profound impact on children, who are under great pressure to comply with the parents’ need for them to act as repositories for the parents’ intolerable emotions and states of mind and eventually enact the role they have been assigned.”⁠3 

Before a baby is even born, she or he is already developing in response to parents’ expectations, previous disappointments, even the parents’ own self-images and self-valuations — so much so that every child begins life as their parents’ unconscious fantasies, if not their unlived lives. The consequence, as Marie-Louise von Franz wrote, is that “the unconscious atmosphere of the family milieu is even more influential than the conscious pedagogical behavior of the parents.”⁠4 Although this sounds pernicious, it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Formal education, and the emphasis on learned cognitions and behaviors, is a relatively modern invention compared to the hundreds of thousands of years humans have been using symbolic imagery, myths, and rituals to co-create reality. Humans first evolved to connect through the imaginal. Even the first languages were likely constructed as mythic expression.⁠5

An experience similar to projective identification can emerge between an abuser and victim. The process is thought to involve introjection, which occurs when there is a powerful experience or bond with another person. Through introjection, we begin to experience parts of another person as parts of ourselves. This process is a normal aspect of becoming a social being and experiencing connection, if not also belonging. To varying degrees,  we introject emotions and states of mind of others. Frans de Waal claimed, “We can’t feel anything that happens outside ourselves, but by unconsciously merging self and other, the other’s experiences echo within us. We feel them as if they are our own. Such identification cannot be reduced to any other capacities, such as learning, association, or reasoning. Empathy offers direct access to ‘the foreign self’.”⁠6 Although I agree with de Waal’s account of unconscious merging, I do not believe empathy is the only way it comes about. Human receptiveness to each others’ unconscious states also increases the likelihood of introjecting the psychological contents of another. 

Those who sexually abuse take advantage of the possibility of introjection. Whether the abuse occurred through coercion or force, a survivor may find her inner reality contaminated by fantasies and emotions associated with the abuser. Because of the power the perpetrator has over us, and the vulnerability (if not terror) felt, we are susceptible to introjection of his emotions, mental state, and fantasies, along with specific trauma-related memories of facial expressions, gestures, and what was said. The psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenzi hypothesized that in instances of childhood abuse, including sexual abuse, the shame and guilt denied by the perpetrator is introjected into the child, causing her or him to feel the adult’s emotions as their own.⁠7 According to another study of those incested, “the identity of the victim is taken over by that of the aggressor and become petrified in a form of mimicry.”⁠8 For some survivors, introjection of aspects of the perpetrator’s personality or emotions may be experienced as an alien self. For others, introjection is experienced as a critical and persecutory voice. Hallucinations and psychosis have also been identified as consequences of sexual trauma. 

Sexual trauma, or even attempted sexual assaults, can leave women not only afraid, but also their imaginations overrun with fantasies and sexual imagery associated with the abuse. In his exploration of the effects of rape on sexual fantasies, journalist Noah Berlatsky wrote of ‘Johanna’, who was raped at knife point in her home. Her sexual fantasies continued to be dominated by the experience. Johanna shared, “You could say that my inner sexual life still revolves around the rape.”⁠9 Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk chronicled his patient Julia’s reaction to being raped at gunpoint in a hotel room when she was sixteen years old:

“Shortly thereafter she got involved with a violent pimp who prostituted her. He regularly beat her up. She was repeatedly jailed for prostitution, but she always went back to her pimp. Finally her grandparents intervened and paid for an intense rehab program. After she successfully completed inpatient treatment, she started working as receptionist and taking courses at a local college. In her sociology class she wrote a term paper about the liberating possibilities of prostitution, for which she read the memoirs of several famous prostitutes. She gradually dropped all her other courses. A brief relationship with a classmate quickly went sour—he bored her to tears, she said, and she was repelled by his boxer shorts. She then picked up an addict on the subway who first beat her up and then started to stalk her. She finally became motivated to return to treatment when she was once again severely beaten.”⁠10

Some might see Julia as involved in a repetition compulsion, which Freud described as a need to relive the trauma in efforts to overcome it. Van der Kolk also explored the possibility that neurobiological changes caused Julia to crave the experiences that frightened her, much like an addict. But he knew such an explanation was not enough to account for Julia’s actions. 

Psychotherapists often describe sexual promiscuity as an attempt to call attention to what happened, although given what is known about introjection as well as structural dissociation, it seems more likely a part of the personality identified with the perpetrator becomes dominant in relation to other parts of the self. The introjected aspects of the abuser become a split-off part of the personality associated with intense emotions, if not overwhelming sexual energy, which other aspects of the self are unable to contain and may also fear and reject. What appears as a repetition compulsion or sexual addiction may actually be the result of being overwhelmed by a dissociated part of the self identified with the abuser. 

Sexual promiscuity may also be an effort to discover who one is, or who one can become.  Efforts at identity construction as always framed as relational events, even when they occur in our imaginal reveries. Psychologist Jerome Bruner noted, “Our self-directed self-making narratives early come to express what we think others expect us to be like.”⁠11 Our identities are also constructed in Winnicott’s so-called transitional spaces, where we risk bringing inner experiences to the outer world as we engage in symbolic play and co-construction of reality and ourselves.

One of the tasks of recovery (and individuation) is recognizing when we have absorbed unconscious aspects of others and then distinguishing their emotions, beliefs, and fantasies from our own. Knox wrote, “The individuation process needs us to recognize that we all internalize the unconscious of others, which can be experienced as an alien, but at the same time an internal psyche.”⁠12 Following sexual trauma, we need transitional spaces where a new self can be imagined, one that is capable of containing the experience of sexual trauma without being overwhelmed by it. More often, however, the shared space of the imaginal can feel foreclosed after sexual trauma, in part because of the social discomfort, if not taboo, that often surrounds talking honestly about the effects of sexual abuse.

There has been a failure of the collective imaginary to witness the real lives and imaginations of sexual trauma survivors. As a result, survivors typically lack transitional spaces where they can safely ‘play’ with a version of themselves that authentically makes meaning of their inner experience of having been abused, while also reconnecting with their communities and cultures. Most communities are not particularly empathic of survivors who engage in sexual promiscuity, let alone want to discuss their abuse-related fantasies. Throughout human history, so much damage has been done through the cultural imaginary that divides women into the pure and the defiled. No doubt such attitudes are a failure of the imagination. Julia’s boredom with ‘normal’ life ought to be expected, along with compulsive sexual fantasies of the abuse, when there aren’t opportunities to co-create transitional spaces that can support symbolically transcending the overwhelm of the imaginal caused by introjection of parts of an abuser. 

The process of dealing with the split-off part of the self associated with the abuser may differ from dealing with other dissociated parts of the self. Perhaps more than other split-off parts of the personality, introjected aspects of the abuser seem tied to fantasy. According to Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched, trauma can lead to a type of fantasizing that precludes authentic creative imagining in the transitional space between inner and outer reality. He described fantasizing as “a dissociated state, which is neither imagination nor living in external reality, but a kind of melancholic self-soothing compromise which goes on forever — a defensive use of the imagination in the service of anxiety and avoidance.”⁠13 As long as fantasies and emotions of the introjected abuser dominate, more painful and frightening feelings, along with the necessity of grieving, are typically avoided. 

Sexual trauma can cause people to feel as if they somehow lost themselves. Like Julia, rather than addressing introjected fantasies and states of mind symbolically, they dangerously treat them as literal representations of the self. Others may not act on abuse-related fantasies. Nevertheless, their inner world of fantasies can interfere with genuine intimacy and drain energy from truly creative and transformative experiences. Whether acting out fantasies or defensively using the imaginal to avoid the risk of further hurt, recovery requires dropping back into reality by living from the body and regaining the capacity for symbolic play. 

The usefulness of the Window of Tolerance Guide (and the exercises provided) is its straightforward way of engaging with the body. However, working with states of arousal is  only one way to relate to the body. Dance, yoga, and creative movement such as Marion Woodman’s BodySoul method are other popular approaches to body work. I promote working with the window of tolerance because it is designed to deal with states of activation that can be retraumatizing and overwhelming. Most important is finding a way to relate to the body, listen to its wisdom, and experience embodiment on your own terms.

Regaining the capacity for play, and a healthy relationship with the imagination, ought to be central to any trauma treatment. Winnicott believed that play is the primary purpose of psychotherapy: “Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together. The corollary of this is that where playing is not possible then the work done by the therapist is directed towards bringing the patient from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to play.”⁠14 The capacity for play, both with others and through creative expression, is what Winnicott considered the epitome of health.

Through play, we regain trust in connection. Play signals we are safe in our bodies and safe to be ourselves. In these undefended moments are opportunities to resuscitate a heart-centered approach to ourselves and relationships that validates the uniqueness of the spirit. Through play we are renewed and safe to express our unique selves. 

Questions to ponder: Do you have fantasies that keep you connected to someone who hurt you in your past? If so, how would you imagine your life would be different if you were no longer influenced by fantasies you associate with, or involve, the abuser? 

Do you make space in your life for creative play, such as art, dance, music — where the goal is self-expression? Do you have opportunities to engage in play with others, such as making music, sports, games, dancing? Brainstorm ways to play, both on your own and with others. Identify experiences in which the process, rather than the outcome, drives your interest. Then schedule time to play every week. 


1 Winnicott, D. W. (1971/2005). Playing and reality. New York, NY: Routledge Classics, p. 18.

2 Quoted in Knox, Jean. (2003). Archetype, attachment, analysis: Jungian psychology and the emergent mind. New York, New York: Brunner-Routledge, pp. 94-95.

3 Ibid., p. 85.

4 Franz, Marie-Louise von. (1999). Archetypal dimensions of the psyche. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., p. 1.

5 Donald, Merlin. (1991). Origins of the modern mind: Three stages in the evolution of culture and cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

6 Frans de Waal. (2009). The age of empathy: Nature’s lessons for a kinder society. New York, NY: Harmony House, p. 65.

7 Ferenczi, Sandor. (1988). Confusion of tongues between adults and the child: The language of tenderness and passion. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 24, 196-206.

8 P. Affeld-Niemayer quoted in Knox, p. 127.

9 Berlatsky, Noah. (2013, June 17). “When rape is a fantasy.” The Atlantic, .

10 Kolk, Bessel van der. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking, pp. 31-32.

11 Bruner, Jerome. (2002). Making stories: Law, literature, life. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 66.

12 Knox, p. 126.

13 Kalsched, Donald. (1996). The inner world of trauma. New York: Routledge.

14 Winnicott, p. 51.

© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).