Expressive arts therapy uses various arts – movement, painting, sculpture, voice, music, writing and dramatic improvisation – in a supportive setting to experience and express feelings. When we use the arts for healing it is most beneficial if we are not concerned about the beauty of the visual art, the grammar or style of the writing or the harmonic flow of the song. We use the art to let go, to express and to release. We also gain insight by looking at the messages and meaning contained in the images. Our art speaks back to us if we take time to listen to those messages.
What is imagery? Imagery is the thought process that uses the senses – vision, smell, taste, hearing, touch and sense of movement – to evoke emotion. Images, like dreams, contain the essence of reality and often clarify and define our emotions better than our waking thoughts. Images want to speak for themselves which can conflict with our natural tendency to define things literally or intellectually. If we are willing to surrender our own interpretations the image will tell us what it has to say. The image will often surprise us, surpass our expectations and bring us to a deeper understanding-even healing.
So how do we listen and learn from an image in expressive arts therapy? When someone comes for counselling and has difficulty finding words to express their feelings I often suggest that they could put the feeling into a painting, into clay, into movement or another form of art. Emotional pain is held in the body and clients can often locate it even though they may not be able to explain it.
When Clare (not her real name) came to the office she was able to identify the pain she felt inside was regret over terminating a pregnancy as a young woman but she could not resolve her feeling through discussion or intellectual understanding. I asked Clare if she could take time to connect to the feeling, give it shape, colour and movement and put it onto the paper as it felt, looked and moved on the inside. She began to paint a large blue shape. I asked are there any other shapes or colours in the feeling? She continued to paint yellow, black and red shapes. It is important to note that she did not start with preconceived shapes and colours but began by connecting to the feeling and letting it express itself. When she felt she had explored all the shapes and colours in the feeling she stood back to observe the image and decided it was complete.
We cannot understand the image until we enter it. In Expressive Arts Therapy we have a technique called ‘dialoguing with the image’. The next step for the client after painting the image is to be the image. I asked Clare to speak in the first person as if she was the image and visually describe what she (the image) looked like as if I couldn’t see the image for myself. While she is describing the shapes and colours I am writing down what she says. All this information will help us understand the image later.
The next step is for the client (still in the first person) to write about the emotion contained in each shape and colour. Many times the pain we feel inside is made up of several feelings all mingled together into one ache or sensation. When we step into the image we can then learn what these other feelings are all about. Clare wrote about her strength, sadness, fear and even happiness which were all contained in the overall emotion-image of regret.
As we observed and explored the image through discussion, the image began to reveal its meaning. Through the physical description including the size, shape and location of the different feelings in the image we learned that Clare’s strength, (the blue shape), was the largest and strongest part of the image. Her happiness (the second largest and yellow shape) was carried by her strength. Clare agreed that this indeed reflected what she knew about herself and how others also saw her. Her strength of spirit was a large part of her and had enabled her to overcome and achieve many things in her life. Her happiness had grown from this strength and was also a big part of her life.
The red shape smaller and away from the strength showed itself to be fear of not being able to have another child. The black line was sadness of the loss of the child who could’ve been.
Then the image gave her a gift of understanding. Clare looked at the sadness and said,
“The sadness is part of who I am, I thought my strength should be able to overcome it, make it disappear, but now I realize I don’t have to get rid of it, it is a part of me”. As she reflected more she realized that accepting the sadness along with her strength instead of using her strength to push out the sadness could potentially bring resolution to the feeling of regret she had carried so long inside of her.
When we let the image arise within ourselves without preconception we are often surprised to find the image has something new to give to us. The healing image is a gift from our own imagination and can show us better ways to understand ourselves, even releasing emotional pain.
For more information contact Jacqueline Milner-Clerk and Associates at 902-461-8133
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA