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Cool Art Therapy Intervention #3: It’s All About the Metaphor

Art therapy secret #3 revealed: Think metaphor

The use of metaphor in psychiatry and psychology has a long tradition going back to psychoanalytic theory. Freud frequently used metaphor to formulate and explain his ideas; historically, the field of art therapy adopted the psychoanalytic framework as its way of approaching visual metaphors in client-created art expressions. In recent years, more contemporary approaches such as dialectical behavioral therapy [DBT] employ metaphor in the form of analogy, anectdotes, myths, and stories. DBT includes using metaphor to open up "dialectical thinking" with the intent of helping clients create new meanings and of introducing new behaviors or possibilities. In essence, the use of metaphor in art therapy shares the same goals for outcomes, using visual metaphor as the vehicle.

Some might argue that visual metaphors are really symbols [images that represent something else by association, resemblance, or convention] and to some extent that is true. In art therapy, symbolic meanings found in self-created artwork can be important; over the years, most of my clients who have experienced trauma often include and repeat symbols pertaining to abuse, crisis, and recovery in their art expressions. Symbols tend to call for interpretation, however, and in my experience, interpretation rarely brings about significant change, recovery or relief. On the other hand, metaphors

I use these directives and others with children and adults on occasion, if and when it seems appropriate. Why? Because under the right circumstances, the inherent metaphors in these directives make for great clinical interviews and conversation between client and therapist, especially if the individual is having trouble getting started. A well-chosen metaphor can stimulate imagination, storytelling, and projection via the image created.

Although "drawing a person in the rain" might be helpful in the short term, ultimately it's self-created visual metaphors that lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves. Archetypal psychologist James Hillman suggests that in order to find that deeper understanding, we should first admit our "lostness" in the presence of the image, whether it be an artwork or the content of dreams. In reality, my art therapy clients come to treatment not only admitting they are lost in their journey to understand themselves and overcome life's challenges, but also searching for meaning, particularly through art and imagination. So just how do you find meaning and metaphor in your drawings, paintings, or collages? That's the subject of Cool Art therapy Intervention #2 in the Top Ten countdown.

© 2010 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT

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