Some pains are simply unspeakable, emotional experiences cannot always be reduced to words. Thinking and talking can interfere with the attempt to get in touch with feelings. Words may be chosen to convey a feeling which actually distorts the meaning of the experience, or offers it emphases which are overgeneralised or lacking sufficient impact. Words like ‘sadness’ or ‘fear’ are common categorising labels and often fail to capture the essence of the emotional experience. It can, for example, be difficult to find the words to communicate emotional pain or love. Words sometimes lose their power to represent by their sheer repetitiousness in everyday life. Simply choosing to talk about feelings can leave some people feeling misunderstood, locked in an isolating world of their own particular emotional experience.
Images can help people to ‘see’ what they cannot verbalise. Images are free from the constraints of logical thought and language. Carl Jung in his Collected Works 1928 refers to how paying attention to non-verbal images helped to clear his mind of confusion.
“To the extent that I managed to translate the emotions into images – that is to say, to find images which were concealed in the emotions – I was inwardly calmed and reassured. Had I left those images hidden in the emotions, I might have been torn to pieces by them. There is a chance that I may have succeeded in splitting them off, but in that case I would inexorably have fallen into a neurosis and so been ultimately destroyed by them anyhow”.
Many people find the freedom of using visual images easy, and an immense relief, whereas, if asked a question about a feeling, or their emotional life more generally, many might say “I don’t know”, or feel defensive, or close down. Translating feelings into images can be far less threatening. With those people who are heavily inclined towards logic, images can help them to stay in contact with their emotions, to ‘feel’ rather than to think. Quite simply, art offers the potential to speak where words fail.
Working with images can offer a sense of safety in therapy, as Freud said, the metaphor is ‘indirect expression’. This ‘indirectness’ offers safety. The picture is apart from the self, seen objectively, from a standing back position, as opposed to a situation in which emotions are experienced as overwhelming or suffocating. There is literally something between the therapist and client, the drawing, a focus outside of themselves. This again provides the necessary safety for some people to feel able to talk about their feelings.
The use of art and images in therapy can help those wishing to explore, communicate and learn more about themselves and their emotional life. Equally useful both for those just beginning to explore their emotional world and those who have undergone years of therapy. A well trained therapist can assist you to work at your own particular intellectual and emotional level.