Art is Therapy and Therapy is Art

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW
Image by Stefan Schweihofer from Pixabay
I am a scientist by necessity, and not by vocation. I am really by nature an artist… And of this there lies an irrefutable proof, which is that in all countries into which psychoanalysis has penetrated, it has been better understood and applied by writers and artists than by doctors. ~ Sigmund Freud

Elisa is on stage. She has no prior acting experience. In fact, she spends her days as an office manager for a large brokerage firm. With the aid of her therapist, and a group of fellow clients, she is telling her story of surviving a life of trauma and torment as a child.

Bob is a fine artist with an MFA from Yale. His latest show depicts collages of fragmented images he’s photographed and drawn. Brought together these surreal montages offer a dreamscape of Bob’s visual impressions and deepest reveries when asleep. So inspired was he, by the dream analysis in his therapeutic work, that he felt compelled to concretize the workings of his interior world through his chosen artistic mediums.

Every Sat. afternoon Wendy sublimates her healing process through movement and dance. The patterns and rhythms Wendy creates through dance, reflect her intra-psychic landscape, and affords her a sense of direction and possibility.

Through creativity and artistic expression Elisa, Bob and Wendy are receiving profound therapeutic benefits.

So what exactly is this place, that Freud alludes to, where the empirical science of psychology and art, converge?

Mypersonal journey of recovery and as a facilitator of therapy has shown me that psychology and art come together through, what Carl Jung, founder of analytical psychology, referred to as active imagination.

Active Imagination involves giving expression and animation to fantasies and dreams that lurk within the unconscious mind. Jung wrote that active imagination is to be understood as a method to heal, raise and transform the personality.

Jung’s description of active imagination is analogous to art making, which Wikipedia describes as,

the product or process of deliberately arranging symbolic elements in a way that influences and affects the senses, emotions, and/or intellect.

Psychotherapy coincides with this definition of art as it also involves a deliberate arranging and re-arranging of symbolic elements lurking in the subconscious, which impact ones total being.

It offers the possibility of altering, perhaps even transforming suffering, giving it a context in which meaning is discovered.

Inherent in the therapy process is a creative impact. Effective therapy activates the metaphorical language and world of the subconscious, where our creative resources reside.

Therapist and patient engage in a reparative in-depth exploration of unconscious material so as to bring to consciousness the illuminating wisdom of imagery, metaphor, and symbolism.
Mehdinom [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Whatever the medium- be it drama, painting, dance, or writing, art transcends class, gender, and race barriers and has the potential to teach, inspire and catalyze insight and action.

As a child beset by chronic abuse I longed to find my place amongst others. Although I was socially handicapped and could barely string together a sentence, a curious urge to try acting persuaded me to participate in a community theatre for kids. This experience, albeit challenging, opened me up to discovering facets of myself. By seeking expression through sundry characters and bringing them to life through performance I had a platform for being visible in a world in which I felt I mattered to no one.

When I became a therapist my call towards creativity took the form of writing and therapeutic theatre. I learned that the ancient theatre of Epidaurus, regarded as one the best preserved ancient theaters in the world, was used as a therapeutic and religious centre dedicated to Asklepios, the god of healing.

Apparently in ancient Greece theater was used as both a form of entertainment and a ritualistic journey offering catharsis and transformation.

The ancient Greeks understood that the bridging of the healing process with creative expression allowed for an accessing of deep archetypal truths that could result in a more authentic, accepting, and fluid sense of self.

Creator of psychodrama Jacob Moreno believed that spontaneity and creativity are the propelling forces in human progress. Indeed, morphing suffering into art has offered me and countless others a reparative journey. It frees up potentials and through spontaneous action and in so doing, ignites one’s life force.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY

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