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Exploring Relationships in Art Therapy Using Symbolism

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC

Understanding our relationship patterns and interpersonal dynamics with others can be a powerful tool in recognizing challenges we may be facing as well as in learning how to build connections and maintain healthy attachments. Relationships can be complex and multi-layered, and may often stimulate emotional responses and internal reactions. When we explore our relationships in therapy, often we may discuss interactions from the past or present that have impacted us in some way. We might choose to explore aspects of our relationships that we have deemed to be healthy and fulfilling as well as aspects that are cause for concern and internal dilemmas. We might also explore our own beliefs about what we believe to be foundations for healthy relationships and how these beliefs shape our feelings of anger, disappointment, betrayal, hurt, sadness, despair, joy, contentment, satisfaction, hope and love in our relationships.

In art therapy, there are various directives and mediums that can be utilized to explore the topic of relationships. One directive that we will focus on in this blog post is centered on utilizing symbols as powerful avenues towards visually representing internal realities of one’s own attachments. For this directive, one is encouraged to take a moment to consider the figures in their lives (past or present, human or animal) that they believe have had an impact on them. During the initial stages of the art process, it is important to reflect on positive relationships- ones that fostered mutual values, such as trust, respect, inspiration, care, love, acceptance and loyalty. It is also important to consider individuals who may have had a negative impact on our lives- people that we consider to be adversaries, antagonists in our life story. It is important to highlight that these significant figures do not need to necessarily be human. It is fair, for example, to include a family pet as an influential friend and companion for this directive.

Once a list of influential and significant figures are created, it is now time to visualize each individual one at a time. Take a moment to say the name of the figure in your mind and then visualize an object or symbol that reminds you of that person or might represent an aspect of their being, their personality or the way that you feel when you are with them. For example, someone in your life that you consider to be loving and passionate, but also guarded and difficult to get to know initially might be represented as a rose with thorns.

A symbol can be created for each person separately and it is your choice as to where you would like to draw these symbols on the page. There is no wrong way to complete this directive and most importantly, you should follow your instincts. Perhaps you visualized your mother as a fish and your father as an anchor- consider what best represents yourself and how you would like to organize these symbols on your page. When drawing each symbol, place yourself on the page first and then add symbols for the significant figures in your life based on how closely connected you believe to be with that person. For instance, someone that I would consider a best friend might be placed closer to me than a cousin that I may only see once a year.

Once you have placed the symbols representing yourself and the important figures in your life, take a moment to really look at and reflect on the whole image in front of you. What symbols appeared? Did these symbols related in any way as far as theme? How would you describe the symbols and why you chose them? What do you notice about the distances between your self-symbol and the other figures’ symbols?


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