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Holding On and Letting Go: Art Therapy Using the Symbol of Our Hands

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC

Our hands are constantly in use, symbolically and literally. When we take a moment to appreciate the enormous capabilities that our hands display on a daily basis, we can begin to see their connection to our mental health and well being. Our hands perform skills and tasks daily that allow us to function in such a way that we can take care of ourselves and interact with the world around us. From a mental health perspective, focusing on our hands through a symbolic lens is helpful to enhancing our self-awareness, as it allows us a chance to reflect on our strengths, emotions, capabilities, values and goals in a grounded way.


The hand has been represented and incorporated into spiritual and cultural symbols and gestures across the world. The human hand is an incredibly complex and nuanced symbol, carrying with it a wealth of meaning and association. We can think of them from a functional standpoint and reflect on how we can use them to reach out and touch the world around us, as well as to protect ourselves- pulling, pushing, manipulating, holding, grasping, and so forth. Our hands also serve as non-verbal communication and can provide important information by way of movement and signing. The hand is also often seen as a symbol of our connection to others.


The hand is one of the most versatile and expressive parts of the body and can be used to represent a variety of different feelings and emotive states. It can also represent the connection between the individual and the outside world through sensory experiences and perception of those sensations. We can ask the question “What does that feel like?” in the context of experiencing a new texture or surface. In this way we are acknowledging that our sensory perception connects with internal emotional states- we can feel disgust, satisfaction, comfort and curiosity just by way of how we experience the world with our hands.


In art therapy, the hand can be used to represent a number of different themes and, in particular, it can be seen as a metaphor for our lives – we use it to grip and hang on, to let go and move forward. Letting go is often seen as a necessary part of the healing process, as it allows us to release past hurts and negative experiences. Holding on, on the other hand, can be seen as a form of protection, as it allows us to keep our loved ones close to us. We may need to let go of things that are no longer serving us, or that we no longer want in our lives. But we may also need to hold onto things that we value and that are important to us. This duality of holding on and letting go can be seen in many aspects of life, from relationships to work to our own personal growth.


In adapting this theme to art, we can incorporate our hands as both the tools and the symbolic inspiration for our process. First, it would be important to gather the materials, which would include a mixed media sheet of paper as well as any drawing materials or paint. Once your materials are gathered, consider the theme of letting go and holding on as you begin to trace each of your hands onto the page. Notice any thoughts or feelings that come up for you during this time. Consider how you would like your hands to be positioned and located on the page. Once you have an outline or tracing of your hands, you can then decide which hand will be the letting go hand and which one will be the holding on. Consider what images, lines and colors align with these themes.


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