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Understanding the Expressive Therapies Continuum Part 7: Symbolic Level Processing

by Lauren Fallat, LPC LPAT ATR-BC

In our final installment of our blog series on the Expressive Therapies Continuum, developed by Sandra Kagan and Vija Lusebrink, we will explore the Symbolic component of the ETC. As previously discussed in our blogs within this series on the Expressive Therapies Continuum, there are 3 hierarchical levels to the continuum containing two polar components, with each one providing a way to understand how information is processed and one is functioning creatively with the structure and art materials. To review, the Symbolic component of the ETC can be found at the top tier or level of the ETC opposite to the Cognitive component and at this level one is forming mental images from an intellectual process.

Within the Symbolic component there exists “intuitive problem solving, self-discovery and self-acceptance” along with intuitive processes, as outlined by Lisa Hinz. When we consider the concept of a symbol, often this can be a representative image or object imbued with abstract meaning. As highlighted by Hinz’s literature, symbols often present subjective material in a safe way due to their surface level ambiguity. In addition, visual symbols often are personalized and incorporate thoughts and interpretive meaning that may or may not feel safe to directly disclose in a verbal way.

It is thought that the development of personal symbols and their meaning can operate from a conscious and unconscious awareness and understanding. Hinz stated that if one is interested in operating from the Symbolic component and engaging in symbolic image formation, it may be helpful to create images based on mythology, fairy tales and folklore as well as one’s dreams. In this way, we are considering relevant themes and making connections to previously encountered associations through our memory.

Hinz discussed the healing capacity of symbols as existing in its unique quality of having multiple layers of understanding and meaning. As written by Hinz, “Part of the multilayered nature of symbols is that they contain not just an outward appearance, but also an underlying emotional charge.” A symbol is not meant to be taken at face value, but rather through introspection and self-reflection, one may be able to process different layers as these thoughts develop on a personal level. It has been highlighted that healing occurs when one is willing and open to “...project personal beliefs onto inanimate or abstract entities, and then to describe these characteristics,” as stated by Hinz.

In an art therapy session, one may choose to engage with the symbolic process of image formation by creating a collage of various images of nature, animals, creatures or objects from nature and then reflecting on the cumulative associations that evolve from these collaged elements. Hinz also discussed the creation of a self-image using plasticine clay as a way to integrate parts of the self in a coherent symbolic image. Mask-making is another example of ways one can process information about the self and others through archetypal representations. For each of these activities, one is asked to consider both positive and negative aspects of the self, which can often highlight parts of ourselves that we accept and identify as strengths and parts that we might repress or reject as areas of shame.

The unique power of symbols crosses each level of the ETC and can provide a powerful source of deep understanding of the self and one’s connection to universal aspects outside of the self.

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Reference List:

Hinz, L. D. (2020). Expressive Therapies Continuum: A framework for using art in therapy (2nd ed.). Routledge.


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