Using pictures

And then there are pictures, a less obvious approach for someone brought up in a household of words, or sermons and theology and of music. I didn’t think about pictures in relation to therapeutic or helping work for some years, until I moved from probation practice to the voluntary sector. Pictures were also, and in some ways remain, something of a struggle. Art at school was one of those things that I was not good at and prompted little more reflection. In adulthood, I look at pictures with a sense of struggling to find out what I should be seeing.

It was obvious however that to be someone steeped in words was to be a minority – and so it did occur to me eventually that pictures would be a more accessible communication for many people than were words. I started by using finger paints in training. For me as for many people, pictures were a problem because of a sense of failure at art at school. It must take a special kind of art teacher to remain enthusiastic about teaching the less gifted child, and it was a very common experience for people to shy away from drawing or painting because of this sense of being useless at art. Finger paints were a way around this because it removed much of the anxiety about technical skill or lack of it. Largely I think in a training environment, it gave people the chance to express some emotional truth without having to find words, and in a way that put a bit of distance between the person and their feelings. It may seem odd that this kind of psychological trick works, but for many people it seemed to.

Feelings and emotions often don’t suit the logical nature of sentence construction and syntax – a more apparently incoherent jumble of shape and colour can conjure up a more realistic picture of the confusion that is part of being in distress. It also gives a kind of recognition to the saying that feelings can be “too deep for words”. A different technique Alida and I used on the bereavement course mentioned earlier – and this was a bridge between the visual and the verbal – was the use of cartoons.  Again this freed people up from the need to display technical skills; matchstick men were often used. It did help people describe their feelings through a combination of picture and story.

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