Solving Problems Creatively: Part 1 Image, Symbol and Metaphor

Published on September 18, 2013

Image, Symbol, and Metaphor

Imagine you have a problem that you cannot solve. You feel like you have a mental block. Your brain is tying itself in knots, it’s frustrating as you feel stuck. You cannot stand it any longer so you go for a walk. As your mind wanders you start to relax. Suddenly a new idea opens out in your mind. The solution came unexpectedly and effortlessly. Sometimes it’s when the mind is allowed to relax that you can think creatively. And new ideas can spring out and surprise you. This situation is a common way in which we can reach a solution creatively. It when our thought process relaxes, becoming suppler.

So In the same way as feeling stuck for an idea, a person can also feel stuck by being unable to express themselves. Imagine you don’t feel right but you don’t know why. You try and talk but you cannot express it. Later when you relax, you are able to express it or write it down. So using the creative side of the brain to explore feelings can feel like finding a fresh idea that moves a project forward.

Often feeling stuck emotionally can be related to a bad feeling triggered by a shocking experience. This can be a way of protecting oneself in the short term. Where the person is stuck in a ‘flight or fight response’ (Friedman & Silver 2007).  The person will need to process the experiences in order to ensure their long-term health. In fact, neuroscience has shown how bad experiences can have an effect on brain development and attachment to parents and caregivers, (Perry 1997).  

Arts Therapies

So using creativity to express emotions can help process trauma and promote brain development. Often traumatic experiences are inaccessible to be explored in language but can be through creative art (Van de Volk 1987). Obrien (2004) has shown how art therapy can help children develop new neural pathways.  Arts therapies allow the child or adult space to explore difficult feelings and emotions in a safer and freer way.

The benefits of Art Therapy in an Asian context

Art Therapy can be useful as it helps a person explore how they feel using an approach that is non-intrusive and non-judgmental. Often in the Confucian Asian context expressing emotions openly can be seen as a sign of weakness and a lack of maturity (Averill et al 2001; Ng, Aik-Kwang 2000).  Creative arts and meditation have been traditional ways of looking inward.  So a different perspective such as art therapy can feel safer without having the risk of feeling judged when talking in verbal therapy.

Roots of art therapy:

The roots of creative therapy can be traced to Sigmund Freud’s work on dreams. (Freud 1895). He encouraged his patients to be spontaneous and to let their thoughts flow.  Maclagan (2001) points to Carl Jung’s influence as he encouraged his clients to bring in their own artwork. As the artwork can give shape to the unconscious. (Jung, 1960).

According to Sigmund Freud, a person uses ‘projection’ as a way of dealing with painful emotions by locating them in another person or object.  The therapist can serve as this object. (Klein 1955). Or the ‘container’ for feelings that are hard to tolerate (Bion 1962).  In Art Therapy there is the added bonus of the artwork functioning as the container as well as a therapist.

Art Therapy: symbols and metaphors

When creating art the person can often explore concepts and feelings in a more complex way than using language. They can express symbols and metaphors easier than language. In Art Therapy the artwork or image can serve as a symbol for the emotion. The image depicted can also function as a metaphor for the situation that the person finds themselves in.

Fig 1

In this image, the person has expressed in Art Therapy sessions a face which encased in a mask like a set of patterns. (Fig 1) They created faces that look stylised and can be compared to masks. They look menacing and warn the viewer with their gaze. To not get to close Thus the mask is a symbol for how the person deals with painful memories. The metaphor of ‘putting the mask on’ illustrates the persons wish to hide all the unwelcome memories.

These next two images illustrate the metaphor of letting the mask slip to show sadness (Fig 2) or a feeling of fright.(Fig 3,)

Fig 2

Fig 3



It was only through the art-making process that the person could explore this side of themselves. In the second part of this article, I will present more examples of how art making can explore how you feel.


We have seen how the creative process can express complex and difficult feelings. Images can act as symbols by expressing metaphors. These metaphors can be used to explore feelings that are maybe hard to express in plain language. So in Art Therapy the person can create and explore feelings in a safe way. Gradually they can express and project difficult feelings and become unstuck. In the same way that giving a person space to think creatively can solve an idea. It is another way that imagination and creativity can solve problems.

In the next part, I will show how I use art therapy in Singapore with children and adolescents. Art can express problems creatively.  Feelings can be explored using symbols and metaphor.




Averil, James; Chon, Kyum Khoo; Woong Hahn, Doug (2001) Emotions and Creativity: East and West. Asian Journal of Social Psychology 4:165-183. Blackwell Publishers LTD.

Bion (1962) Learning from Experience. Heimann.

Freud, Sigmund (1899) The Interpretation of Dreams. London, Hogarth Press 1975 Edition.

Friedman, H. S., & Silver, R. C. (Eds.) (2007). Foundations of Health Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jung, C.G (1960) ‘The Transcendent Function’. Cited in Maclagan, D. (2001) Psychological Aesthetics: Painting, Feeling and Making sense. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Klein, M. (1955) “On Identification’. In Envy and Gratitude: The Writings of Melanie Klein, Vol. 111. Hogarth Press.

Ng, Aik-Kwang (2000) Why Asians are Less Creative than Westerners. Prentice Hall.

Obrien, Frances (2004) The Making of Mess in Art Therapy: Attachment, trauma and the brain. Inscape Journal of the British Association of Art Therapists. : 9:1, 2-13.

Perry, BD and Pollard, D. Altered brain development following global neglect in early childhood. Society for Neuroscience: Proceedings from Annual Meeting, New Orleans, 1997

Van der Volk, B. (1987) Psychological Trauma. American Psychiatric Press.


Category(s):Career Development and Change, Creative Blocks, Emotional Intelligence, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) / Trauma / Complex PTSD

Written by:

Andrew C Wright HCPC registered (UK)

Registered art psychotherapist trained at Goldsmiths College, University of London in 2002. Has over 20 years of experience of working in the health care field.

Andrew is currently based in the UK and works with children, adults/ couples who have difficulties such as attachment, trauma, stress, anxiety and depression.

Andrew C Wright HCPC registered (UK) belongs to Art Therapy International Centre in Singapore