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  • Grant Turner

Helping the client build a new language

Part of the therapy process is about building a new way to describe what's going on. Step by step the therapist and client help a silenced part of the client articulate itself.

Over the last few years, I’ve become fascinated by the work of Swedish artist, Hilma af Klint. One of the things I particularly like is the systematic way she developed a visual language to express her inner world. The parallel with therapy is where the client and therapist are trying to give a voice to something which has felt foggy or abstract. Yet in the therapy space, it’s a partnership where one person brings some questions, theory or a rough map while the other has knowledge of themselves.

Af Klint used a colour system to represent certain emotions and ideas. And was often trying to describe something transcendent or spiritual. Sometimes clients find it hard to tie down what their exact emotions are. And this is where metaphors, symbols and images can be particularly useful. There’s often a part of the client that has something important to say. It’s a particular inner voice that has been silenced and therefore has a minimal language. Often it has to be learnt from scratch by the therapist and the client. Yet, it can begin to unlock an aspect of the personality that is significant.

I am an atom in the universe that has access to the infinite possibilities of development. These possibilities I want, gradually, to reveal. ------ Hilma af Klint

This language is personal and intimate, often only shared between the therapist and client. It’s one of the things that can make therapy feel special as it’s the only place where a particular facet of the client is given dedicated space. For Af Klint, she went as far as to say that certain works of hers could not be shown until twenty years after her death. It suggests that the paintings were mainly there to reflect something of her inner world back to herself. Once it was given a definite place in the world it could continue to be accessible. When the client shares something out loud with the therapist it occupies a new place in the world. Now it’s held between them and they can both begin to make sense of it.

With the use of symbols, colours and even numbers to represent her world Af Klint was making art that was not only personal but also universal. A part of what she was trying to show was the interconnectedness of everything in the universe. Working with a client to see how their themes, patterns and images underpin aspects of their present situation is an important part of the therapy process. But taking in the wider picture of their family or society is also valuable. The reach of family history often links the current situation to the distant past in powerful ways. And what seems like autonomous choices now are often a ripple of something from a different era.

The development of a client/therapist language isn’t only about the past. Af Klint used various symbols such as a spiral or flowers to represent evolution and metamorphosis. As clients change they start to glimpse a different future and a new type of symbol arises that supports this. Ultimately, it’s something from a deep part of the client that bubbles up and calls them forward in a way that feels affirming and positive. At this point, they understand enough of their own deeper language to know what it means and where they need to go.


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