Vocabulary and Definitions


Artwork Reference: Artist Books Now: Here and Now, British Library Exhibition, 2018

Definition of Terms from Art Therapy by David Edwards. 

Unconscious Repressed and beyond the field of awareness. Instincts, impulses, desires, Freudian slips (an unintentional error that has psychological meaning and intentions), bodily sensations, symptoms, dreams. The unconscious is also called the id.

Consciousness What we are aware of in both mind and body, perception, intentional reasoning and behaviour. Consciousness is associated with the ego.

Transference Transferring unconscious and past psychological experiences into current relationships. It could be considered a projection which carries within it an unresolved issue.  Within the therapeutic relationship the client transfers difficulties and challenges from the past into the safety net of psychotherapy in order to understand how the past influences the present (and future decisions). Within art therapy transference is also part of the art making process. Clients can use their art to express conflicts and difficult life situations and feelings of anger, anxiety, depression and loss. Art can mediate life challenges with opportunities for growth and restoration. The art therapist examines the transferences of the client within the therapeutic relationship in an way that is considerate and analytical, in other words the transference is understood as a vital way to explore repressed psychological material. Analysis refers to investigation and exploration rather than interpretation.

Countertransference The art therapist can also transfer unresolved issues, difficulties and life challenges to their client, or interpret their client’s art in a particular way that has more meaning for the therapist than the client. An art therapist’s own personal therapy is vital for an awareness of countertransference and how it can limit a client’s routes of self expression. Reflective practice, is a constant process of evaluating the art therapist’s effectiveness. An art therapist can limit a client’s unique  understanding of their experiences and feelings through an imposition of their own story. However, countertransference can also be an educational tool to promote insight into a client’s therapeutic content. The client’s transference can be interpreted as a countertransference—a valuable experiencing of the client’s story that is not spoken, but felt.

Free Association A Freudian technique, where a client is asked to freely share their thoughts and their possible meanings. For example, a symbol in a dream can be explored through examining the feelings, words, and sensations associated with it. The purpose of free association is to examine the content of the unconscious. Within art therapy, colours, content, images, shapes, textures, etc. can all evoke feelings, memories, stories and physical responses which may assist the client becoming better acquainted with their unconscious or repressed psychological content. Freud developed the concept of Free Association.

Neurosis  Symptoms of stress, fear, depression, anxiousness, anxiety, obsessive behaviour, etc. which disrupt equilibrium, which can be illustrated and discussed through art making. The causes of neurosis may be situated in the client’s past, or be unresolved situations, where the client feels overwhelmed and unable to cope. Art therapy can make concrete, through art media, the images of neurosis and how they can be explored through the contemplation of the art process and the artworks produced. The process of making art can bring mental and physical relief and an opportunity for reflection. Images, symbols, and the art materials themselves facilitate understanding through representing the causes and conditions within which neurosis operates. This term originated with Freudian psychology.

Condensation Condensing complex experiences into a symbol, image, or object that reflects the many aspects of a particular story or memory. This is a term used in Freudian psychology.

Pleasure Principle Within Freudian psychology the quest for pleasure (instant gratification) is to avoid pain. The quest for pleasure may be a distraction from uncomfortable feelings, conditions, and states of mind which can be both conscious and unconscious. There can be many ways to find pleasure within behaviours or habits that take away from psychological discomfort. Art therapy can explore these sometimes addictive behaviours and reactions and develop new forms of coping through creativity and artistry that help to address painful situations.

Displacement Freud used the term displacement to describe projecting feelings from one situation into another. For example being angry at our friend rather than our boss or alternatively being angry at our boss rather than our friend. Rather than resolving a problem or conflict directly with the person associated with the issue, there is a transference of emotion elsewhere. The emotion is misdirected, and the problem is left unresolved.

Primary Process The unconscious and how it discharges energy, feelings, sensations through both mind and body. The primary process can relate to urges, drives, impulses, and the desire for something, someone, or to be somewhere else. Wish fulfilment is associated with the primary process. This is a term used in Freudian psychology.

Secondary Process This is reason, thinking, consideration, deliberation and the processing (or understanding) of unconscious drives, urges, and impulses. The secondary process is an analysis of repressed content, which emerges spontaneously within our relationships and life situations. Freud utilised free association to facilitate reasoning when exploring the primary process and the appearance of emotions, reactions and behaviours which carried responses which were often highly charged.

Repression The restraint of emotion and unconscious psychological material, which can be communicated through art therapy to assist in the resolving of an issue, problem or conflict.

Reality Symbol According to Freud the reality symbol is associated with conscience, a moral sense of doing what is right. Rather than follow urges for instant gratification, the reality symbol guides appropriate and civilised behaviour. Consciousness or the ego is ruled by the reality symbol which seeks appropriate and realistic avenues for seeking satisfaction.

Sublimation In Freudian psychology socially unacceptable impulses are converted into appropriate forms of behaviour.

Archetype In Jungian psychology an archetype is a reflection of the collective unconscious, which relates to experiences common to humanity and reflected in cultural rites of passage. An archetype is a pattern or image that has meaning across many cultures and often reflects stages of development and life transitions. Fairy tales,  myths, legends, folklore, theatre, cultural rituals, often represent archetypes related to the family, loss, overcoming danger, wholeness, experiences of goodness, experiences which are painful, etc.

Collective Unconscious Jung referred to the collective unconscious as the depository for archetypes, that are common aspects of the human condition. The collective unconscious is expressed within the arts, which express the challenges, joys, sorrows and complexity of the human experience. The collective unconscious is different from the personal unconscious which is unique to each person. The collective unconscious is an archive of human development for example the early parent-child relationship, parent child attachment and separation, ageing, sickness, despair, celebration, etc.

Individuation The distinct unfolding and expression of each person’s personality combining their unique representation, purpose and contribution to the world. Individuation is a key goal in Jungian psychology. It is a reflection of what gives each person meaning and fulfilment in their life. Individuation can be reflected within art therapy through each person’s artworks which offer concrete representations of individuality and distinctiveness.

Transcendent Function Within Jungian psychology this is a symbolic emergence that derives from the conflict between consciousness and unconsciousness. In art therapy an image or object emerges to mediate tensions between what we are aware of and what is hidden. This mediation can be a transcendence of opposites into a new symbol, image or representation which replaces conflict with new meaning and purpose. This is a unifying function that revitalises, which takes the client to new places within themselves and the outside world. It is an energising state that goes beyond limitation.

Active Imagination This is an important method within Jungian psychology. It amplifies associations to dream symbols and unconscious content, but does not intend to interpret narrowly. The imagination is allowed to expand, to wonder, in a process that is all encompassing. Active imagination is similar to day dreaming, or being engrossed in one’s own thoughts and imaginings as a stream of consciousness. The all of these imaginings are accepted as an integration of unconscious material into awareness.