Expressive Arts Therapy: Making Art Out of Trouble


For three years I went to graduate school for counseling psychology, focusing on Expressive Arts Therapy. Outside the field of psychology, expressive arts therapy is the natural impulse to transform our suffering by turning it into art. I have witnessed this impulse in the work of famous artists, outsider artists, and children. For people who don’t discover this process on their own, there are expressive arts therapists, who are trained to help people to develop a new relationship to their troubles, and to make use of their inner resource of creativity for healing, transformation and growth.

In Freudian terms, this is the use of the mature psychological defense called sublimation. We sublimate or channel the sexual and aggressive drives of the id into something constructive. It is a positive use of psychic energy.

Jung thought Freud got it wrong, he saw sublimation as a mystical alchemical process of transformation: “Sublimation is part of the royal art where the true gold is made... This is just about the opposite of what Freud understands by sublimation. It is not a voluntary and forcible channeling of instinct into a spurious field of application, but an alchemical transformation for which fire and prima materia are needed. Sublimatio is a great mystery.”

Sanford Meisner, the great acting teacher, whose methods I studied for several years, put it this way: “All of us have two barrels inside us. The first barrel is the one that contains all of the juices which are exuded by our troubles. That’s the neurotic barrel. But right next to it stands the second barrel, and by a process of seepage like osmosis, some of the troubles in the first barrel get into the second, and by a miracle that nobody fully understands, those juices have been transformed into the ability to paint, to compose, to write, to play music and the ability to act. So essentially our talent is made up out of our transformed troubles…. I’d always thought that two of the luckiest, happiest people I could imagine were Shakespeare and Beethoven, but the doctor to whom I told this parable said, ‘No, no. Shakespeare had plenty of trouble—that is, neurosis—and so did Beethoven,’ and he pointed out some of their more obvious troubles. This proved to me that the osmosis between the barrels doesn’t work completely. There is always some juice in the trouble barrel, no matter how full the talent barrel is. The trouble cannot transpose itself into talent without leaving some residue behind, even in the most talented of human beings.”

This is how I would put it: the deepest wounds in us, the ones that show up for us in every day in a myriad of ways, leave a longing to be healed, and they can only be healed by us. We can have guidance and help, of course, from a counselor, friends, family, but only we can truly heal ourselves. This is why I teach the expressive arts. I teach people how to heal themselves, instead of thinking that I can heal them. And we heal ourselves through our creativity, through our interactions with our world, through being present, curious and compassionate. The arts lend themselves so beautifully to cultivating these very qualities, the conditions for healing. We have been created brilliantly, with the tools for healing built into us. When we use these inner resourses while engaging with the most elemental forms of human expression: dance, song, storytelling & drawing, we enter a new relationship with ourselves, where we allow ourselves to feel more, and see that we have choice in how we respond to our pain.

Why all of these arts and not just one?

Because each art form represents a certain part of us. Music calls in our sense of hearing. Dance tunes us into our body. Visual art awakens imagination and sight. Storytelling or writing creates meaning, illuminating our human purpose. Drama shows us new ways of being in the world, gives us access to our different selves.  We can also build on these basic art forms with digital arts, film and theater. There are also many other art forms that could be added to this list: gardening, martial arts, cooking, etc. The ones I work with are considered “the expressive arts,” which means they are designed for human expression. We can express ourselves in any art form, but the expressive arts are the most elemental, the most hard-wired into the human system. With the expressive arts, we need only a few external tools: a pencil and a piece of paper, or maybe a musical instrument, but most of all we are working with ourselves: our body, our soul, our mind and our heart. Through contacting our own humanity we magically remake our wounds into art.

To end this post, I want to share a list of my favorite films that illustrate the power of art to heal while at the same time transform suffering into something beautiful and true. If you have one to add to the list please add it in the comments section.

Inspiring Films about the Transformation of Suffering into Art



(about youth discovering dance (crumping and clowning)

to rise above social and economic oppression)

Born into Brothels

(about the children of Indian prostitutes

using photography to create beauty out of their lives.)


(about the power of painting to transform

a woman’s emotional and physical suffering)

American Splendor

(about the power of comic book making to

transform a man’s emotional and physical suffering)


(about the power of spoken word poetry to rise above

social and economic hardship)


Her Master's Voice

(about a female ventriloquist's journey towards her self)