Working with the Unconscious Mind

The metaphor of an iceberg to describe the two major aspects of human personality is often associated with Sigmund Freud. The tip of the iceberg above the water represents the conscious mind while the bulk of mental content, in the unconscious, lies below the surface. What makes mental health issues so challenging is that often the content that prohibits optimal function is literally ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and liable to intrude upon consciousness without warning or awareness of the culpable thoughts or beliefs. Ever wondered why you constantly attract the same types of toxic people or run late for everything?

Complicating matters further, the unconscious plays by different rules to those we assume to be true in conscious life. For instance, in the unconscious, there is no time, which is why trauma is so difficult to deal with. In the presence of a trigger, the brain responds as though it is happening now—not 10 or 30 years ago. Since the unconscious mind is believed to be the ‘driver’ of what we really think, feel and do, this susceptibility means that gains made using talk-based methodologies alone are often limited and temporary.

Working with the Unconscious Mind

When working with clients:

  • Try to keep the first session lighthearted. It is often the first stage of getting to know the client. You don’t need to explore every aspect of the drawing.
  • Go with the client. Resist preconceived ideas of what the image may mean or symbolise – for example that the house is probably about relationships. Ask about the visual elements of the picture and let the client do all the work.
  • Witness. Listen and let the client make the unconscious become conscious as you take notes.
  • Allow periods of silence and reflection, so the client can build on thoughts and refine or explore answers more fully.
  • Focus on the things the client brings up. Go with the prominent story – what the client focuses on.
  • Resist leading the client with value-laden words or your own words/content. Each person has different context and subconscious connections to words and images. For example, some people might describe a horse as tough and others as strong. Both words have a different meanings and associations in their unconscious; therefore, the words must come from the client and not be suggestions from the art therapist. The unconscious is like the bottom of an iceberg. Each person is very different underneath the surface even though they seem to be so similar in your first impression, e.g. two depressed clients are not alike at all if you take some time to explore the individual differences, especially unconscious material.
  • Wherever possible, use the client’s exact words when exploring the picture. Ask: ‘How does it relate to your life?’
  • All pictures have interpersonal (experiences with other people) aspects and intrapersonal (experiences within yourself, e.g. Freud’s ‘id, superego and ego’) aspects. Clients work it out in their own way, in their own time. The clients need to describe their picture in their own words without any suggestions from the therapist. Write down the words they use exactly.
  • Generalisations assist for diagnosis purposes, but in counselling/art therapy, the sample size is always one; every client is a new sample and has all of his/her own questions and answers.
  • Allow the client to develop his or her own mythology.

It’s not about what they THINK about the picture; that comes from the CONSCIOUS. It’s about what they SEE and what they are FEELING about it.

  • Go with the things that are in the picture and not not in the picture. Things are there for a reason.
  • There is mostly a reason why certain things are emphasised or drawn – even if the client says it’s a quirk of the media or other ‘accident’.
  • Allow the person to fully explore and reflect on their image BEFORE any attempt to draw deeper implications and connections or possible future actions.


If a client becomes psychotic or suicidal or exhibits other odd behaviour and you don’t know why or feel out of your depth, get help immediately unless you are very experienced with this sort of presentation.

Take a look at our art therapy course overview and check out all we offer at the College of Educational and Clinical Art Therapy.

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Robert Gray on Art Therapy and Unconscious Mind
Robert Gray
Director and Senior Lecturer at CECAT
Registered Art Therapist and Psychologist
MA A. Th., AThR; B. Soc. Sc. (Psych.) (Hons.), MAPS.; BA. Theol. (Hons), MA Theol.

A highly regarded art therapy lecturer from Germany, Robert Gray has become a much sought-after art therapy lecturer and practising art therapist in Australia. His unique approach spanning psychodynamic, humanistic, spiritual and cognitive behavioural frameworks has distinguished him as a thought leader who is frequently invited to present at conferences in Australia and abroad.

Trained overseas and multilingual, German-born Robert shares the benefits of his international affiliations and access to cutting-edge research published in various languages with his students and readers. Robert is a professional member of the Australian and New Zealand Arts Therapy Association (ANZATA) and the Australian Psychological Society (APS).