The therapeutic image


The therapeutic image as a ‘transitional object’ in art therapy

All people, especially in the current situation of the world, every day come in contact with external objects. Usually, we are using an object in order to fulfil a personal desire or implement a current task. Other times we show them respect and attention and sometimes we are get angry and frustrated with them, for example when a electronic device is not working despite the efforts we make. We carry them as a talisman throughout our life experience until it losses its power, where we are begin to getting attached with another valuable object. When someone migrate, voluntarily or not, will take a small object that reminds her/him the state she/he was before leave her/his country (e.g. family photo, a precious box, a necklace or a favourite clothe). This precious object contains and holds in it memories, flavours, sounds, images and scents that helps people to adapt more easily within a new environment.

In the following two articles we will see how the therapeutic image may become such a valuable object in the life of the patient. Stay for few minutes in silence and wonder about the objects that you have been in contact today. What the object offered you? When you decide to use it? How would you react if you couldn’t find your object at that moment?

When we are born and in early upbringing the first object that we are coming in contact is the breast of the mother. The baby in this stage cannot distinguish yet what belongs to him/her (subjectivity) and what belongs to the mother (objectivity). The child imagines that his mother and the partial object (breast) is part of him and belongs to him. This stage holds great importance for the developmental process and mental health of the child. In summary if the mother appears as a good object for the child then the infant can experience inner love, stability, and care. If the mother is absent and cannot provide a positive experience towards the child then the object (mother) is fulfilled with negative feelings and experiences. When the mother appears as a good and positive object, the child has established a good internal object. In the opposite case the child internalise a fragile and negative internal object. Donald Winnicott throughout his bibliography states that if the mother is not able to become a positive internal object for the infant, the child slowly will find other healthy and positive objects from the close environment (e.g. father, aunt/uncle, teacher) in order to establish a healthy and well structured inner world.

When we are using the phrase transitional object, we are referring in the important term coined by the paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. With this term he identified a valuable object that the toddler is using mainly when has to separate from the mother (e.g. when the baby goes to sleep or when is being alone without the presence of the mother). This experience, with the object, helps the baby to create an internal situation in which the relationship with the Other (mother) continues to exist even if the Other is not present.

Transitional objects can be, for example, a small blanket or a towel that the baby sucks or a teddy bear. But also can be a song (lullaby), the mother, or a picture in the child’s mind. It is an object where the child searches in order to create emotional calm and completeness. Frequently this object can acquire a very dirty look and smell, but in any case should not be washed or thrown out by the parents; the child will decide for itself when to replace it with another.

Winnicott suggests that this object is an intermediate field of experience, which is not attributed to either the inner (internal) nor the outer (external) world of the infant. The transitional object stands in the intermediate point between the imaginary and the real and the internal and external world.

This object is very important for the child’s emotional regulation because it holds the first ‘not-me possession’ which helps the individual maturation process and independence of the child. The child creates a safe bond through which, gains pleasure, and calmness and begins to perceive the outer world.  This ‘object’ is considered that apart from security and tranquillity, is offering on the development of children’s creativity. It is the first time that the infant has a complete control over an object. The child is omnipotence towards the object and has the right and power to explore different emotions projected on it. It is able to destroy and explore the feeling of anger by understanding that anger is not a bad feeling and is not hurting anyone. Anger and aggression here plays a very important role in the mental development and emotional regulation of the child as allows the child to create a stable experience of the statement that ‘I am’ separated from the mother. On the other hand, the infant can show love and care towards the object so he/she may experience love and comfort. Usually, children projects into the object their emotional state so it worth someone to observe and investigate it carefully.

Here we can understand the connection between the therapeutic image and the transitional object. As we described in previous articles, art therapy is a psychotherapeutic approach that uses the image as an intermediate communication channel between the therapist and the patient. The people who are working with are medicated or have some particular difficulties, social or emotional, where in most of the cases are derived from a non-positive and distracted internal object, (from a violent and abusive parental or social environment).

Children who have such experiences usually react with anger and violence because they still have not learned, through experience, how to express their anger in a safe way without hurting anyone. In other words they have not still internalised a good-enough parental like object. The therapist and the therapeutic image can stand as healthy transitional objects until the child or adult is capable to experience and build a new relationship. This relationship will promote the development of love, understanding and emotional regulation in order to prepare the person to reintegrate peacefully into the social world (e.g. healthier relationship with self and other). In the next article we will see a small case study with a young boy aged 8 who lived in foster care units and how art therapy helped him to build a healthier relationship with the art work and the therapist.



Panos Kourtis



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