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Section 23
Gestalt Use of Glass: Addressing Feeling Transparent and Exposed

Question 23 | Test | Table of Contents

Glass had never been one of the many media we offered to our patients. We first encountered its therapeutic usefulness when traumatized patients informed us that they were using the material, spontaneously, as a mode of emotional expression. Patients reported that some of the material's properties were of particular value to them. Glass could be broken, shattered, smashed, and crushed, producing explosive sounds and visually dramatic outcomes. Schreiber (1973) presented one of the earliest descriptions of a patient's drive to achieve emotional release by breaking glass. Her patient, Sybil, was quoted as saying that at times she felt so angry, she wanted to break glass (p.87), or smash a window (p.330). The aim of this article is to suggest some ways for using glass in psychotherapy and art therapy, and to discuss the potential risks involved. We will also discuss the possible impact of the use of this material on the therapist-patient relationship.

Safety first: It is understandable that the first response of many therapists to the idea of introducing glass into art therapy would be concern for the potential risks to both patient and clinician. It is, therefore, imperative to determine guidelines for safe work with this substance. This issue is particularly pertinent when patients with suicidal ideation or self-mutilating tendencies are drawn to it. Glass fragments can cause unintentional (or subconscious) cutting accidents, but can also be used intentionally in violent gestures. Suicidal patients could be tempted to use glass fragments to injure themselves. Therapists considering the use of glass in therapy need to ascertain their patient's ego-strength and capacity to resist self-destructive impulses. Proper patient preparation should include thorough training in the techniques of glasswork. There should be agreement on ways for at-risk patients to notify their therapists about the increased danger of self-injury. Provision should be made for making the material inaccessible during those times patients do not feel they can handle it safely. A careful preparatory training phase can deepen the sense of care and nurturing in the patient-therapist relationship. It enhances the therapist's faith in the patient's capacity to master the hazardous substance, as well as trust in the patient's commitment to the safety contract. Above all, this can add confidence to the therapeutic relationship at a time when both parties are embarking on a joint venture that is as rich in potential for formidable threats as it is in opportunities for self-discovery. This mutual commitment to safety can re-create a time-regressed developmental stage, in which the child is encouraged to take controlled, growth-promoting risks under supervised (parental) guidance. Although such bonding processes are generally desirable in therapy, complicating transference issues may emerge in cases where patients have histories of childhood trauma and betrayal. Many of these patients may have initial concerns about being endangered by their caretakers, perhaps not unlike their own early familial experiences. Some testing of limits may also be expected, when patients will try to act out their despair, their self-loathing, and their compromised basic trust by responding with unsafe behavior. Such behavior can also be related to a need to elicit the therapist's protective behavior. This could help support the patient's belief that the therapist can and will keep his/her end of the bargain when the patient is no longer able to protect himself. Because therapist attention is advised when glass is used in art therapy, we would not recommend using this material in group therapy activities. Group settings do not permit the necessarily close supervision this activity requires.

The particular attributes of the material: Glass has unique characteristics that may trigger a variety of therapeutically relevant reactions. The various processing methods of glass can also be conducive to evoking different sensations, feelings, and memories. Glass can be melted and softly shaped while it is hot. Glass can be cut, sanded, broken, and shattered. Broken pieces can be soldered to form new shapes and designs. Solid glass is both smooth (on the surface) and sharp (on broken edges). It can be opaque, translucent or transparent, colorless or colorful. What follows are some examples of the usefulness of glasswork in art therapy.

1. Heating glass and glass blowing: Fire has a mythical aspect to it. Many of our ancestors gathered around bonfires to share legends and war stories, and to bond. Bonfires provided opportunities for cohesion of the tribe and the molding of its ethos. Fire is, therefore, etched in our common subconscious mind. In modern society, controlled fire is mostly associated with pleasant images of candlelight intimacy, cooking, and cozy fireplaces. Art therapists who decide to soften glass by warming it with fire will note that some patients may be drawn to the burning flame, and hypnotically stare at it. This behavior can be trance-inducing, and may facilitate significant disclosure and uncovering of important psychological material. The rigid and fragile attributes of hardened glass can remind patients of themselves and of their hopelessness with regard to "changing without breaking." The process of heating the glass can become a powerful metaphor for therapy itself, the literal flame a symbol for the "heat" of therapy. If this analogy is meaningful to the patient, therapy, much like the glass-softening fire, could be perceived as a facilitator of flexibility and personal change. Glass blowing permits an intimate encounter with the material, whereby the very breath of the patient shapes the glass container and gives it volume. The captivating feeling is one of breathing the person's own spirit, or essence of life, into the artwork, thus creating a powerful symbolic extension of the self.

2. Stained glass: Glass fragments can be seen as symbols of a shattered life or a broken self. The display of broken glass fragments has been described by patients as a chaotic, useless collection of debris, lacking a cohesive shape, emitting an alienated, cold feeling, and seen as potentially lethal. Before soldering the pieces in the stained glass technique, the fragments' edges must be covered with adhesive copper tape. This procedure is necessary for bonding the glass pieces together, but it is also a protective procedure that reduces the risk of being cut. In the patient-material identification process, we noticed that this technique could also be seen as bandaging rough and broken representations of the self, and, therefore, experienced as a fairly soothing activity. Considerable physical and thermal energy is required for joining the glass fragments into a self-standing piece of art. For some of our patients, this has not only been a metaphor for their healing process, but also a statement about the potential effects of warmth and protection. Therapists can reflect on the process, discussing with their patient how wrapping, heating, and bonding are necessary steps toward achieving an integrated new entity.

3. Glass as a means for emotional abreaction: Even though glasswork in art therapy usually requires concentration and self-control, the material can also be used to facilitate affective expression, particularly the loosening of suppressed anger and rage. Activities like breaking and smashing require the use of protective gear, such as eye goggles, long sleeves, and work gloves. Normally, it would be quite difficult to engage in this type of activity inside the therapy room. Therapists who feel comfortable conducting sessions outside their offices could suggest a remote location, where the hurling of bottles would neither endanger anyone, nor contradict any local ecology standards. An abandoned quarry or a garbage dump could be suitable sites. Advance verbal preparation is always recommended to explore the patients' interpretations and emotional reactions to the suggested change of setting. Glass can also be shattered in the office. If carefully wrapped, it can be hammered or stepped on with work boots. Although the crashing sounds are considerably muffled with this technique, the material can provide a satisfying and empowering feeling.

4. Transparence, translucence, and reflectance: When light falls on a glass surface, it can be reflected back, it can be absorbed and filtered through it, or it can be broken into its optic color components, resulting in a variety of potential visual effects. One of our patients enjoyed capturing the sun's rays in the stained glass pictures he had created and later mounted on his bedroom window. He was delighted in his ability to control the penetration of light into his space. Broken glass mirrors can also be used in collage. We encourage patients who choose to utilize the mirrors' reflecting capacity in their artwork to explore their reactions to a finished product that accurately reflects their image. Invariably, they realize that they have created an opportunity to be literally included in their artwork. They can discover that their reflected representation is imbedded within their artwork. This allows patients to explore the perceived merger with the picture and their relationship with the other symbols represented in their artwork. Some may allow the artwork to frame their reflected facial image. Others may benefit from experimentally altering their reflected placement on the picture. Patients who integrate glass mirrors in their creations may find themselves conflicted about exposing their work to others, thereby allowing the onlookers' images to be reflected, instead of their own. On one occasion, negative reactions to the spontaneous use of glass fragments led one patient to apply a controlled, corrective exercise later in therapy. This patient was at first horrified to discover broken images of her face reflected from pieces of glass she imbedded in her work. The reflected images accurately expressed her subjective sense of a disintegrated, defiled, and unattractive self. As she progressed in therapy, this person was later able to deliberately cut a piece of mirror, coat its edges with copper paper, then solder it onto her artwork. As a result, she could observe her facial image reflected from her artwork as an intact unit. Ordinary window glass, colorless and transparent, can also be a significant material in art therapy. Transparent glass is simultaneously present and absent. Although it can be physically present as a cold, isolating barrier, covering the entire artwork or parts of it, glass in a window or a picture frame barely interferes with the artwork's internal space. In fact, it leaves the picture completely exposed as it covers it. This artistic expression may manifest a sense of alienation or dissociation from the self or the environment. Through identification with the glass sheets, some patients express their need to "see and not be seen," to be present but unnoticeable. This type of reaction is not atypical in survivors of childhood abuse, as it expresses a fear of being hunted down and hurt. Glass sheets can also be imbedded in the background of the picture, can be painted on, or can be an element of a collage. When integrated in a patient's artwork, these materials can represent an ambivalent disclosure, a conflict about allowing the therapist access to threatening intra-psychic material. One patient who had worked with pieces of sheet glass in our clinic was processing, during her verbal psychotherapy, her discomfort with feeling exposed. She constantly felt exposed to people. She felt transparent. She thought she was easy prey, at constant risk of being assaulted. She also firmly believed that her shame and disgrace were exposed, obvious to all. As a part of a coordinated therapeutic effort to enhance her ego-strength, it was suggested that she paint on the glass sheets so as to reduce transparency, or, alternatively, to allow graphic symbols, representing various aspects of the self, to show through. This helped the patient explore the notion that she was a complex person possessing a mixture of traits.

The notion of using glass in art therapy has not generally been well received among our colleagues. The reluctance to allow the use of glass in art therapy activities reflects, for the most part, therapists' lack of experience with the artistic use of the material. In our view, the notion that the deliberate therapist-sanctioned use of glass in therapy can compromise the patient's well-being is patronizing, in that the patient is regarded as an infant. If this line of reasoning were valid, it could also be argued that therapists should encourage patients to take public transportation to their sessions instead of driving themselves because they might be injured en-route in a car accident. The inclusion of glass as an optional material in art therapy can be considered in cases when the therapist is confident that the therapeutic relationship is firm. There is no difference between the use of glass in therapy and the use of a pair of scissors or a sharp cutting knife if the therapist is confident about his or her mastery of safe glasswork techniques, and if a secure working environment can be provided. The need for patient safety is ever present, and transcends any particular therapeutic technique. Clearly, even patients in "talk therapy," or those not in therapy at all, can pose a risk to themselves. We firmly believe that when patients feel drawn to working with glass, therapists should provide them with a supervised opportunity to explore the therapeutic possibilities offered by the material, instead of discouraging its use. In summary, we believe that therapists skilled in glasswork could encourage the use of the material when patients with whom they have developed a good working relationship spontaneously choose to use it in their artwork. Only those patients who evidence a reckless impulsiveness or are unable, by reason of mental, emotional, or physical limitations, to understand or follow safety instructions should be barred from the use of glass.
- Somer, Liora; Somer, Eli; Perspectives on the Use of Glass in Therapy; American Journal of Art Therapy, Feb2000, Vol. 38 Issue 3

Personal Reflection Exercise #9
The preceding section contained information about considerations regarding the use of glass in Gestalt art therapy.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Cavaleri, P. A. (2020). A gestalt therapy reading of the pandemic. The Humanistic Psychologist, 48(4), 347–352.

Crego, C., Oltmanns, J. R., & Widiger, T. A. (2020). Obtaining and losing the bipolarity of the five-factor model through factor analysis. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 11(2), 119–130.

White, B. A., Miles, J. R., Frantell, K. A., Muller, J. T., Paiko, L., & LeFan, J. (2019). Intergroup dialogue facilitation in psychology training: Building social justice competencies and group work skills. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 12(2), 180–190.

Rodomonti, M., Fedeli, F., De Luca, E., Gazzillo, F., & Bush, M. (2019). The adaptive function of fantasy: A proposal from the perspective of control-mastery theory. Psychoanalytic Psychology. Advance online publication.

How did painting on glass in Gestalt art therapy help the client who felt exposed and transparent? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 24
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