Artistic Psychotherapeutic Time

Back to the Future

Part 2

Artistic psychotherapeutic time

Fiodor Vasilyuk [2] wrote that psychotherapy is an art – an art of transition, of switching between chronotopes (time-space continuums or configurations, the term was introduced by A. Ukhtomsky and developed by M. Bakhtin).
According to Vasilyuk, it is this quality of psychotherapy that makes it similar to art, and time in therapy – similar to that in art.
Indeed, in psychotherapy we can find the same qualities of time as in arts – poetry, literature, theatre, cinema, music, dance. The only exceptions seem painting, drawing and sculpture because in these fields time appears to be present differently.
Partly the aforementioned similarity has to do with methods and techniques applied by the therapist in their work: they are like those used in creating works of art.
The therapist uses what Zakharyan in his article Aesthetic qualities of therapeutic work [3] characterises as “the alteration of ways of perceiving time”. In this sense, he says, therapy “treats time the way art does so: foreshortens or forelengthens it at will”.
The therapist needs to be at once a good viewer understanding how she/he resonates here and now with what the client suggests and also an independent mechanic, who can suggest continuing to watch the film, or push the freeze-frame button, or slow the film down to spot the moment when an argument with time took place, or rewind it.
Therapeutic interventions, undoubtedly, affect the experiencing of time during a session. We often ask the client to say or do something slower or, conversely, quicker; to repeat words or movements; to amplify certain manifestations so they become more articulate (voice pitch and its loudness or softness, movements and so on). Sometimes, the therapist asks the client to linger on the events and related feelings and bodily sensations that preceded the event which she or he considers the main (possibly traumatic) one. In fiction this technique or device is called retardation. And sometimes the therapist uses the cinematographical technique of storyboarding: we could ask the client to tell her/his story, lingering on separate episodes, if it seems that the client doesn’t realise how her/his feelings alter and what this alteration affects.

Client Lera, 42 years old. She has come to the therapist because she “suffers as she doesn't feel successful.” Following is an extract from our in-session work in which Lera is talking about difficulties in her communication with her boss at work.

“When I enter his office, I just can't say anything. Like, I know what I wanted to tell him (about the new project the client has been thinking over, and which both she and I find very interesting) but can't get a word in edgeways 'cos he gives me his little orders, like, silly tasks, but I have to go and carry them out. I try but it doesn't really work. Maybe I'm just stupid.”

I suggest we conduct a simple experiment: repeat the story frame by frame, with me playing the part of her boss. We put together a short scenario and the client splits the story she has just told into episodes. I am selected for the role of her boss.

Episode 1: (before her entering his office): 'Like, I know what I wanted to tell him…'
I notice and draw her attention to how her eagerness to realise the project is experienced in terms of bodily phenomena. Lera feels excited and looks energetic. Her palms feel warm.
Episode 2: “When I enter your office I just can't say anything… I feel so small.” 
  • How do you know this? What is going on with your body?
  • My feet are numb… Can’t feel them… You’re looking at me, like… you might be thinking… So silly and inexperienced… I can’t say anything.
  • I draw the client's attention to how she feels in her body the moment when she makes herself ‘small’.
Episode 3: “Please, can you find all articles related to this topic.”
I'm trying to address Lera's body but she can't feel anything. “Like in a fog.” (Here it is tempting to suggest that Lera be 'a fog' herself for a while; however, then we would lose our storyboard).
Episode 4: “I try but it doesn't really work. Maybe I'm just stupid.” I repeat her boss’s last words, “Can you find all articles related to this topic, please?” Lera is tense, her hands in particular; she's leaning forward. For a few seconds, she is sitting, clenching and unclenching her fists. Suddenly she droops her shoulders, becomes all limp.
  • So what’s going on with your body right now?
  • Oh. I can’t feel my feet again. Well, I can, actually, but they’re very weak.
  • And you’re already telling yourself off?
  • Yes. And I’ve become so small again…

Such a detailed “storyboarding” done by the client her/himself allows to see overlooked feelings better. When it was clarified how the client experiences in her body the moment when she makes herself little, and the meaning of this action was realised, we went back to two curious moments in the scenario. Namely, how the client loses her interest and curiosity (which happens between episodes 1 and 2) and how she handles her aggression and reluctance to follow her boss's orders that she finds meaningless. “I try but it doesn't really work.”
Slowing down is not the only thing that happens with time during a session; however, this might happen more often than anything else; probably because forming a field in which the client's change becomes possible: establishing a relationship of trust, an emerging resonance between the client and the therapist, might take time. Not to mention that the altered perception of time taking place in certain traumatic situations with which clients come to therapy (grief, trauma, depression) also take time. Nevertheless, not only do the therapist's interventions slow the session time down, but also, sometimes, what seemed frozen and not able to happen can take place in the here and now of the session. Not infrequently, time speeds up and slows down within one session.

Client Svetlana, 40 years old, energetic and professionally successful, came to the therapist with complaints typical of depression. At some point, during the session, she felt anxiety, and her hands and legs started trembling. I suggested that she should follow her own movements. In a few minutes, the client was rushing around the room waving her arms. Then she sat down on front of me but her arms continued moving frantically, as if in a time-lapse video. I asked the client to slow her movements down, and soon frantic gestures began to acquire shape. She was sitting before me cradling an invisible baby. Anxiety gave way to sadness, and later to a realisation of her wanting to have a child and a family.
In art, like in psychotherapy, time may be perceived in accordance with real time; however, it can also feel either shorter or longer than that. Marievskaya [4] gives a notable example of this phenomenon involving the analysis of time in S. Eisenshtein's Battleship Potemkin. The real shooting of civilians by soldiers took no more than two-three minutes, needed to get down the stairs; but on the screen this terror lasts five times as long. This effect is achieved mainly due to the image of the 'endless' Odessa stairs – a vivid illustration of the idea of the chronotope (the time-space configuration).
As in art, in-session time doesn't flow only linearly. In film, in fiction, in poetry and in psychotherapy we deal with changing temporal contexts all the time. In the same psychotherapeutic room time can get torn apart or flow linearly or non-linearly, or cyclically. It does not have to be continuous, uninterrupted. 
In her work Time in film, Marievskaya points out that in film “continuity” is in dissonance with a more customary word: “montage”, meaning tearing apart, matching and gluing together. 
I think this is true with regard to the psychotherapeutic session, too. The client, together with the therapist, puts her/his story together. What matters is how the client chooses shots for her/his film rather than facts as such. If it is a couple who have come for therapy, it is important to see both of their films, which will certainly be different, like versions of the same story in Kurosava's Rashomon. In family therapy, the therapist's task may be to spot the moment in time which could help understand what went awry: when the story began to be read differently by its characters.
From the point of view of gestalt-therapy, anything having a potential therapeutic effect that might lead to changes, for which the client has come, takes place on the borderline of contact, ‘in between’. It is here indeed that a temporal-spatial connection actualises, time being ‘the deepest basis, like the sound in music or the colour in painting’ (Tarkovsky A.). In Tarkovskiy’s films, we are enchanted by book pages fluttering in the wind for long minutes or with strips of light moving in a frame which is almost frozen. This “almost” seems very important both in film and in therapy. If it weren't there, a film frame would become a photography, where the time principle is different. This “almost” is exactly what makes frames (however static) a film, and, by the same token, turns session minutes into a session. This connection occurs through a kinaesthetic resonanse [12]. Even the smallest therapist's or client's movements – a softening look, a tiny smile emerging in the corner of the mouth, closing eyelids – as well as a lock of hair falling over the heroine's forehead in Tarkovsky's Nostalghia can change a space in time. These barely noticeable alterations of space in time can be key to changes in the client's life.
Both artistic and psychotherapeutic time flows paradoxically. It may do so linearly and non-linearly at the same time. However non-linear time might appear in a poem, in a film or in a therapeutic session, it should also unfold linearly. Whichever point of the client's timeline is being lived through at a given moment of a session, it is experienced in the now. Interestingly, discussing time in film, Marievskaya quotes the same passage from St. Augustine as J.-M. Robin in his work Social change Begins with Two (2016), “it is manifest and clear that there are neither times future nor times past. Thus, it is not properly said that there are three times, past, present, and future. Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future” [1].
Indeed, a film consists of shots that a viewer is watching here and now, which means each and every shot belongs to the present; however, in this “now”, a past time, a present time and a future time can be experienced and thought over. Thus, in one's going through the film, something new emerges: a new experience resulting from the obtaining of “lost” or “not yet obtained” time, for which a person goes to the cinema and a client to therapy. This possibility and preciousness of the new is also a characteristic feature of both art and therapy.
The past is frozen, and the character (or the client) tries to “leave it through” again and again. She/he her(him)self gets frozen, stuck between willingness and reluctance, a possibility (and opportunity) and, on the other hand, an impossibility of overcoming this “barrier”, the “wall” separating the person from her/his life in the here and now. (I am not even sure about which I writing: a therapeutic session or about Tarkovsky’s film The Mirror).
Importantly, the probability of the new is not guaranteed, to say the least. Nothing is certain. Uncertainty is also a function of time. While in film it is an artistic device, in therapy it amounts to a reality which the client needs to accept. Sometime – when the time comes – it will become clear if the chance of change has been realised.
The ability to cope with uncertainty and related anxiety is a significant part of therapy. Talking about films, this is a necessary ingredient of a story. “The heroine or hero’s endeavor, her/his conflict with the world implies complex dynamics involving the moments of utmost uncertainty, when the future is obscure, concealed from her/him”, writes Marievskaya.
As in the therapeutic session, in the film there is something that has happened, a conflict of the film hero (or the client) with the world, which should be clarified; there is an uncertainty, which should be dealt with; and there is a possibility of the emerging of the new.
Working with the client, we disturb this cumbersome albeit habitual balance and make its awkwardness obvious. We highlight the person's conflict with the world, help live it through and only after that suggest new opportunities for finding a new balance, new ways of creative adjustment. This process is very much like the unfolding of the film structure in time. Marievskaya describes it as follows: “The structure of a work of cinematography involves a complete three-fold cycle: disturbing balance → developing a dynamic process → restoring balance. 
In the session as well as in the work of art, there is a climax, a contact, an encounter. If the author fails to make the depth of the experience her/his own, her/his work turns out to be shallow. The same is true about the co-authors of the psychotherapeutic process, the client and the therapist. In this sense, I hold with Nemirinsky, who believes that both in therapy and in art “experiencing is represented in its sharpened, sometimes ultimately sharpened, form” (Nemirinsky) [5]. The unfolding of the dynamic process means, actually, the unfolding of an experience in time and the comprehending of its meaning. Experience is a process that takes place in the present, the process of the actual interaction with the world. “Rather than signifying one emotion, word ‘experience’ means the totality of ongoing experiencing; whereas ‘an experience’ signifies the whole process of interacting with the world in the now rather than ‘a past experience’” (Nemirinsky) [6].
Experience makes it possible for us to stay “in temporal perspective”. The notion of “temporal perspective” was introduced by Levin, who suggested that the field might be affected by our vision of both ideal and real future and past. At every particular moment all parts of the field experienced subjectively shape the person’s behavior. Frankl describes temporal perspective as “the complete set of an individual's representations regarding their psychological future and past, which exist at a given time”.
Events occurring at different times influence each other. They can meet “through time in a kind of synchronized dance that challenges all our common-sense imaginations”. (Phillipson) [11].
This becomes possible thanks to experience – a thread securing the cohesiveness of our time and providing connections between a past, a present and a future. The past, the present and the future are, on the one hand, divided but on the other, interwoven because of our going through past experiences and future prospects in the present.
“The functional role of art consists in maintaining the whole spectrum of human experience, notably feelings. Because experiencing feelings is a specifically human way of overcoming critical situations (connected with stress, frustration, conflict and crisis) (Vasilyuk) [2], obviously, the structure of therapy and the structure of art may have in common certain features prompted by the very nature of the phenomenon of experience”, states Nemirinsky [5]. I think the role of neither art nor therapy could be confined to “maintaining the whole spectrum of human experience”: both of them deal with experience (feeling) gaining meaning. Acquiring the meanings of experienced feelings seems no less important than experiencing as such. Only in this case the time of a situation becomes cyclic, its beginning connecting with its end, so the cycle of a contact can be completed and a way to the new can open. Meaning acquisition is necessary for experience to be assimilated.
The longer I wrote this article, the more I felt that this theme is inexhaustible. I have found consolation in Innokenty Smoktunovsky's words (in V. Tokareva’s documentary Recollections in the Garden, 2000), “when I worked on my roles before… there would always come a moment when I thought, ‘it’s over, I’ve hit the wall, the character’s exhausted’. But now I know, there’s a door in the wall, with another room behind it, and then the third, the fourth… No need to open all of the doors. There ought to be a sense of measure, of artistic ends. But it’s important that the actor and the viewer should feel the person is inexhaustible, infinite…”
Perhaps this holds true for therapy, too. What matters is that things happening during a session should be consistent with its objectives. The client would then gain a vision of new opportunities and a belief in the possibility of changes which she/he could realise not only “right now” but probably in a near or remote future.


  1. St. Augustine, Book 11, Chapter 20, Heading 26. – St. Augustine (1998). The Confessions. Bibliothèque de La Pléiade; Paris, France: [(accessed on 2 January 2019)]. English version. Available at: 
Augustine. A. (2003). Confession of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, Moscow. AST. pp. 204
  1. Vasilyuk F.E. (2009). Chronotope model of psychotherapy // Moscow psychotherapeutic journal (current name: Counseling Psychology and Psychotherapy), no. 4
  2. Zakharyan I. Aesthetic qualities of the therapist
  3. Marievskaya N. E. (2015). Time in film
  4. Nemirinsky O. V. (2009). On psychotherapy and poetry, and training of psychotherapists // Journal of practical psychology, no. 3
  5. Nemirinsky O. V. (2017). Gestalt therapy in clinical practice. Preface to the edition in the Russian language. Moscow
  6. J.-M.Robin (2008). To be in the presence of another person. Sketches of psychotherapy
  7. J.-M.Robin (2016). Social change Begins with Two 
  8. Spagnuolo Lobb M. (2015). Now for Next
  9. Tarkovsky A. (1967). Captured time // Questions of cinematography, no. 10
  10. Phillipson P. (2012). On Gestalt theories of time. Available at: 
  11.  Frank R. (2001). Body of Awareness: A Somatic and Developmental Approach to Psychotherapy