No matter which sense we use, most attempts to express our perceptual experiences fall short of the mark through words alone. Think about how people express their love for one another or how they attempt to describe the experience they have when drinking Merlot.

Here’s an extract from an article in The Telegraph newspaper which highlights this point beautifully. The following words are those of J. Ray. As the newspaper’s wine buff, Ray felt obliged to provide a counterargument to the scientific discovery that wine buffs talk rubbish…

Scientists Prove Wine Buffs Are Talking Rubbish

“How does one describe what scrambled eggs tastes like, or smoke smells like, without comparing them to something else? So it is that we wine lovers might describe a wine as tasting of truffles, leather, game and rotting veg. Well, dammit, that’s what old red burgundy often resembles. It certainly doesn’t taste of grapes.” J. Ray

With it’s idiosyncratic and cluttered complexity, pain is very much alike in it’s desire for creative expression.

Here’s an interesting read on the subject…

Finding a visual language for pain:

The French artist Henri Matisse (above) notes that, “Creativity takes courage.” I lose count of how many times I use this quote when teaching healthcare professionals. If we are to help people in pain to make sense of their distressing experiences, we must encourage them to step outside of language and explore other means of expression. Without this, we squander opportunities for empathy and therapeutic connection.

So next time you find yourself sat in front of somebody in pain who looks like one of the faces you see below when you ask, “What does your pain feel like – sharp, stabbing, achey?” or, “How would you describe your pain on a scale of 0-10?”, it is time to get seriously playful and embrace creative practice.

Don’t forget that large dose of courage!


To hear more about the use of imagery and metaphor when helping people make sense of pain, listen to my podcast chats with Jack Chew and David Pope by clicking the link below:

Also, you might like to test your metaphor knowledge by taking the metaphor challenge here:

Finally, this wonderful presentation by Dr Deborah Padfield is a must watch: