What comes to mind when you think about working creatively? Painting? Sandplay? Interpretative dance? Do you have to have artistic skills in order to find art therapeutic?
If you are a counsellor or psychotherapist, do you think you need to be able to paint or draw to be an expressive arts therapist?
One of the most common barriers I see to using creative and expressive arts in counselling is the belief that we have to be good at art. Only then, can we begin to teach our clients how to do it. This suggests that arts therapy can only be useful to the already talented. Only artists can use paint, only dancers can dance and only maestros can sing.
Or is that simply our ego or superego finding a reason to stop us trying something new?
In my family I was the one who couldn’t draw, and my teacher used to laugh at me when I handed in my paintings at school. This stopped me picking up a paintbrush until I was in my 40’s and doing my psychotherapy training. One of the first questions I wanted to be able to answer was ‘why is art therapeutic?’ It wasn’t a question that my mind could answer. It was when I started using art as a way of expressing myself for myself, that I began to understand. A whole world of colour, texture and shape opened up once I let my hands and heart engage, rather than just my judging mind. This type of arts therapy also helped me process difficult experiences, thoughts and emotions.
Creativity doesn’t have to end up with something you could hang on a gallery wall.
It can be knitting, singing, yoga or simple daydreaming. Anything that can reduce stress and ease emotional and physical tension for just a few minutes.
The children and students I work with find it comforting that I am rubbish at drawing. And that’s I think the key. It’s not actually about making great art: it’s about expressing yourself and sharing that expression with another human being. As in talking therapy, it is the quality of the relationship in the creative process of art that heals. Traumatic experiences can be expressed in an arts based therapy session, especially when you are held by trained professionals. Many physical and mental health problems are helped by the expression and containment of creativity.
Art is the most challenging medium for a lot of us. I am frequently surprised when someone who has been up to their armpits in sand or covered in clay baulks at the sight of a paintbrush. Yet, it happens all the time. Something about a blank sheet of paper is just too difficult for some of us. We can by the way teach you gentle ways to start, such as colouring books and mandalas.
So, back to my original question – why is art therapeutic? It lets your heart and body off the leash for a few minutes in order to show something important about your own thoughts and emotions. Art shows the world through your own filters. And it is on your terms.
Working creatively is more of an attitude of freedom than anything else.
Creative therapies are about taking your book learning and letting rip. And it is when we as practitioners are able to be free in our hearts and bodies (especially in our bodies), that our clients can also allow themselves to cut loose. Conversely it is when we invite a client to draw with our own bodies held tight with anxiety that they will clam up.
So all of our training courses are about learning to love our own creativity and our own individuality so that we can take some of that lightness and confidence into our own work as an art therapist or in another mental health profession. And if you come on one of my courses, I promise to get out my own stick men drawings.