“Imagination is not a talent of some men, but is the health of every man.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’ve decided to write a short “top ten” list of common myths about art therapy – all of which I’ve come across in the past few years. I hope this information helps to dispel some current misconceptions about the field.
1) You have to be an “artist” to benefit from art therapy.
This is one of the most frequently expressed misconceptions about art therapy. Art therapy is less about the finished product, and more focused on the creative process. You will never be judged for your artistic capability, just as you would never be rated on your ability to discuss certain topics during a talk therapy session. Many clients can recall a time in their youth when they decided that they “could not draw.” Perhaps a friend or teacher made an insensitive remark about their drawing, or art making simply faded out of their daily life. During one of your first sessions it can be important to share your current relationship to art making and include any fears or strong feelings about your ability to make art. An art therapist will work with your apprehension and introduce art making at a pace that feels comfortable for you.
2. Art therapy is only for children, and not for adults.
Many people are familiar with the use of art therapy when working with children. Children are usually very receptive to art therapy because it appeals to their innate curiosity and desire to create. In addition, art therapy is useful for children who have not yet developed the ability to verbally express themselves in the same way that adults have. That being said, art therapy can be beneficial to adults of all ages. Art has the ability to express what (even adults) do not always have the words for. In addition, art may bypass the purely intellectual side of the brain, and shed light onto the unconscious.
3) The art therapist will be able to know secrets about you just by looking at your art work.
As part of our training, art therapists do have a foundation in interpreting art pieces on different levels. However this understanding helps the art therapist to ask questions of the client, rather than supply answers. The meaning of the artwork is always derived directly from the client, and his or her own personal associations and feelings about the artwork. Just as each art piece is one of a kind, the attached meanings are highly individual and may even shift over time.
4) Art therapy is like going to an art class. During art therapy you learn to draw, paint, or sculpt.
The goal of art therapy is not to “teach” art skills, but rather to use art in a therapeutic capacity. That being said, art therapists may instruct clients in how to use various art materials so that the client has the freedom to then create whatever they desire. Over the course of art therapy it is natural that many clients would become more familiar with and adept at using art materials and different methods, but that is not the primary goal.
5) Art therapists are not real therapists.
An art therapist is a trained psychotherapist who specializes in the use of art making and the creative process within the therapeutic relationship. In other words, art therapists undergo similar training to other types of “talk therapists” but have the additional training in using art within therapy.
6) Only people who are currently struggling with many big issues should seek art therapy.
Art therapy can be very beneficial when working with a client who is struggling with severe physical or mental illness, addictions, trauma, or life changes, but anyone can benefit from art therapy and creativity development. For example, some people may seek art therapy as a way to enrich their current life experience and broaden their horizons. Others may utilize art therapy as a way to gain greater self-insight. In addition art therapy is a wonderful method of reducing overall levels of stress in a person’s life. Art therapy groups can provide members with a creative outlet as well as a community atmosphere where they can strengthen interpersonal skills.
7) Any therapist can call themselves an “art therapist” as long as they do art during their sessions with clients.
Before selecting an art therapist it is very important to make sure that they are legally allowed to call themselves an “art therapist” or a “creative arts therapist” (which is the title in NY state). Unfortunately some therapists who are not trained in art therapy may falsely use the art therapist title, simple because they are a therapist who sometimes uses art during sessions. The therapeutic use of art making can be a powerful and life-changing experience. Many feelings and issues may surface as art is created, which is specifically what an art therapist is trained to understand and work with.
8) An art therapist cannot be your primary therapist, but must be an adjunct therapist.
An art therapist can be the primary therapist, whether they see the client in private practice or within an organizational setting. Like other mental health professionals, art therapists may also be part of a treatment team, made up of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, etc.
9) It will be awkward during art therapy sessions because the art therapist will just stare at me in silence while I draw.
The idea of the “silent therapist” has trickled down from the original Freudian psychoanalytic style where a patient would lie on a couch and speak while the therapist appeared unengaged and at a distance. In reality, most present day therapists (including art therapists) are much more directly engaged during sessions. Silence can be a powerful aspect within the therapeutic relationship, but it does not define the way most art therapists work. Every art therapist will have his or her own personal style within the therapeutic relationship. Some art therapists create art alongside their clients at times, while others do not. Clients may choose to make art for the entire session, or for only a portion of the time. Some clients only create art outside of sessions, and then bring the art in to share and discuss with the art therapist.
10) You will have to make art during every art therapy session.
As I mentioned earlier, art therapists are trained psychotherapists just as other types of “talk therapists” are. Therefore, there may be sessions when the client decides to just talk or engage in a different type of therapy experience – for example, guided meditations, dream work, or more body-centered work such as breathing exercises. Some sessions may be devoted to “problem solving” skills such as creating daily schedules, chipping away at fears, or building other life skills.
This list has focused on some of the most common questions about art therapy but I’m sure there are many others. Do you have other questions about art therapy as a profession? If so, please feel free to post a comment under this piece and I will post a reply 🙂 And keep checking back, as I will continue to create new posts about art therapy.