Happiness Group & The Art of Forgiveness

December 14, 2013

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Beginning a forgiveness box with a quote

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.

~ Lewis B. Smedes

The holidays tend to bring up complex feelings for many people. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, New Years, and other holidays seem to blend together during this time of year and there is a palpable energy in the chilly air.

This is also a time of year when my art therapy groups tend to get smaller for a few weeks. The holidays are especially triggering for many of the individuals that I work with – bringing up complex feelings and memories. I think part of what makes it challenging is a feeling that this time of year ‘should’ be joyful even if it’s not for everyone. Drug and alcohol relapses as well as hospitalizations tend to increase with my clients and many other tend to isolate in their apartments if they have no friends or relatives to be with. This is part of why I find it important to continue the groups, even if attendance is lower. There are usually at least a few people that make their way to the group and find some benefit and comfort in participating.

In my continuing work with veterans living in supportive housing, my co-therapist and I started a new group called the ‘Happiness Group.’ One of the interesting challenges inherent in working with individuals in permanent housing is finding ways to keep groups interesting. My past work has focused on working with people in crisis and living in emergency transitional shelters. Although the art therapy groups were challenging, I could expect a constantly changing group of clients. In contrast, the groups offered in permanent housing facilities are less transient but the risk of group repetition and lack of interest increase. With this in mind, my co-therapist and I began to brainstorm a new group that might be of interest. Drawing from positive psychology and our own interests, we designed a new curriculum and group called the ‘Happiness Group.’

So far the residents have been drawn to our new Happiness Group and are very engaged. I always highlight the fact that ‘being happy’ is not a pre-requisite for coming to the group. In fact, the group flyers that I created include this description:

We all want more happiness in life. But
how do we create happiness when there are so many challenges and hard
situations we face? This group will give you ideas and tools for creating more
happiness in your daily life, no matter what you are facing. 

Forgiveness box in progress

Our group last week focused on the theme of forgiveness. Forgiveness and happiness might seem like strange companions, yet they are directly linked. Much of our emotional and physical energy can become tied up in feelings of anger and past resentment. Although it’s a long and challenging process, working with forgiveness can free up energy that can be channeled into cultivating more happiness.

In group we spent time talking about what forgiveness might entail and why forgiveness does not mean forgetting or saying that something hurtful was ok and acceptable. Alice Miller said, “Genuine forgiveness does not deny anger but faces it head-on,” and I think this is a good way of understanding forgiveness.

Forgiveness Boxes
Group members shared the people and experiences that they were struggling to forgive. We also explored self-forgiveness, since sometimes we are the ones in most need of forgiveness. My co-leader encouraged the clients to write a letter to someone they wanted to forgive. The letter would not be mailed to the person, but could be used as a cathartic method for addressing and processing feelings of anger, hurt, and disappointment.

For the art therapy piece of the group I set up paint trays, acrylic, brushes, collage materials, markers, and mod podge. I then handed each person a small paper mache box. I asked the group to decorate the boxes on the inside and outside while thinking about a person or a few people that they would like to work on forgiving. The gold and copper paint were a popular paint color and the metallic paint helped imbue the boxes with a certain beauty. While working on the boxes, group members began to open up about past experiences with the people they were working to forgive.

I reminded the group that forgiveness was a process like most everything in life. Feelings about the person might ebb and flow like ocean waves and re-surface even after there seemed to be some emotional resolution. For this reason I encouraged the clients to look at the box as an object that can be opened and closed and therefore visited and put aside depending on their needs.

The last step was writing the name of one or more people (could include self) on a small piece of paper and placing it inside the box. The name could stay in there for a long time, or be taken out and replaced with another name. In this way the names and the box could become part of a small ritual. The safe containing space of the box could hold the desire to forgive and be opened when it felt appropriate. One of the clients shared that she would place her forgiveness box on a small altar in her apartment where she kept a beautiful candle. Her idea was to create a ritual with her daughter of putting in names and taking them out while lighting a candle each day, as a way of processing past family experiences and moving in the direction of forgiveness and healing.

closed forgiveness box

Further Thoughts
When working with individuals who have experienced trauma I find the idea of objects that can close and be opened very useful. Working in this way can help an individual explore past experiences slowly and avoid the chance of emotional flooding. Altered books (future post) are another idea along these lines. Any material and object that creates a containing space and can hold a smaller object are wonderful to work with. If I could get my hands on some nesting dolls to alter that would be very interesting too!

Creating art objects that can be used repeatedly in a personal ritual adds another opportunity for healing by engaging in the creative process. Individuals can make visual reminders that inhabit their living space.

Check back in the coming weeks for more posts and ideas from my art therapy groups, and as always please feel free to share your own thoughts and experiences here.

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