I often post inspirational quotes about art, creativity, and life in general on my Art Therapy Spot Facebook page. Over the past few months I’ve seen how many people seem to enjoy the little inspirational reminders every few days and it always puts a smile on my face to see these quotes being shared with others. Part of the reason I do this is because I think we can all use these pauses in the midst of our busy lives. It’s easy to get stuck in autopilot mode, multi-tasking, and to lose sight of the bigger picture.
I noticed that this quote attributed to an 8-year-old named Hannah Cheatem was a very popular one and since sharing it I’ve been using it as an exploration tool as I move through my own day and with my art therapy clients. She said: “If you’re feeling blue – try painting yourself a different color.”
This quote is a reminder of how naturally children are able to think outside of the box when approaching life situations. Most children have not yet been overly conditioned by society, other’s expectations, and patterns of behavior. Adults (myself included) may find it challenging to create flexibility in our daily routines and ways of perceiving the world around us. Even more importantly, we may view ourselves in a rigid way and have difficulty grasping the fluid nature of our moods, feelings, thoughts, and ways of being. Here’s an example of what I mean:
A few weeks ago I was leading an art therapy group at the emergency transitional shelter where I work. My clients are homeless adults who are living with HIV, mental health issues, and substance use. These individuals have lived through many traumatic experiences and are usually in crisis mode by the time they come to live in our building. They are needing to reestablish basic living essentials such as a safe place to live, medical and psychiatric treatment, and financial resources.
One of my group members is a woman who has made art therapy groups a priority every week. From our conversations and what she shared with the group, I learned that she had been struggling with severe depression for years and had expressed some suicidal ideation. This is always taken seriously and her case manager and other staff members had already drawn up a safety plan for her and continued to monitor her closely.
Over a number of art therapy groups, I began to see her open up during the hour and a half. She began as the quietest member and became one of the most verbal. She was able to articulate her thoughts and feelings beautifully and simultaneously had insightful and supportive feedback for the other group members. I noticed a change in her affect as the weeks progressed – from the way she sat up straighter in her chair to the increased smiling and easy laughter.
However, when I would do an informal check-in with her regarding her current level of depression she would seem to catch herself and say something like ‘well I’m still depressed all the time, and always will be.’ At first I would just take her comment in and reflect back my understanding of her statement. However during one check-in with her during group I deliberately had her pause after her comment. I shared my evolving observation that her affect (smiling and laughing) during group no longer seemed to match her self-reported feelings of depression and hopelessness. My observation clearly caught her off guard for a moment as her face reflected back surprise. She then shared that what I had said did resonate with her, but that she was so used to feeling depressed that it was hard to imagine seeing herself in a different way.
This interchange opened up into a fascinating and powerful conversation about how she labels herself and tends to limit herself this way. I was sure to acknowledge that her past and present depression is a real thing. The goal is never to invalidate a person’s feelings and experiences. A feeling is never wrong. However, the therapeutic balance is in validating her feelings and then also (gently) helping her to expand her self-definition to include being someone who can also have fun, engage in creativity, and even enjoy herself. The sadness and the happiness are allowed to exist in the same holding space. As her therapist, one of my goals is to show that I can hold both of these emotions for her within the group setting. The longer term goal is to help her trust that she can hold these different states of being herself and that one state of mind does not negate the other. Both states of
mind simply exist at different times, and sometimes even
The art therapy process helps my client to create physical objects that become proof of her ability to work through a variety of creative methods and problem solving, to be flexible in her approach, and to become aware of how varied her moods and styles are. This is one of the reasons that I encourage my clients to experiment with different and non-familiar art materials and ways of working. It helps them to strengthen an inner trust of the process when they see repeatedly that they are capable of responding to the art object within the moment, even without any prior training in art.
A powerful component of group art therapy is that the group can serve as a larger form of validation for the individual’s creation, mirroring back their appreciation for the art created and interacting with one another in a way that they are not used to in the outside world.
Although this particular group tends to be more non-directive in nature (open studio art therapy), there are many art therapy directives that can be helpful to explore in terms of helping someone become more flexible in their self-definition. Creating self-portraits is a powerful method of self-exploration, especially if given the opportunity to create self-portraits over an extended period of time. These can be symbolic, abstract or more realistic. They can be done with drawing materials, paint, collage, sculpture, or photography.
Here are a few of my previous posts to check out if you are interested in reading more about art therapy and self-identity exploration: