Monday, September 26, 2011

Empathy and Creating


Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion.

 Many of the children I work with do not appear to have empathy. Due to their own needs and suffering, they find it difficult to relate to the suffering of others. I do believe that art-making helps create an empathy connection between people.

Going to poetry readings, creating visual art projects together, doing communal art projects does help create a sense of community, connection and empathy. When we realize that we are all connected, then we do become creative and empathic in new ways. We know that by going to art workshops, joining art groups and spending an afternoon playing with a friend in our studio, helps us feel freshly creative in new and different ways. Deep empathy is a knowledge that we are not that different. There is something about working together to create something new that joins us at a heart level. There is a nakedness when we are creating something due to our usual barriers and defenses being lowered, we are more present, and emotionally unguarded. In my Art Therapy practice I have watched many tough boys soften and tear up when they are making something with me.
A lot of the children I work with do not have loving caring parents who help them feel safe, cared for, and understood. Their parents are in crisis and they cannot be there for their children. When I help these children create what they envision in my Art Therapy studio it gives them that deep need for connection. Creating together tells them that they are heard, seen and cared for by an adult. It helps them develop empathy on a somatic level.

Daniel Pink has written a book called A Whole New Mind.  He writes about how important creativity, empathy and right brain thinking are. To survive, we need to work hard helping children develop empathy and keep working on ways for us to deepen our own empathic response.

Mark Brady writes that we come pre-wired for empathy, but that children who have suffered trauma and abuse can have that wiring reorganized.

There is a male teenager that I have worked with for two years now. When he first came, due to his early years of neglect he was very dissociated, not trusting, or able to connect. We worked along side each other for months making things. Our sessions mostly looked like him going through his “thinking drawer” a drawer that I have in the studio filled with stuff. I added new things to it each week as I got to know what he liked. He was not interested in doing conventional art projects he wanted to make his own stuff. 
Thinking Drawer

He has a very creative, inventive mind. Each week I would sit beside him, finding him things and talking a bit. Slowly he started to relate more to me and slowly we started to have more of a connection. I know he loves coming here, but what I am working on is attachment repair and empathy building and it is slow careful work. As his therapist I am not trying to be the mother he didn’t have, but I am trying to help him open up to experience some of the feelings that most children have in their childhood experience with a caring parent; trust, safety, care and empathy. He is changing. Before he often acted like I wasn’t there and he had a strong ability to dissociate or tune out. Now when he makes himself a smoothie he asks if I want some. This is a large step. Small changes mean big shifts in the work that I do. When he comes in the door, instead of looking at the art table to see what goodies I have, he looks for me. His eyes light when he sees me and he talks to me. This never happened in the first six months.
We now have a real connection. He knows that I accept and care for him just as he is. Most of the people in his life are working hard to help him change and that may be important; however, it is also important to have someone in his life to accept him as he is with all his strengths and flaws, and it is me. In this way, I am helping him develop empathy.

Read my latest post at  Createmixedmedia on the Emotional Intelligence of Artists.


The Creative Beast said...

Karen, you are an amazing therapist! Thank you for sharing your story of the teen male - it is a moving testament to your skills as a therapist that he has come so far in his empathy skills =-)

Karen Wallace said...

Thank you Monica for your kind words. Karen

Ms. said...

What a great post. I researched the link further (at you tube) and created a full version of the five videos in the series to post over at my blog--perhaps next week, with a reference to your wonderful site, of course. Thank you

asahi princess said...

Excellent Post.

Karen Wallace said...

Thank you. Hugs Karen


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