Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Mermaids and Art Therapy

Being an Art Therapist means that I need to have many art ideas. On average I see seven clients a day and each client wants and needs something different. Some clients engage with a lot of art making, others none. Consequently, I am always searching and researching art ideas that can be used therapeutically.

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon Jane Davenport and Teesha Moore’s online workshop called Mermaid Circus. Find out more about it by going here They are both amazing teachers and artists. I wasn’t sure if I could turn what I was learning into therapy, but I did and with great results. The main concept of the class was to create handmade journals from drawings and collage images to explore the circus and mermaid themes.

I created my own journal in the shape of a mermaid and left it in the studio where several teenagers saw it and then wanted to create their own. I explained that I was making eight different mermaids that expressed different parts or qualities of myself. I illustrated my reflective side, joyful side; I named three mermaids to show my curiosity, desire, to pause, and forward movement. I created one to represent chaos, another for openness.

I was thrilled that several people wanted to do the same project to represent different parts of themselves. Other clients chose to create a single mermaid to which we added a self-portrait and then decorated. The project has been fun, illuminating and insightful for the clients and myself.

 I love using the mermaid form for symbolic reasons. For me it speaks of going into the depths of our unconscious, swimming in silence, and moving through currents. As women many of us have experienced losing our voice, being silenced, disconnecting, dissociating, and being misunderstood. Mermaids symbolize the different ways women have bound by society, lost their ability to move and be seen. Mermaids are mystical beings that are desired and feared. The mermaid started out as a fishtailed Aphrodite and was called “Virgin of the Sea” carrying all the symbolism attributed to Aphrodite.


While working on my images I was reminded of Clarissa Pinkola Estés story, “Sealskin” in Women Who Run With the Wolves. Estés writes that in Jungian psychology, “the ego is often described as a small island of consciousness that floats in a sea of unconsciousness.” The story talks about how women lose and then reclaim their own voice, own values, imagination, clairvoyance, stories and memories. It talks about how we can practice intentional solitude opposed to being dissociated or lost in fogginess.

Working with these mermaids has been a joy for my clients and myself. I am always thrilled when I discover such a rich, deep image to explore as therapeutic art. Thank you Jane and Teesha for the inspirational class.  

Friday, February 15, 2013

How Do I Support or Diminish a Child’s Self-Esteem?

Playing with gel beads which help children feel calm.

Those of us who work in the helping professions have a profound affect on the self-esteem of the children with whom we interact. 
We help build a child’s self-esteem and sense of worth by doing the following:
1.    We need to accept the children we work with unconditionally. I am not talking about accepting all behaviour; I am referring to always accepting the child. We need to separate the child from their behaviour and realize that their behaviour is not their character. The children I work with know that I care deeply for them and that I unconditionally support them.
2.    We need to learn to overlook small behaviours. Knowing what behaviours to ignore and what behaviours to focus on are important in helping children develop and learn.
3.    We need to have realistic expectations. We can hope for more, want better, but we need to be realistic in the moment. I always have positive expectations for the children that I work with, but I know that growth will happen when it happens.
4.    We need to recognize effort and improvement. We need to remember the changes that the child has gone through and celebrate any movement forward.
5.    We need to appreciate the child’s uniqueness and respect their decisions.
As parents or people working in the helping professions with children, we can diminish children’s self-esteem and self-worth in the following ways:
1.    When we have conditional acceptance or rejection, we diminish children with whom we interact.
2.    When we overact to small problem behaviours.
3.    When we have unrealistic expectations.
4.    When we accept only perfection.
5.    When we hold grudges against the child.
6.    When we evaluate the child as good or bad based on their behaviour.
7.    When we expect the worst from them.
8.    When we constantly compare them to others that we see as better.
9.    When we neglect them.
10.When we get into power struggles with them.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

How Do You Raise Creative Kids?

Simple, be creative yourself. You provide the environment, role modeling, opportunities and inspiration for creativity.

1.    Live a creative life yourself. Read, do art, make crafts, schedule screen time, makeup stories, be creative with your clothes, create beautiful meals, and have fun with your children.
2.    Feed your imagination. Rearrange your living spaces, invent new crafts, have new experiences and involve your children in all the above.
3.    Play. Limit, through scheduling, screen time (t.v., gaming, internet etc.), and play board games, makeup new games, make chores into games and embrace messiness.
4.    Be open-minded. Take adventures with your children, try learning a new language, try on new ideas and beliefs.
5.    Don’t criticize yourself in front of your child for making mistakes, being the wrong size, or not being good enough.

If you live a creative life, so will your child. You are the number one factor in helping your child grow and nurture their creative mind. Research shows that children lose their flexibility, creativity and uniqueness as they age. By the time they reach adolescence, their thinking becomes more structured and fixed. But if children are raised with having parents who have encouraged them to risk and not be afraid of making mistakes, and have instilled an early love for stories, art, theatre, and dance then chances are those children will be highly creative. Children who grow up watching their parents fix things will have confidence to try fixing things themselves. They will believe that they can creative problem solve and be “handy”. Creativity comes from trying, learning, and being motivated to study, make and do. Creative children have valuable skills for life because they trust themselves to be capable.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Art Therapy and Weather

Why are we obsessed with liking or disliking the weather when we clearly need to learn to “be with’ it? We can move to a different climate zone, but when we decide to stay where we are, why is it so difficult to accept the weather? I live in an extremely cold area. It snows all winter, the temperature drops below minus 30 Celsius and it always will. So, why are people shocked and dismayed when that happens? Why do we all complain when we have weather conditions that we are well aware will happen and will continue to happen?

I remember visiting some natural hot springs in Hawaii and listening to a man complaining to his friend next to me in the pool. When he was done, his friend said, “If you can’t be happy here in paradise, you can’t be happy anywhere.” She was probably right.

Accepting the impermanence of weather is good practice for accepting the impermanence of life. Learning to be okay with the weather, whether pleasant or unpleasant is good practice for learning to be okay with life. The “isles” of weather reflects the “isness” of life. I have lived in many different climates and environments. In this stage in my life, I just can’t get that worked up over the weather. I have decided that I will practice weather acceptance as a way to further my practice of accepting what is. If I really can’t accept the weather, I will move, but I am well aware that no matter where I am there will be some days of bad weather.

An Art Therapy Exercise for Accepting the Weather

When my partner taught school he had a morning ritual of Calendar Corner. One of the activities was to pick a symbol of the weather and place it on the calendar. There were clouds, a sun, raindrops, snow, ice, and a wind symbol. The children were learning about the changing weather. In this art exercise we are going to play with weather symbols.
Gather some art supplies. Start by getting comfortable, feeling grounded in your chair and noticing your feet and legs. Take a minute to notice your feet. Take some time to relax your feet and let them make contact with the floor. Press your heals into the floor, then the toes. Gently press both sides of your feet into the floor. Now shift your attention to the chair under your legs and buttocks and adjust yourself to get even more comfortable in your chair. Take a deep breath into your stomach. Now move to your chest. Now move your awareness to your hands and arms. Notice if there is any tension and gently release it. Take time to sense into your hands, stretching the fingers. Now, bring awareness to your neck, then your head. Take a few minutes to do a body scan noting where you feel relaxed. Notice where you feel any tension and breathe into those areas. Now gently turn inward, sensing into your inner throat, chest and then resting in the belly area.
Now imagine a hot sunny day. Where in your body do you sense this image? What feelings and thoughts does it invoke? How attached do you feel to this picture? How accepting do you feel of this picture? Now present yourself with an image of a very windy day. It may be a day from your memory or something that you imagine freshly. Notice where in your body this image sits and how it feels. What are your thoughts? How attached do you feel to this kind of weather? How accepting do you feel to this kind of weather? Now imagine a wet rainy day. Envision yourself caught in the rain without an umbrella or raincoat. Notice your body’s reaction and note your thoughts and emotions. How attached do you feel to this picture? How accepting do you feel to this picture? Now, imagine a cold snowy blustery day. See yourself shoveling snow. How does your body react to this image? What thoughts and feelings are you having?
Bring yourself to your paper and art materials and record your reactions to the different weather conditions through image making or words.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Art Therapy and Running

I work with teenagers who run. They run away from home because of abuse, violence, addiction problems, and an assortment of other issues. A rather common mistaken belief is that they are running away to have a good time, and/or don’t want to follow rules. However, in reality they are usually running from a negative, hurtful family situation. For the youth with whom I work, many of them believe that their only chance to survive is to run away. They are not mature enough or streetwise enough to realize that the street may be no safer than the home that they are fleeing. Many, if they paused to think through their decision, would still run believing that life on the street would give them more control over their lives. But in reality, once they hit the street often they find themselves trapped in dangerous circumstances and may get manipulated into prostitution, drug dealing or thievery.

I receive calls from Social Service Workers asking me if I can work with teens who have been found and returned home or placed in foster care or a group home and they say to me, “She / He is a runner.” Often there is a belief that if the child or youth ran, that they need to be pulled in. They need discipline, structure, and need to learn respect. Tamed.

Yes, I agree we all need some of that. However, after doing trauma work for many years I respect that somatically these kids knew that running was what was needed. There is strength and courage in running. Running sometimes is the only sane action one can take. The problem is not the running; the problem is what they are running from and where they are running to and often is not to safety.

After they are picked up by the police and placed in a foster or group home they now have a new trauma to deal with. By the time I see them, they are often angry, confused and no longer willing to trust anyone. Now instead of being free they are trapped in a new situation where they have less freedom, less control and power. But their bodies remember the high of running. They remember the state of euphoria of getting out of a dangerous situation combined with the environmental stimuli and the biological aspects of stress of the escape. Endorphin levels are raised when running under stress and this creates the runners high. Moods are elevated and pain decreases.

Human beings have always ran. We ran to hunt and to survive being hunted. When in danger the muscles, viscera and nervous system are all preparing us for escape. This urge to run is experienced as the feeling of danger. Anxiety actually occurs when our flight from danger is somehow thwarted or aborted, so we don’t get to complete our response to it. We experience trauma when we feel trapped and can’t flee. Without active defense responses, we are unable to deal effectively with danger, and so we become anxious and go into freeze. Freeze becomes trauma.

I am a runner. I run for exercise and sanity. When I run I feel strong, free and happy. When I was younger if I had have been wise enough, brave enough or empowered enough to run, I would have. When I work with youth who run, it’s not the running that I want to stop, but the direction that they are running in. I want to help them to learn how to run to safety and support. I want them to run into empowerment, self-worth and self-love. Their instinctual bodily wisdom to run away was right. What was not right were the reasons they ran in the first place.

Art Therapy Exercise for Running

Many of the young boys I work with have ADHD. They have a hard time sitting still and waiting for recess or lunch. Their bodies need to move. When they can’t physically move, I tell them to close their eyes and imagine that they are on a beach or a wide open field and they are running as fast and as hard as they can. In this way, their bodies get some internal sense of movement and their minds relax. This art therapy exercise is to use when you want to run or walk but can’t.

Gather some art supplies. Start by getting comfortable, feeling grounded in your chair and noticing your feet and legs. Take a minute to notice your feet. Take some time to relax your feet and let them make contact with the floor. Press your heals into the floor, then the toes. Gently press both sides of your feet into the floor. Now rock back and forth on your toes to your heals. Notice if you sense any colour in your feet. Now shift your attention to the chair under your legs and buttocks and adjust yourself to get even more comfortable in your chair. Take a deep breath into your stomach. How is your stomach? Do you sense any emotion here? Bring awareness to your back. What are you noticing here? Is your back tense or feeling relaxed?  Now move to your chest. Can you breathe freely? Is your chest open or closed? Notice if your chest is constricted, expanded, or in some other state. Now move your awareness to your hands and arms. Notice if there is any tension and gently release it. Take time to sense into your hands, stretching the fingers. If your hands could be anywhere in nature, where would they want to be?  What would they be touching? Now, bring awareness to your neck, then your head. Release any tension in your jaw and neck area. Now gently turn inward, sensing into your inner throat, chest and then resting in the belly area.

Now imagine the perfect place to run. Take time to notice the scenery, smells, hear the sounds. Notice the temperature and feel the air on your skin. Start running in your mind and stay present in your legs and feet as you effortlessly move. Notice the changing scenery and feel the different parts of your body responding to the running. Feel your arms swaying, and bring awareness to your chest. Now, when you are ready bring your hand to the paper in front of you and continue to run on the paper. Move your hand in rhythm with your moving body. Reflect the movement and feel of the run.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Art Therapy and Being Authentic

How do we know when we are being authentic? We are authentic when we are acting in a way that feels truthful. I know that I am not being authentic when I pretend to be indifferent when I am not. I also can catch myself being inauthentic when I present myself as more or less than I am. When I don’t respect my emotions and I laugh when I need to cry or when I fake beliefs to be accepted, something inside me realizes that I am not being authentic.  I know that I am not being authentic when I fake emotions to please others. When checking in with ourselves to see if we are being authentic, here are some basic questions to consider:

1) Am I honest with others about my feelings in contexts where talking about feelings is appropriate?

2) Do I consciously strive to be truthful in communications?

3) Do I talk openly, and straightforwardly about that which I love and enjoy?

4) If I am honest about saying that I feel hurt, angry, or upset?

5) Do I stick up for myself and honour my needs and interests?

An Art Therapy Exercise For Being Authentic

 Have some art supplies in front of you. Feel your feet on the ground and just sense into them. What do you notice? Take a deep breathe into your stomach, what do you sense there? Bring your attention to your hands. Bring your awareness to your head and notice how it is feeling. Now, gently turn your attention inward. Think of a time when you were not authentic maybe to accommodate someone else’s believes or feeling. Notice, where in your body you sense this memory. Is there an emotional quality to this sensation? Ask this part of you to speak. Without judgment, just staying Present for yourself ask this part of you if there is anything that it is wanting. Gently bring this self-Focusing session to a close. Now reflect on a symbol or image that comes to mind when you think of the word authentic. Draw your personal symbol.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Why Do We Re-enact Traumas?

Client painting in the Art Therapy Studio.

In my 30s I decided that I was never going to be in a relationship with a female friend again where I felt I was taken advantage of. I was tired of being the giver and not the receiver in relationship. I wanted to be in relationships where the flow of energy, respect and care was equality shared. So, in the process of trying to heal this, I worked hard to understand and identify why I attracted women to me that ended up taking advantage of my generosity and kindness. Then, as I entered what I thought was a new healthy relationship with an exciting fellow artist, I slowly realized that I was in one of the least healthiest relationships of my life. I couldn’t understand why I kept drawing the same type of woman into my life. I thought I had healed this and now I could move on. But, what I didn’t know was that my body was doing exactly what I wanted, clearing the pattern so I could move on. It was showing what needed to be healed.

Pierre Janet was the first psychiatrist to identify the need and compulsion to repeat traumas. The human brain is hard wired to master overwhelming experiences and we are consciously or unconsciously compelled to re-enact traumatic experiences. In this brilliant way, the body seeks the healing it requires. However, if we do not enter the event consciously aware and awake, it is difficult to do the enactment differently thus changing the ending from being traumatic to healing. The changes we are seeking usually take a creative and strong action from us to reverse things. The wonderful thing about this is witnessing our body’s drive to move forward in a healthy healing way. The awful thing about this is if we haven’t worked on the trauma, and if we aren’t aware and awake about what we are doing and why we are doing it, we will repeat the trauma causing more pain and suffering. When we find ourselves in the same situation that we felt we had conquered years ago or when we find ourselves repeating the same mistakes, instead of getting frustrated we should celebrate the wisdom of our bodies to know that we need to repeat this event in order to clear it from our lives. We need to trust that things show up because our neuro-somatic programing is trying to free or clear us of being stuck by a trauma in ways that we aren’t aware of. Changing consciousness is a complex process that may take several tries.

This year, 2013, I want change, but I also want to welcome my re-enactment as gifts from my body in order to clear the way for real change to happen. I hope I feel the same when I find myself in a frustrating re-enactment of a situation.


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