Expressive Therapies: addressing some common misconceptions

Expressive therapy provides a range of interactive, creative arts-based, projective techniques and interventions. It draws both on the principles of psychotherapy as well as the creative experience of the client to gain insight and to achieve growth, healing and integration.

There are a few common misconceptions about the work I do with clients that I’d like to highlight and address:

First of all, it is not just for children. I have personally worked with kids from as young as 5 years old through to fully-fledged adults in senior management positions. The important thing is not your age. It’s that you keep an open attitude and park your inner critic outside the room whilst allowing yourself to create and be free to play – with the sand, with figures, with colours, with movement, with sound.

I am not a psychoanalyst, psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. I do not try to interpret the drawings or sandtrays, provide any kind of diagnosis or label based on the creation or provide clients with answers about “what they should do next” in their life. My aim is always to guide my client in the creation of something that has meaning for them, which might, in turn, allow them to gain some insight into their life situation or next steps. This may happen during the session or at a later stage as the process unfolds over a number of weeks.

It is not just for clients recovering from severe trauma. While sandplay therapy and expressive therapies have proved effective as a treatment for both trauma and mental health problems, it has also proven effective for those who are going through a life transition (post-natal, death of a beloved family member or friend, loss of a job, painful break-up of a relationship or divorce etc.) and would like to use it as a catalyst for the recovery of their sense of self.

It is not just for those who consider themselves “creative”. Creative ability is innate in humans. Sadly it often gets blocked as we grow up by the “shoulds and oughts” as we are pressured by the prevailing culture into leaving our playfulness behind. When we feel stuck in a life, or seem to have lost our sense of passion or purpose, it is often a lack of creative problem-solving that prevents us from seeing the way forward. Being conscious of your creative ability is not a requirement or a determinant in any way as to whether you will benefit from an expressive therapy sessions. In fact, sometimes, there is no activity involved in the session. My sessions are client-led; therefore, the decision of taking part in an expressive exercise is up to the client. Naturally, I will usually suggest an option for creative expression when I sense it might be helpful for my client.

The representation created facilitates further communication. It allows the creator to access parts of themselves that are not so easily accessible otherwise. As an expressive psychotherapist, I refer to these parts as coming from the sub-conscious or even the unconscious. Whatever is created, in the sand or on the page, reflects back at us both – you as the client and me as the therapist – and brings us into a deeper space, a sacred space ready to be gently and reverently explored and seen. It is this projective nature of expressive Sandplay and Symbol Work that affords us an opportunity to see ourselves outside of ourselves and to reflect upon what is seen.

This three-way relationship, between client, therapist and the creative process is a key element of the work. Clients often experience this approach as less threatening as it provides an indirect platform for discussion rather than addressing emotional problems in a straightforward verbal fashion. Let’s face it: it’s usually our own thinking patterns or entrenched beliefs or habits that got us stuck in an uncomfortable place – if telling someone what to do fixed the problem, or just talking about it solved things, it most likely would have been solved long before reaching my office!

What is Expressive Therapy?

Not everyone likes to talk about what’s bothering them.  Sometimes it’s hard to think your way out of a situation when no obvious solution presents itself.  Expressive therapies bring the opportunity to explore the psyche in a creative and playful way.

So many of us seem to lose our ability to engage our imagination and creativity.  We decry our situation in life, and wonder why we have lost our sense of passion and purpose.  Expressive Therapies provide an alternative way of engaging with the issues.  A different way of viewing our life situation.  A creative way of exploring the options open to us as we move forward,  allowing our imagination, our intuition, and our creativity to flow again.

I offer my clients weekly sessions in which we might engage in activities such as drawing, painting, writing, visualising, meditating, movement, listening to or making music, empathetic role-play, sand-play or symbol work which allow you to explore your inner landscape in ways that traditional talk therapy doesn’t.  Each of these expressive activities has its own unique therapeutic benefit and use depending on the client, the setting, the situation and the objectives set as desired outcomes.  We talk.  I listen with an open-mind and an empathetic stance as we look to find the luminous space beyond right and wrong where fresh ideas emerge.

For a deeper exploration of the history, theory and practice of expressive therapies I recommend reading “Using Expressive Arts to Work With Mind, Body and Emotion” by Mark Pearson and Helen Wilson available to order here or Cathy Malchiodi’s book “Expressive Therapies” Available on Amazon

Click to read a chapter of Cathy Malchiodi’s book “Expressive Therapies”