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 do you think?

Our thoughts shape the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us. The biggest changes in my personal journey of growth came about when I began to recognize that the majority of the thoughts I was thinking weren’t actually true (big thank-you to Byron Katie’s The Work What?! Thoughts aren’t true?! That’s right. Most of us have a constant stream of thoughts running through our heads. It’s like watching the ticker-tape at the bottom of the screen on a TV news channel – mostly on red alert. And most of it is FAKE NEWS!

So what do you think? As I learned through various trainings in mindfulness practice, the majority of my thoughts (and probably yours too if you take time to notice) could be divided into two categories: reminiscing about the past and getting lost in regrets of “if-onlys” or bombarding myself with “what-ifs” and catastrophizing about some imagined form of dystopian-style future for myself or my children. Naturally, this meant I was existing in a perpetual state of stress and fear.

When I learned to step back, breath and examine the thoughts, I began to notice that there were a number of repetitious thought loops and common themes to my constant over-thinking. Using an activity called the Daily Pages from the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, I became more aware of the habitual thoughts and patterns that were driving me. Caught up in these thought loops, which would then trigger corresponding feelings which in turn would create a deeper and deeper groove for the thought-train to run along.

And so, the antedote?

Meditation. High on the list. I attended an 8 week MBSR training in Singapore led by Sheryl Bathman, as well as regularly attending various classes with Toby Ouvry and a few online courses. I attended a 10-day Vipassana Silent Retreat which – whilst challenging on many levels – really gave me a clearer understanding of the meaning of being present.

Change the way that you talk to yourself about yourself in your head. Yes. I did this. It worked. I consciously forced (in a kind and loving way naturally!) myself to be kind to myself about myself. I created a loving mantra that I would repeat over and over in my head. If I could spend 40+ years allowing myself to be bullied by myself in my head, I would need to make a conscious effort to reverse it. And so, deliberately, I began with “I am happy, I am well and I am loved”. Trust me, it felt ridiculous at first, but my negative side (having been so dominant in my psyche for many years) wasn’t going to give up its space in my head that quickly or easily. Slowly, as the new habit built, my inner experience of myself and my automatic thinking habits began to change.

Focus on the good. Whatever has happened in your life, whatever your perception of those events, whatever your core beliefs about how the world works bringing your focus onto what is working, what is good, what is beautiful will bring about change. Gratitude and appreciation for the good will change you. If you wish to be inspired, watch Alice Hertz-Sommer, survivor of World War Two’s Holocaust explain, at the age of 108, her philosophy on how to live a long and happy life:

So. What do YOU think?

Now Is The Time

There are many strengths, values, characteristics and habits we develop throughout our lives but among the most important for me right now are creativity, gratitude, simplicity, purpose, and resiliency. Now is the time to strengthen and draw on them all, in whatever capacity we can, in service of the greater good.

For me this means increasing time in contemplative prayer and meditation, online yoga classes, cooking nourishing foods for my family and focusing on the good that emerges in a crisis whilst still honouring the heaviness in my heart as I grieve for the world I knew before January 2020 and for those suffering illness and despair.

It also means letting go of some ways of showing up in the world, going more slowly than usual, accepting the limitations willingly, and considering more creative ways to be present for others as time passes.

What would resiliency look like for you? How are you using this time to reflect and let go of that which no longer serves?

#resiliency #wellbeing #beingwell #selfcare #strengths