Category Archives: Books and Research

Twyla Tharp's book The Creative Habit with a journal and collages

The creative habit

Twyla Tharp’s book ‘The Creative Habit. Learn and use it for life’ is one of the books on creativity I return to again and again. I remember looking at it so many times before buying it. I was unsure whether it’s for me. Mainly because Twyla Tharp is a renowned choreographer. And I am not a dancer. In fact, dancing has always felt like a very strange, unlearnable language to me.

I’m so glad I eventually got it because her writing and teaching isn’t just for dancers, choreographers or people interested in dance. It is for everyone who is interested in nurturing and using their creativity. In her book, she says:

“Creativity is not just for artists. It’s for businesspeople looking for a new way to close a sale; it’s for engineers trying to solve a problem; it’s for parents who want their children to see the world in more than one way.”

-Twyla Tharp

Creativity is for everyone

Tharp’s writes about the benefits of engaging in creativity and the many shapes and forms of creativity well beyond artistic endeavours. Her broad definition of creativity aligns with my work and how I aim to introduce creativity into coaching or therapy sessions. I love that she challenges any notion of creativity being elitist or exclusive to people with certain talents, degrees, job titles or skills.

I have read many books about creativity and my favourite ones are usually those that give clear advice on how we can rekindle and nurture our creativity. This practical advice is what makes creativity more accessible. I have met no-one who said that they don’t want to be creative, but plenty of people told me that they don’t believe to be creative. Twyla Tharp is very practical when it comes to creativity and she shares so many examples of herself as well as other artists, writers, athletes, businesspeople, and many more who have all found their own creativity hacks.


Creativity as a habit

She is honest about the fact that creativity requires work and commitment. It requires steadiness, dedication and vulnerability. She shares her tricks of keeping habits in her life that nudge her to being creative. We are creatures of habit, but we are also creatures of convenience. Doing creative work isn’t always the most convenient way of spending time, especially when distraction and passive ways of consuming entertainment are everywhere. It requires a good amount of discipline to show up for your creative work. Tharp emphasises the importance of “automatic but decisive patterns of behaviour – at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, or going the wrong way.”


Creativity as a skill

When visiting museums, I often find myself most drawn to artists’ sketchbooks, less to the final masterpiece. The sketches reveal how much preparation, planning and practice has gone into a piece which, in isolation, can easily look like the work of a genius, an accomplishment reserved for the most gifted. But we can learn to be creative.

In an interview for the Harvard Business Review Tharp acknowledges: “I create about six times more material for my dances than I end up using in the final piece.” In The Creative Habit, she also talks about the importance of practice as a way of building and strengthening one’s skill. She warns us from getting too stuck in our ways and quotes the sixteenth-century Japanese swordfighter Miyamoto Musashi: “Never have a favourite weapon.”

When it comes to using creativity in coaching and therapy, I experience this as a fine balance. It is great to have some go to modalities, things we enjoy, that come to us more easily. Yet often the most surprising, significant and useful insights are reached when we use a modality we are not that good at or haven’t used before. It won’t surprise you that one of the most significant insights I personally gained in coaching was reached when I engaged in some movement. It was clumsy, uncomfortable, cringeworthy and… insightful.


Creativity as discovery

Even though creativity is something we are all born with, as we go through life, it’s easy to forget what our natural creative process feels like. We are unsure at which points we tend to get stuck and which phases of the creative process come easily to us. At the end of each chapter, Tharp shares exercises as an easy and fun way to explore your creativity.

She invites us to mine for memory in a photo, explore our creative DNA, and suggests removing one of our skills from the equation and see what we can still create or how we create differently.

Here are a couple of questions from her creative DNA exercise:

  • What is the first creative moment you remember?
  • Was anyone there to witness or appreciate it?

My first creative memory is this: I was helping my mother bake Christmas cookies. I stood on a little stool to reach the worktop and used my favourite cookie cutter, a pig. I still have a real soft spot for pigs… My mother was there to witness it. I remember that she commented on my Christmas pigs… some were a bit wonky. I can still hear my mother’s Austrian accent and I remember that I was so excited to be helping with the baking.


Creativity for joy

Sharing a creative act with the world involves risk. Perfectionism is a way of managing the fear associated with such a risk. Perfectionism is a creativity killer that often gets in the way of joyful creating.

The inner critic keeps telling us we’re not good enough. As a result, we either judge ourselves harshly (no joy in that!) or stop creating altogether. It’s important to acknowledge that perfectionism can have its origin in deep attachment or childhood wounds. It can be a formerly useful, now unhelpful strategy to ensure one’s safety.

In my experience, trying to ignore the inner critic never works. It only gets more disruptive. The only way forward is to befriend your inner critic. We must see its interference as a safety exercise designed to protect us from the vulnerable experience of creating.

Twyla Tharp embraces failure as part of the creative process. In fact, she lists a range of failures in her book – but that’s a whole other article… She recommends gathering a ‘validation squad’. This isn’t necessarily a group of people who will love anything you do. They are people you admire for their talent, who care about you, who don’t compete with you and provide constructive feedback, with great honesty as well as substance and respect. This is an invaluable support structure if your creative endeavours are designed to fly out into the world, possibly to earn you a living.

When we think about creating in a more private setting, creating purely for joy is such a balm for our emotional wellbeing. I recommend a group of like-minded friends or people you find you can easily connect with. Often, deep friendship emerges from creating alongside and experiencing the vulnerable act of creativity together. 


Get creative

Maybe this has whetted your appetite to read The Creative Habit.

And I do hope you feel inspired to create!

art materials and stamped words including story, daring, courage, in the arena

More tips on how to rekindle your creativity can be found in this article about creativity as a work skill and in this one, where I share some information about the various reasons why many of us stop creating. My own journey back to creativity began tentatively after a twenty-year hiatus. Needless to say, I haven’t looked back!

Taking clients through an exercise of exploring the creative process, reflecting on typical blocks and ways to overcome them is one of my favourite ways to begin a creative coaching relationship.


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

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mixed media collage stating creativity takes courage

Creativity takes courage

When I introduce myself and my work, I’m typically met with lots of curiosity and some confusion.

Here’s what I hear a lot: That sounds great, but sadly I’m not creative. I can’t draw for the life of me. That’s so interesting, is it mainly for blocked artists? Do you work with children?

Listening to a conversation between Elizabeth Gilbert and Brené Brown, I came across the term creative midwifery. Brené Brown spoke about her inherent ability to tell stories, but when writing her first books she struggled. Only when she realised that her creativity needed a midwife, was she able to fulfil her potential. She simply asked colleagues to join her in a weekend getaway and listen to her stories, as if they were sitting around the campfire. Sharing her stories, in an auditory format, and receiving her colleagues’ suggestions and questions helped structuring her knowledge and research into what, in the end, became very successful books. The term creative midwife resonated strongly when I thought about my work.

Now, you might ask: if we are all born with creativity and it is an inherent ability, why would some of us need a midwife to give birth to it (again)? Isn’t creativity alive in all of us? Well…

Sadly, creativity is something we unlearn.

Putting my researcher hat on, I was delighted to find evidence that this isn’t just a hunch based on the typical answers I get from people who don’t consider themselves creative…. A longitudinal study by George Land, developed for NASA, assessed children’s creativity. Among 5-year-olds, a whopping 98% of kids were categorised as creative and imaginative. This percentage dwindled as the children grew older: 30% when they were ten years old, 12% when they were 15 years old. In a separate group of adults, who have been asked to complete the same test, a shocking 2% remain who call themselves creative. Against the trend we see with most other skills and talents, we don’t expand our creativity as we grow older, we unlearn it. And this explains why some of us need to tease it out again, later in life, when we want to re-connect with our creativity.


I come across three typical reasons why someone has lost their creativity:

Many of us lose our creative confidence and our self-belief. We have art scars from experiences when we were told we had failed at a creative endeavour and that we were clearly not talented in this field. Whether that’s the teacher who criticises a drawing or essay; or the ‘banter’ stating jokingly that we shouldn’t give up the day job; or a parent who, often with good intentions, reinforces other talents over our creative ones.

Another reason why we unlearn our creativity is purely neurobiological. Whenever our brain encounters a problem it searches through our database of experiences and knowledge to find an answer. When we are young, this database is naturally tiny and needs to be built. We play to explore the world, ask a gazillion ‘why’ questions and our brain busily files everything for later use. If all goes well, we emerge from childhood with a database grown in size and complexity, ready for solving the challenges of adult life. And now that it has grown into a substantial knowledge base, our brain develops ways of tagging and filtering this database to rapidly access the information that seems most relevant. This is useful as it makes for faster decisions and saves energy. Remember that the brain represents only 2% of the weight of an adult but consumes 20% of the energy produced by the body. To limit this significant need for energy, we develop automatic behaviours and muscle memory, such as being able to tie our shoelaces without having to think about it every day. And our brain develops narrow search algorithms to find useful information quickly. If we are in the process of learning a new computer program, it’s more useful if our brain sifts through what we know about user interface and software and ignores our memories of family gatherings in the 90s.

And then there’s the conditioning and expectation of being fast and efficient in our problem-solving. It’s easy to understand why very unfamiliar and creative solutions to problems are less likely to see the light of day. They carry a greater risk of failure, push-back or rejection. Our creative muscle weakens. Pathways of ‘tried and tested’ become grooves, then deep canyons. Our brain gets a bit stiffer. And just like we end up unable to touch our toes, we struggle to put pen to paper and scribble away, or we feel inhibited to write a story, even though we write tons of emails, articles, and reports every day.


How can we re-learn creativity?

There are three key ingredients to strengthening our creativity: inspiration, process and encouragement. All of these can be initiated in creative coaching and then practiced going forward. We need to train our brains for a wider search, even though this is harder work and often more time consuming. Making time for divergent thinking is a key step in creative coaching. I cultivate openness and soft thinking around anything that can serve as inspiration and a starting point. That’s why I share books, quotes, TED talks, random questions, or different frameworks, whether from the therapeutic or coaching world, in my sessions. I also have a set of what I call ‘poetic prompts’ which often yield unexpected and delightful results.   

Then we need process – not in a formal, rigid or technical sense, but in a sense of offering a safe space, some structure and guidance. This ensures that every inquiry gets wrapped up safely and captures the new insights. We often begin by exploring our own creative process, where we tend to get blocked and how we most easily achieve the state of creative flow. And it includes a big selection of creative processes and reflective exercises which allows us to remain open without losing ourselves down a rabbit hole and stalling our progress. This is the area where I hugely benefit from my Art Therapy training, bringing together creative process and psychological expertise.

And lastly, we need encouragement, back-up and support, a cheer squad, and someone who can ask the right questions, including those that feel a little uncomfortable to begin with. Creativity requires risk, and it is easier to do something that feels a bit risky with someone in your corner.

Of course, working with a creative coach or art therapist can support you in the process of bringing your creativity back into your life. Especially if you want to explore and heal deeper art scars. But also, because creativity usually brings up fear.

Fear is always triggered by creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome. This is nothing to be ashamed of, it is, however, something to be dealt with.

Elizabeth Gilbert

They can offer a safe and supportive exploration of these memories and the emotional risks of creativity as well as the emotional cost of suppressing your creativity.

But re-connecting with your creativity as a hobby is a great way to start. It’s how I started again after years of disconnection. And it’s the reason why I love that part of my practice: delivering creative workshops, workshops that don’t dive more deeply into the therapeutic territory, but a gentle portal back into the world of creative strength. I encourage you to find your portal back into this world! Whether it’s a workshop, a self-paced, pressure-free online course, a guided journaling exercise – anything goes. And as you practice your creative muscle, you might find that it contributes to all areas in life. You’ll be more creative at work, in your parenting, in your relationships and friendships. It makes for a richer, more varied life. It supports you in taking transformative decisions and navigating change with a new resilience and robustness. Creativity certainly takes courage; we need to be willing to take a risk or make a mistake. But it also builds courage through greater self-awareness. It makes us braver in our choices, in asserting our boundaries, in staying true to ourselves.

Start with these two writing prompts:

For me, creativity is ….

When I can be creative ….

And feel free to get in touch with any questions you might have around creativity. The lockdown has proved that Zoom-based sessions are working well! And if you worry about requiring a huge range of art materials to get started with an online session, have a look at this video where I share a glimpse into my studio.


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

a collage card titled gratitude showing two women hugging

On gratitude

The idea of practicing gratitude is becoming more widespread these days. Positive Psychology research has linked gratitude with happiness. And even though research cannot necessarily prove cause and effect, not leveraging gratitude for our wellbeing seems like a missed opportunity.

As 2019 comes to a close, it feels natural for us to look back, reflect, acknowledge and be grateful for events, experiences, relationships that have made our lives richer.

Research suggests that practicing gratitude has a range of benefits; it is believed to positively impact on our physical health and improve sleep. Its benefits for our mental health have also been highlighted: gratitude can support a more optimistic outlook on life and hopefulness, it can foster resilience and empathy. Importantly, gratitude also strengthens relationships. For us humans, hard-wired for connection, this is a crucial benefit we should leverage. If gratitude becomes an everyday ingredient in our relationships it creates a positive ‘give and take’ spiral. Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude and a professor of psychology at the University of California says, ‘gratitude is the antidote to entitlement’. When we practice gratitude, we’re more likely to appreciate our relationships, not just for the big favours and outstanding acts of support, but the everyday presence people have in our lives, and the small gestures of love and support. It’s also encouraging to read Emmons’s research that gratitude works at work. It’s easy to think of gratitude practice as a somewhat spiritual idea, and often we think spirituality doesn’t belong into the world of business. But as gratitude strengthens relationships and helps to restrict behaviours that are prevalent in toxic workplaces (gossiping, entitlement, negativity, any kind of bullying or aggressive behaviour) it is definitely a concept more and more companies are keen to integrate in their workplace culture. 

Gratitude also helps us grasp the narratives of our lives. I love this quote from Melody Beattie: “Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” With a focus on the past, gratitude shows up in our memories, reminding us to celebrate moments we are grateful for. When it comes to the present, gratitude is a form of mindfulness. To notice the small moments, we need to be mindful and connected to the present moment. And as gratitude brings hope it becomes a way of maintaining an optimistic and hopeful mindset to support us through tough times and set a vision for the future.

So far so good. Reaping the benefits of gratitude requires practice, and this means some work on our part. Merely thinking about it or having a grateful attitude isn’t enough. To cultivate gratitude and turn it into a practice we need to find a way of practicing that works for us. You can easily find suggestions for gratitude practices; a daily gratitude journal, a gratitude meditation or mindfulness exercise, prayer, counting one’s blessings, writing thank-you notes. Emmons has some practical suggestions here. To make any practice ‘stick’ you need to consider how much time you can realistically spend on it, your personality and preferences. We all know – if it isn’t easy and doesn’t come (fairly) naturally, we probably won’t do it. If you’ve been part of my community for some time, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of tailoring and creating what truly works for you. We can steal with pride from other people’s practices or ancient rituals and make them work for us and our life circumstances.

And finally, gratitude needs to be felt. It has to be practiced with the mind-body connection in mind! Writing a gratitude journal is a good start. But if you simply jot down some bullet points without connecting with your body and feeling your gratitude it won’t have the desired effect. So whatever practice you choose, take the time to silence the noise around you and connect with your gratitude through your body and senses. 


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

quotes stitched onto fabric squares

Creating your 10% list

As the end of the year is racing towards me, I begin to reflect on the year, what worked, what changed, where did I move forward and where do I feel stuck. It comes with the territory of an annual review that I’m pondering what I have achieved this year and what my intentions and goals for next year might be. I have a dedicated process which I’ve been using for years now. It involves choosing one word for the year and exploring it on a monthly basis using some coaching techniques and art invitations.

On a side note: last week, I’ve launched an online course to share part of this process with you. It’s called ‘Living with Intention‘, and you can find out more here or here. It’s totally self-paced and you can start at any time, but as the year draws to a close, it might be a perfect gift to yourself right now. This process provides a great framework to keep me on track and celebrate progress. Typically, around October/ November I sense that I’m ready to let this year’s word go to make space for a new word. This year, my word is ‘open’ by the way.

As I entered ‘debrief stage’ I did some research on goal setting. It’s undoubtedly useful, but can also create a lot of stress, especially when we miss deadlines, fail to reach a goal altogether or feel that other people’s goals are so much more worthy, audacious and impressive. Many of us have the false belief that big success requires big action. This makes us susceptible to signing up to slightly unrealistic New Year’s resolutions, unpractical 30-day challenges or food plans that can’t withstand contact with the battlefield of everyday life. It also turns us into harsh critics when judging our own progress or success. I often catch myself expecting my achievements to be mind-blowing and nothing short of a total reinvention.

Enter: the concept of aggregation of marginal gains. Sports teams are often quoted to be doing this well. Dave Brailsford who led Team Sky and British Cycling to success has applied the idea of making lots of tiny changes which eventually added up and led to significant increases in performance. Habit guru James Clear writes about this here.

What I like about this concept is that it feels much more doable. We don’t have to make all the tiny changes at once. Given few of us operate with a support team comparable to Team Sky’s we need to pace ourselves. We can build our marginal gains over time, trusting that they can add up and lead to the desired outcome.

A similar idea was discussed in a workshop I attended. It was about stuckness and resistance, specifically in the context of trauma. But feeling stuck happens to everyone and is part of life. So, I see a broader application of what was shared.

The presenter, the wonderful Janina Fisher, spoke about her concept of 10% solutions when working with people through recovery and healing. She noticed that people would try something she had suggested only to come back and say, ‘It didn’t work for me’. But when looking into it, they realised it made them feel a bit better, maybe 15%, maybe 10%, maybe just 5%. But this led to the understanding that there are no silver bullets. We’ll never find the one thing that will sort things out when we find ourselves in a crisis or difficult spot.

We live in a culture of problem fixing and it is tempting to keep searching for the silver bullet. How could we not believe that our life would be wildly successful if only we managed to do the five magical things wildly successful people do. Allegedly. And typically, before 5am. Equally, when we are being asked for support or advice, we feel the pressure of coming up with the one size fits all solution that will turn things around.

Instead we should all be drawing up our own 10% action list. Rather than feeling self-care requires a weekend off the grid, we can have a list of tiny actions that add up. A healthy meal, one hour more sleep, a quick walk in the park, listening to your favourite song. Rather than choosing one New Year’s resolution, which is likely to drop off the radar before February, we can choose a guiding word and use it as a platform for setting small goals and inviting subtle change. And by the end of the year, we might look back and realise the aggregated effect. We should create a pick & mix menu for when we need extra support.

It’s actually quite important to capture this list outside of our heads. Don’t rely on your memory. Because, usually, when we feel low and are questioning ourselves, our brain is a bit off in its ability to make smart decisions. It’s certainly not very creative in coming up with ideas to break the spell of feeling low. Having a physical list to choose from can make all the difference.

Here are a few things you’d find on my 10% solution list: Journaling; coffee (ideally with good company!); a shower; Mika’s ‘Grace Kelly’ and songs from the crazy Bavarian band Bananafishbones (a special mention to ‘Easy Day’); some former clients have made beautiful art responses for me, so I look at those; cooking one of my favourite recipes; finding an inspiring podcast or blog; talking to someone close; I cannot leave art journaling off the list; making a 5-minute collage; reading; None of these can single-handedly save my day, but each one can make a day look a little brighter.

I’m curious – what will you put on your 10% action list?


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

The power of play

Recently, I’ve been pondering the power of play. Where I trained for my Art Therapy Masters, the following quote underpinned their teaching philosophy:

Tell me and I forget,

Teach me and I remember,

Involve me and I learn.

And I must say, it was a very unique teaching and learning environment. Out with the bell curves of performance, in with the flexibility to adjust to individuals with their imperfections and unique ways of thinking, learning and expressing themselves. I was in heaven. I’ve never done less revising in my life, yet I can tap with ease into an internal catalogue of knowledge, creative processes and procedures and apply them in my client work. I can remember every detail of key moments in my training where I had an insight about my typical patterns and the way I am in the world. I don’t need to write them down, I can remember them with my entire body.

Recently, I experienced this way of learning again when trying to get my head round proper colour mixing – not all Art Therapists have a Fine Arts Degree… I have read multiple times about colour theory, I have stared down many colour wheels, I have watched plenty of online videos. But still, so often I created mud! Then I watched an online video by the artist Ginger Cook and she suggested creating your own colour mixing journal. So rather than listening, watching, reading… I actually mixed alongside and painted colour swatches in my journal. I was still creating some mud, but now by design, it was part of the experimenting to understand how pigments react with each other. I celebrated the creation of some beautiful shades when I got the cool/warm mix right and added just the perfect touch of raw umber – who knew! The colour mixing journal is a playful and hands-on way of learning. The process of mixing and capturing the ‘colour recipe’ has sunk in so much quicker and deeper than any other approach I’ve tried before.

I can see the same learning process taking place in Art Therapy and Creative Coaching. We involve our hands (and sometimes the whole body), we make and create, we play and experiment with materials, we embrace the process with all its accidents, stop/starts and detours. There is a place for talking and written reflection as well. It ensures a whole-brain approach and assists us with integrating our insights.

My colour mixing journal as well as the many art therapy sessions I was privileged to witness also reflect the research conducted by Dr. Karyn Purvis of Texas Christian University: without playful engagement, it takes over 400 repetitions to learn something new, as in create a new synapse in the brain. Alternatively, you can involve play in your learning and you’ll only need about 12 repetitions! This should be a major selling point for play in the time poor era we live in.

Next time, when you want to learn something new, how can you get hands-on and playful with it? Can you create a journal or collage, sketch a diagram, hang up a huge sheet of butchers paper and add doodles, post-it notes, images… In business meetings, a mind map or sketchnotes can add playfulness and assist with memorising the content.


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

collage saying carry on laughing joy

Riding uncertainty to find the spark of joy

Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering has been around for a few years and is currently experiencing increased popularity fuelled by the Netflix series. If you have read her book, “The life-changing magic of tidying” or are an avid Netflix watcher you will probably know that the question of what sparks joy sits at the heart of her philosophy. I happily admit that by following joy and her magic folding method my T-Shirt drawers are still in good shape more than three years on! For me, the question, ‘Does it spark joy?’, emphasises the fleeting nature of joy. It suggests that joy needs to be sparked repeatedly. Joy can be a wonderful emotion as long as we accept that it will vanish quickly. Like happiness, the pursuit of joy can become a burden if we start to chase it as a continuous state.When we expand the search for joy beyond teapots and sock drawers and apply it to careers, homes, relationships things get trickier. We all accept that these areas of life require some hard work but if the spark of joy becomes permanently absent, many of us wonder what needs to change in order to invite more moments of joy back into our lives.

While the journey towards joy is courageous it is not always a joyful one. It will almost always throw us into the chaos of uncertainty. Research has shown that we are hardwired to dislike uncertainty.

Even to a degree that we prefer the certainty of a negative outcome over uncertainty! Uncertainty increases our stress levels and when we are embarking on change, we accept travelling on the road of fear and self-doubt. We receive frequent and unsolicited reminders from our inner critic that we are taking too big a risk, going into the wrong direction and are probably not up to the job of transforming anyway. We doubt whether things will ever turn out the way we hope, dream, imagine, whether they will ever spark joy.

Art therapy offers some rich ways to explore our inner critic and, on the flipside, get more acquainted with our inner teacher, wise sage or compassionate mentor. It is a way of exploring our relationship with uncertainty, especially as it doesn’t depend on a verbal expression of our experience. Expressing this turbulent journey creatively allows us to give form to it without knowing what exactly is going on, let alone why. We don’t need to have the words for how we feel in this liminal space of change. And as we progress in our exploration, we will find a way to give voice to the mucky terrain of change and uncertainty and find ways how we can best traverse it, always with the possibility and intention to rediscover joy.


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

mixed media collage saying at the edge of

Holding on and letting go

We’re all familiar with the heart-warming reflex of a baby gripping our finger when we stroke its palm. It’s called the Palmar Grasp Reflex and makes babies hold on to things with surprising strength. But it is also unpredictable as they tend to let go suddenly. By the time we’re three to six months old we begin to make more voluntary choices what we hold onto. Have you ever wondered whether you tend to hold on to things or whether you are quick to let go?

We value holding on to things that are familiar, safe, pleasant or fun, things and people we love and care about. But life requires us to let go of things, either because of their transient nature or because they no longer serve us. The latter could be a relationship or friendship that feels no longer supportive, a job which no longer challenges us in a positive way, or simply items in our wardrobe that no longer fit who we are.

Trying to understand my typical patterns behind holding on and letting go purely cognitively has highlighted how my biases and values get in the way. Do I think being able to hold on or let go of stuff is the ‘better’ trait? If I am a ‘holder on-ner’ is this a sign of inertia or hoarding tendencies? Or a sign of loyalty? If I can let go easily – does this make me a commitment-phobe? Do I lack grit, tenacity or dependability? Or do I simply know what’s good for me and value my freedom and independence? I’ve never really gotten to the bottom of understanding my tendencies of holding on and letting go purely with my brain power.

But I have been introduced to an enlightening body-based exercise that helped shedding light on this. The exercise was shared during a workshop with Pat Ogden, a pioneer in somatic psychology and the founder and director of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute. According to Pat Ogden, grasping is one of the five basic movements. The other four are yield, push, reach and pull. This is an easy exercise you can do at home if you are curious.

How to do it:

Find a quiet space and an object you can drop without the object breaking or ending up with a dent in the floor. Consider spreading a blanket if it’s a hard floor. The object should be heavy enough to drop with some momentum; not a feather but bot a bowling ball either. It could be a small ball, a pen, a glue stick. Stand upright, holding the object in front of you in a firm grip, arm slightly bent. Check in with your body and your senses how that feels. Then, let the object fall to the ground and try to notice in as much detail as possible how that feels. It’s best to repeat this a few times, always checking in with your body and body sensations. Whatever feels better – the action of grasping and holding the object or the action of letting it fall to the ground – might give you a clue about your natural pattern.

Whatever your tendency – remember this:

Life is a balance between holding on and letting go

Rumi

Knowing our natural tendency can help us to check in with ourselves when we feel stuck – is there a good reason that is holding us back or is it that we simply operate in a pattern of feeling more comfortable with holding on? In a situation where we want to run for the hills – is there a good reason for this and should we trust our instinct, or can we recognise a pattern that we are often quick to move on? Whatever it is for you, there is no right or wrong, but it is always good to be self-aware.

Get in touch if you have questions on the exercise! I love to hear from you.


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

trailhead of a path into the forest

Finding the trailhead of your creative process

I am on day 22 of #the100day project and my #100daysofsensemakingemotions. Once I had decided to embark on this project, I quickly devised a plan. I was going to use Tiffany Watt Smith’s ‘The Book of Human Emotions’ and create a collage a day in a journal. This is fairly typical for me and my creative process. Incubation is the first phase of any creative process, it is a phase of staying open, a phase of collecting divergent ideas and inspiration. It is often skipped in today’s fast paced world – I’m not alone in my tendency to quickly jump into doing as this is the only way to feel productive and that ‘I’ve got this’. However, incubation requires time and space, it often happens in the background when we work on something else. That’s your classic shower moment.

Initially, I described my project on Instagram with the following words: ‘to create an A-Z of emotions, using imagery, colours and words to capture 100 emotions in the form of a small book.’ So, there you go. Looking back, I notice how restricted this first project outline was. I imposed on myself the format of a book, a small one, and the order from A to Z. Luckily, I couldn’t find the right journal of around 100 pages. This bottleneck in the journal market forced me to re-enter my incubation stage. My initial idea, the second stage in the creative process, became: ‘100 days of collaging a range of emotions, possibly adding some mixed media, the rest is going to unfold as I go along.’ I kept my subject of emotions, my main art form collage, and that’s pretty much it. The initial idea is like a trailhead, a starting point. As a lover of mountains & hiking, I love this analogy from Lisa Mitchell, the author of ‘Creativity as Co-Therapist’. Arriving at the trailhead always feels energising, we’re ready, we check the time, our gear, we have an idea where this hike is taking us, roughly how long we’ll be walking, how difficult the terrain might be. And we’re ready to set off with a feeling of excitement and curiosity and without seeing the entire walk in front of us.

Whenever we try to create something or come to a decision, we must articulate an initial idea that takes into consideration our meandering thoughts from the incubating stage and remains open to changes and adjustment. Without this we become stuck, blocked and can’t get started. We might procrastinate and avoid the risk of beginning by doing more research or planning or by aborting the topic altogether. To get going we need to trust the trailhead and accept that there is always a risk that the trail might suddenly end, be poorly marked, or is treacherous…

So, how is it going with the #100daysofsensemakingemotions? It’s going well and I am so very happy that I didn’t set an A-Z order, preselect 100 emotions and didn’t find a suitable journal! The more improvised approach allows me to work with whatever emotion turns up on the day. Once I started the project, I also stopped limiting myself to just the one book and I enjoy exploring various online sources for inspiration. Without a journal I can be led by the size of the main image. And there are loads of ideas of what I might do with the 100 cards at the end. It’s still early days, but I think this more haphazard approach helps me to stick with it. This is not a manifesto to stop planning and show up in life unprepared. Bring the right gear for your hike. Take a map and a compass. But be prepared to leave the trail if it’s flooded, embrace the option to turn back if it gets too difficult or the weather changes. Without getting yourself to the trailhead you’ll never hike anywhere.

P.S. It never seizes to amaze me how we find trailheads in an art therapy session. They come in the form of an image, a colour, a twisted paper clip or a gesture. Anything goes and we are off!

Contact me to find your trailhead.

Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

random art materials

Improvising and saying ‘yes’

Recently, I’ve been inspired by reading a gem of a book called Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson. Since drama club has always been my personal nemesis, I was surprised how strongly I connected with her ideas and how her writing felt relevant for my work as an art therapist.

Although I enjoy watching performances, I feel quite self-conscious as a performer. I have anxious memories of a teacher in secondary school who saw some comedy talent in me and insisted on me starring in the school play. In the originally planned play I would have been playing a queen – now that Olivia Colman won an Oscar for her performance in The Favourite I wonder whether I’ve missed a trick… But I ended up being a lion in a much shorter play with the added benefit of having no lines other than a roar.

What stood out for me was that all the thirteen maxims covered in this book felt so relevant for someone working with a relational approach. And in the end, aren’t we all working relationally, i.e. being in relationships with colleagues, clients, suppliers and collaborators during the workday. And we continue being in relationship in our private lives with partners, families, friends and kids.

Patricia Madson encourages us to improvise our lives. She describes the ‘improv world’ as people who are easy to be with. Who doesn’t want to be ‘easy to be with’??? She encourages us to say ‘yes’ and makes the important distinction that saying ‘yes’ doesn’t and shouldn’t turn anyone into a yes-person or doormat. But it can open up some spontaneity, it lets you risk stepping into the unknown and uncomfortable.

Improvising and risk taking are hard. Evolution has given us a solid planning instinct to make sure we make it over the winter and periods low on food. Modern life continues to incentivise those well organised and prepared, it even tries to sell us funeral insurance! I’m not opposed to some sensible retirement planning, and if it helps someone to juggle their lives meal planning is also fine. But I often feel that all this planning makes us less and less comfortable to sit with stretches of unfilled time, risk or uncertainty. Without a clear direction or next step, we easily start to feel fear rising in us. We fear failure and embarrassment when we take a risk that doesn’t pay off. We fear the lack of control when we have to improvise or abandon plans. We fear rejection when others might disapprove of a decision or action we take. And FOMO (fear of missing out) is of course a well-established fear that drives us to plan and fill our days to the brim with activities.

But when we manage to stop running away from fear (assuming there is no danger to our lives) and find out what fear is trying to alert us to it can be a very insightful and useful emotion. It can motivate us and inject energy to act in a certain direction. With the mindset of improvising and an awareness of the function of fear we can say ‘yes’ to something despite a sense of dread, anxiety or worry.

I’m saying ‘yes’ to running two workshops combining some ideas of improv theatre with art therapy processes. What are you saying ‘yes’ to?

Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space