Art therapy can support us with a broad range of challenges and experiences as we find ways to creatively express our experiences in life, past or current, aim to better understand our personal values and patterns and find strategies of connecting and being with our emotions in a helpful and sustainable way.
Firstly: you don’t need to consider yourself artistic or an artist. You don’t need any experience in making art, drawing or painting. You might even share my own experience of being given some pieces of rather unfavourable feedback by an art teacher at school. If, like me, this made you stop doing creative stuff, it’s never too late to reconnect with your creativity!
And while no artistic knowledge is necessary, I find it helpful to write about some qualities that can help people get the most out of art therapy and creative coaching. Remember, we don’t need to be accomplished in all of these, just open to them…
You are open and curious, willing to try something new and experiment with materials or techniques you haven’t used before.
You are proactive and ready to participate – as with any form of therapy you will need to participate actively in our work together and be prepared that this might at times be hard. I believe in you as the expert in your life, and as such you will shape your own process of art therapy with my help and guidance.
You are willing to play and let your rational mind take a back seat every now and then.
You care about living a life that’s aligned with your values and are interested in exploring them further.
You desire to explore your emotional, behavioural and relational patterns with a view to make deliberate choices of how to be with them.
You are an abstract thinker – you often look for the bigger picture, the deeper meaning, patterns and connections. You are ok with things being a bit ambiguous until you find their meaning and significance for you. You are able to suspend a final interpretation, definitive analysis or the impulse to fully explain or label what your art making might be telling you. It’s important to remember that most of us use a mix of abstract and concrete thinking depending on the situation. I invite you to ponder whether abstract thinking feels comfortable and might be your main mode of thinking.
Is this you? Can you see yourself in this list? If yes, I believe art therapy is worth exploring.
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 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.
Maybe this has whetted your appetite to read The Creative Habit.
And I do hope you feel inspired to create!
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.
Many articles that attempt to distinguish coaching from therapy come up with these differentiators:
Therapy focuses on the past, coaching on the future.
Therapy is long-term, coaching attempts short term results.
Therapists provide a diagnosis, whereas coaches don’t.
Simplicity is desirable. But I believe a more nuanced approach is required to explore the differences between coaching and therapy.
Simply drawing a line between working short and long-term is flawed since many forms of therapy are geared towards clients’ desire to achieve short-term progress. The length of therapy depends on the individual, the challenges they are facing and their therapy goals.
I have found that I often work on a therapy-coaching continuum. This must, of course, be seen in the context of typical clients I work with, people with a good degree of stability in at least some areas of their lives. Moving along this continuum with a more fluid approach needs a therapeutic qualification as a solid foundation. In this article, I will share my observations on shifting along the continuum and in my roles as a therapist and a coach.
First things first: when coaching isn’t an appropriate choice
There are factors that should steer us away from a coaching approach: coaching, with or without a therapeutic qualification and the related experience, is inappropriate for anyone who is experiencing a mental health crisis or doesn’t have the capacity to self-regulate and safely navigate strong emotions. Coaching is also unsuitable if the coaching conversation could bring up strong emotions and stir memories or behaviours in a client that put their or others’ safety at risk and require therapeutic support.
When considering a coaching approach, I ensure that it is the client’s preference, that they have the capacity to work in this way, including self-regulation skills, stability and functioning in most areas of life and that their challenges are suitable to a coaching approach.
Trauma in coaching
The presence or absence of trauma is not a suitable or sufficient differentiator. Coaching can provide appropriate support when traumatic experiences have occurred, but it isn’t suitable if a client expresses the processing of trauma as their goal or requires support to resolve trauma-generating life settings. While data is limited, the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare states that 57 to 75% of Australians will experience a potentially traumatic event in their lives. With trauma being so widespread in the population, we can expect to see the effects of living with trauma in many coaching relationships.
Many challenges clients seek coaching for might have been shaped by traumatic experiences: perfectionism, difficulty to assert boundaries, procrastination and issues with keeping to deadlines or routines, feeling stuck, problems with self-esteem or decision making, relationship patterns or typical responses to stressful events can all be related to trauma, in particular attachment or developmental trauma. Equally it is risky to use someone’s visible success in life, their ability to portray confidence and competence, their capability for high performance or stress resistance as an indicator that they haven’t been impacted by trauma. It’s worth mentioning that chronic stress, including chronic workplace stress, can also result in trauma.
Shifting from coaching into therapy
As a Masters-qualified art therapist with ongoing professional development in the field of trauma, I have the skills to shift a coaching relationship into more therapeutic territory. This needs to be done in a fully transparent way. It means noticing the emerging information, naming the perceived change and asking the client for consent and agreement to make this shift. Traumatic memories are not necessarily held as cognitive or mental memories. Instead, trauma is held in the body. Noticing the presence and influence of trauma requires additional skills beyond asking the right questions and active listening.
Another essential aspect when considering work on the therapy-coaching continuum is that the coach/ therapist works within a strong code of ethics. In my private practice, I work as a registered art therapist. Regardless of whether I take a therapy approach or work on the therapy-coaching continuum, my work adheres to ANZACATA’s code of ethics, I’m required to have regular supervision and ongoing professional development to keep my knowledge and skills current.
How my approach applies to coaching and therapy
My collaborative and client-centric approach aligns well with the philosophy of coaching. I work emergently; how the work evolves is driven by my client’s needs and goals regardless of where we are on the therapy-coaching continuum. The quality of the relationship and the level of trust we develop over time is another essential ingredient in my coaching and therapeutic work.
My sessions are always a place for learning and broadening our understanding of how life shapes us. A lot of the information and frameworks I offer in sessions are informed by neuroscience, the response of our nervous systems, and understanding emotional and behavioural patterns; as such they are relevant for both coaching and therapy clients.
The role of the past, future and present
To bring lasting change, coaching and therapy must honour the past and how it has shaped us. That’s why I don’t support the view that therapy works with the past and coaching looks into the future. For me, therapy that concerns itself only with the past brings up associations of a never-ending string of Woody Allen-esque psychoanalysis sessions. This has little to do with many contemporary forms of therapy.
People seek therapy or coaching to live a more fulfilling life. For most of us, understanding our stories and having them witnessed is the first step in shaping such a life. Boththerapy and coaching inspire the client to imagine new possibilities, alternative ways of being, to experiment with new aspects of their identity or different behaviours. Imagination is a powerful resource which takes our view into the future.
And let’s not forget the present! Resilience is our ability to stay present with strong emotions, in the face of adversity, uncertainty and pain. Keeping a client grounded in the present is crucial for a fruitful session during which insights and learning are possible. Strengthening resilience to steer through times of stress and turbulence is a positive outcome for coaching and therapy alike. Trauma-informed coaching offers the benefits of coaching to people who experience some dysregulation but don’t seek therapeutic work. A skilled, trauma-informed coach will have the experience to support them in staying present and regulating their nervous system response. However, a client who regularly experiences dysregulation does require solid therapeutic support.
What might feel different when we work with a coaching approach
When a client wants to work with a coaching approach, goals might move more into focus and the accountability offered by a coaching relationship is experienced as supportive. The overarching coaching goal might get broken down into smaller steps and a detailed plan for achieving them. This can include agreed timelines or email coaching in-between sessions.
Among my coaching clients, I’ve also observed a greater desire and capacity to engage in reflective work in-between sessions. They are comfortable to move at a faster pace, and reflective invitations between sessions can accelerate progress. As an art therapist and coach, the work between sessions often contains the creative aspect of our work, especially when working online.
Being directive or sharing personal experiences is always a delicate balance for any therapist or coach. Research has shown that appropriate and skilful self-disclosure can be beneficial and support progress. But therapists and coaches must be intentional and aware of how self-disclosure impacts on the relationship. When I work in a coaching capacity, I might be more directive, offer an opinion or assessment of a situation. Equally, I might share theory or supporting techniques in a different way than in a therapeutic relationship.
What is right for me?
The intention of this article is to provide some guidance on which approach might be right for you. It helps you ask the right questions in a discovery call with me. It can, of course, inform your choice with any other therapist or coach you might consider working with.
The starting point should be your preference in light of what you want to work on. You will know how you respond to stress, whether your life and relationships feel pretty stable or whether you experience frequent situations of feeling out of control.
My practice is built on a therapeutic qualification and experience in a range of settings including clinical ones. My previous experience in corporate settings and leadership roles helps me understand the context that is suitable for a coaching approach and my work at Sensemaking Space has shown that it is possible to blend the two ways of working within a client relationship.
It’s not always clear cut whether coaching or therapy is the best approach. That’s why I value working on the therapy-coaching-continuum with some flexibility and being able to hold both roles in a responsible, safe and ethical manner. As in every other area of my practice, being transparent about my observations and where I believe we are on the continuum is critical to building trusting relationships.
The best way to get further clarity is a conversation as it is impossible to cover all nuances in one post. If you want to explore your needs and goals, and which approach might work best for you don’t hesitate to book a free-of-charge discovery call with me and we can dive in further.
As a side note, at the beginning of this article I mentioned that some people differentiate between therapy and coaching based on whether clients receive a diagnosis or not. It’s important to stress that a mental health diagnosis can only be given by a qualified medical practitioner, i.e., a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist; less complex diagnoses might be provided by a GP, at least as an initial step to develop a treatment plan. Coaches, counsellors and also art therapists are not qualified to provide a diagnosis.
The world is changing… it has always been changing. Most recently though, we might have felt this change more intensely. The reality of living in a VUCA world has moved from board rooms into living rooms. VUCA stands for a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – and don’t we know what that feels like?! This world asks for creative resilient responses. It’s no surprise that creativity has been listed among the top work skills for the future.
The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report predicts creativity, innovation and ideation will be key skills. A 2010 IBM study among CEOs revealed creativity as the single most important leadership skill. The McKinsey Global Institute identified increasingdemand for higher cognitive skills including creativity.
What exactly is creativity?
Too often people’s thoughts jump to art classes and canvases. They hasten to add that they don’t have a creative bone in their body. And many of us have been made to believe that creativity is for the creative types or the truly gifted – an exclusive club which we don’t belong to.
I offer you an alternative definition, quoting Sir Ken Robinson: creativity is “the process of having original ideas that have value.”
Most of us have memories of being creative as a child. There might be anecdotes or even videos of your contribution to dance, music or drama performances. The drawing that hung on the fridge for ages, or maybe even something that got framed?? And then there are all the games and roleplays we invented; the fancy dress outfits we wore.
George Land’s longitudinal creativity study showed that 98% of 5-year-olds fell into the category of ‘creative genius’. This percentage dropped rapidly as these kids grew up, and among a representative sample of adults, 2% believed to be creative. Land concluded that “non-creative behaviour is learned”. Therefore, we need to nurture our inherent creativity and un-learn the non-creative beliefs and behaviours.
Creativity for survival
We can find more evidence that we are creative creatures beyond statistical research: our dexterity with an opposable thumb suggests we evolved to make things. This ability and our creativity ensured our survival. As Liz Gilbert wrote:
“If you’re alive, you’re a creative person. You and I and everyone you know are descended from tens of thousands of years of makers. Decorators, tinkerers, storytellers, dancers, explorers, fiddlers, drummers, builders, growers, problem-solvers, and embellishers–these are our common ancestors.”
Benefits of creativity
Creativity has several benefits which are very useful in the VUCA world and the workplace of the future:
When we engage in a creative act, we focus on the present moment and calm our busy minds. this is increasingly important in the context of information overload and a world full of distractions.
In the early stages of the creative process, we think divergently. We think broadly and delay filtering and selecting of ideas. In a world of speed and productivity this doesn’t always come easy.
We experience accomplishment and learn to trust the process and our abilities – cultivating a growth mindset instead of a fixed one.
We strengthen our imagination and problem-solving skills.
We explore and express our inner world – being grounded in our inner selves helps us navigate an ever-changing external world.
We build resilience for tough times.
Nurturing creativity becomes a cornerstone in caring for our wellbeing, in our private lives as well as in the workplace where the above-mentioned benefits can lead to more successful innovation, increased productivity and focus, better crisis management, overall resilience, improved collaboration and empathic leadership.
How to re-start your creativity
The main success factor in rediscovering creativity is time. Not tons of it, just the commitment to choose creativity and find pockets of time to practice it with intention. Ringfence a time of day, go on an artist date with yourself, establish a weekend practice.
Even though art therapy shows that our most significant insights are often achieved when working with a modality we are less comfortable or familiar with, I recommend starting from a place of preference or familiarity when you befriend your creativity again. Think back to creative activities and forms of play you enjoyed as a child. Whether it’s improv theatre or water colour painting. If you feel drawn to a particular material like textiles, wood or clay you might want to begin there.
It also helps to start with something that fits more easily in your everyday life. For many of us, a sketchbook is more practical than easel and canvas. Exploring photography through a daily photo using your smartphone can be more achievable than attempting your SLR camera manual.
Are you drawn to practical things or do you like to do things ‘just for fun’? If you are the practical type, making your own tea mugs or baking might suit you more than knitting miniature fruits and vegetables. And vice versa.
The accountability, encouragement and shared joy of creating in a group can also assist. Find a class, workshop, or an online course. One of my biggest joys of 2020 was the emergence of a small writing circle with women around the world using Zoom. Remember that many creative adventures do not need to begin with competence or learning a skill. We can simply get together and write or make a collage. If, at some point, we want to get better at it, we’ll be already motivated to put in extra effort. If we make ‘being good at it’ the first step, we’ll likely never start.
If you have a competitive streak, participating in a challenge can kickstart your creative endeavours. I personally love the 100-day project, but there are plenty more. You might want to use sharing your creations publicly, for example on social media or in private groups, as an accountability mechanism.
From hobby to life skill
As Tom and David Kelley write in their book Creative Confidence: “everybody is the creative type.” With the right encouragement and practice creativity can easily be rekindled, “but the real value of creativity doesn’t emerge until you are brave enough to act on those ideas.”
When we practice our creativity in this safe and joyful way, as a hobby initially and to re-charge our batteries, we will strengthen our ability to come up with creative solutions under pressure or when there’s more at stake. We will learn to trust our creativity as a work skill and weave it into our problem-solving and decision-making, steering us away from the dreaded ‘we’ve always done it like that’ principle. Most of us have been in a meeting where this was muttered, if not proclaimed aloud by some creativity grinch.
Creative coaching is a process that can kickstart the re-discovery of your creativity.
And while you are at it, you might learn a few new things about yourself, your values, beliefs, patterns or simply find the courage to begin a creative practice that could do with a cheer squad.
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.
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.
I was leisurely scrolling through Instagram this morning and came across a familiar quote:
Brené Brown suggests that some of us are ‘crazy-busy’ because we’re trying to outrun our needs and emotions. We often put our busyness down to our desire and duty to do things for others, for our employers, for our businesses, for our families, kids, communities, pets, clients, friends, loved ones… Being still and quiet can be uncomfortable. It can come with feelings of being bored, overwhelmed, unproductive, inconsequential to the world, uninteresting, not doing anything meaningful, wasting time, not making an impact, not being seen, not being needed.
I can empathise with all these feelings, I have them all, every now and then. As someone who finds neuroscience insanely fascinating, I’m always keen to understand whether anything in our evolution can explain typical behaviours. And – like so many of our behaviours – the tendency to hyperactivity has been hardwired into the human brain when we lived in a hunter gatherer environment. Taking immediate action, i.e running or fighting, rather than reflecting and deliberating kept us alive in an environment of many threats. This cognitive bias is called action bias. The problems of today’s world require reflection and benefit from thoughtful consideration. Yet, our bias is still to act rather than wait. If in doubt, most people will do something rather than nothing. We often jump into action or solution mode before we have fully understood the problem, sometimes we end up making things worse. Acknowledging that there’s nothing we can do is incredibly difficult. The challenge is to notice this bias when it kicks in and press ‘pause’.
I find it comforting that there are four ways to bring meaning into my life. Interestingly, the work of the team behind the Map of Meaning has also revealed that being of service to others is commonly believed to be the only way that leads to a meaningful life. That’s why professions to which being of service is central are often seen to be meaningful per se. Yet, we see a burnout crisis amongst health care providers and teachers are abandoning the profession. These two examples show that there is more to meaning. Organisations want us to focus on being of service when we assess whether our work makes any sense and gives us meaning. For an organisation, we are at our most productive when being of service to their agenda and goals. From an individual’s perspective, it’s also understandable to look for this direct feedback loop. We get direct and often the most rewarding feedback to our contributions when we are doing something in service of someone else. We might get a heartfelt thank you, witness visible change or improvement, see someone expanding their skills or knowledge, we might see a rise in safety, quality or standard of living through the work we do. To keep us going, it makes sense to pour our energy into an area that is most likely to provide us with feedback and encouragement. But we need all four areas of meaning to play a role in our life. Just focusing on one won’t be sustainable.
This shows that the hyperactivity we see in the world can be down to a range of reasons. We might not feel up to facing our needs and emotions in all their depths and complexity. We might simply act based on a cognitive bias that tells us doing something is safer than doing nothing. Or we might seek meaning for our lives by striving to be of service to others because this is what is being most rewarded, whether by our workplaces or the individuals we serve. It is, however, vital to understand that meaning can be shaped and being of service is only one way to bring meaning to your life. Taking reflective time to further your self-awareness, being in unity or community with others and expressing our full potential all contribute to a meaningful life.
You can use this journaling prompt to explore what meaning might look like for you: What is bringing my life meaning right now? Importantly, take note of the two little words ‘right now’. If we ask this question at a general level, it is impossible to answer. Meaning is about noticeable everyday experiences. It’s never accomplished, it’s not a goal that we can tick off, it ebbs and flows, but we can shape it. If you are interested to find out more about the Map of Meaning, please get in touch. It’s a fascinating and insightful tool!
This caught my attention. I often emphasised the aspect of learning new things in order to grow and open a new chapter in my life. The idea that unlearning might be a more important part, or if not more important at least a preceding step to achieve transformation made me curious.
Transformation can take many shapes and is always very personal. It might include becoming a spouse or a parent. Getting a divorce. Relocating. Changing careers. A mid-life unravelling. Retiring. And there are many more. Some are initiated by us. Others happen to us, unplanned, unexpected, sometimes uninvited. There are some common elements to all these experiences and the unlearning that needs to happen.
What is it we need to unlearn as part of a transformative journey?
It’s less about knowledge and skills. I am a big fan of transferable skills whatever your transformation. But we need to unlearn old beliefs. Established ways of being and navigating life. The ways of how we define e.g. success, a meaningful life, our purpose. We need to unlearn values that are not really our own, or values that no longer serve us. We need to unlearn our own narratives and the way we expected the story of our life to unfold.
This is deep and broad unlearning. We are not replacing old facts with new facts. It’s not an information refresh and upgrade of our operating system. We need to dig deep into the layers of who we are and assess what still serves us, what still fits and what has to make space for the new.
What happens when we unlearn these things?
As we dig deep, we enter a liminal space, the space where we no longer belong to the old identity and we haven’t yet shaped and moved into the new identity. In this space we have started to shed certain values that served us as a guiding light. We have stopped engaging in certain behaviours and rituals that came with belonging to a certain group. Liminal stems from the Latin word limen, threshold. Stepping over the threshold and entering this space can feel energising and exciting. And it can feel scary and full of sadness. Most of us will feel all the above when we are thrown into this space of being in-between. It’s a waiting area. When I’m in the departure lounge waiting to board a long flight, I feel the excitement of travel, seeing places and connecting with people, discovering new food, experiencing a different way of life. And I feel the dread of the journey of getting there, the stress of possibly losing my luggage, missing the connection, the discomfort of being in unfamiliar surroundings, navigating without speaking the language, feeling exposed and like the odd one out, having to adjust my normal rhythm of life. The liminal space is just like this waiting area, or the holding pattern we are in. And often we don’t even know for how much longer we will be circling around…
Inhabiting this space is vulnerable, often lonely and we might feel alienated and that we don’t belong anywhere. It’s an uncomfortable space, where we need to embrace not knowing as a state of figuring things out rather than as a state of deficiency or ‘having no plan’.
After all, we live in a society where being driven and progressing in a fairly linear fashion through life is being valued and encouraged. Detours, not knowing and a pattern of stop-start are being looked upon with suspicion. The polarising nature of our emotional experiences during transformation are hard to grasp. We usually enjoy the sense of excitement, but feelings of grief and sadness are hard to accept, especially when the transformation was desired or self-initiated. We expect to be excited for the long-awaited change and might feel an external pressure to rave about all the positive things this brings about. Admitting the scariness and discomfort needs a good portion of self-compassion.
Transformation is full of possibilities. Transformation is hard. It is at times ugly. It’s rarely about a straightforward move from bad to good. We leave behind positive things, things we loved, enjoyed, were good at. We enter into a new identity that is also a mixed bag. Some things will suit us better, other things will be missed. As with every journey, acknowledging the upheaval with a good and deliberate farewell, even one that involves tears, rather than minimising the disruption can help.
I want to leave you with a powerful writing/art invitation that the art therapist Lisa Mitchell has shared. This exercise celebrates the farewell rather than minimising it. It also celebrates the new beginnings. Take a blank sheet of paper or a page in your journal…
Start every sentence, bullet point or short paragraph with ‘Today marks the end of…’ – write until you feel finished. Write lots. Pay attention to the details! So rather than writing, ‘Today marks the end of my job at XYZ company’, write: Today marks the end of getting on the 7am train into the city. Today marks the end of picking up coffee at … where they know me by name. Today marks the end of getting annoyed at the fact that the train is delayed at least two out of five days a week. Today marks the end of starting the week with a Monday Morning meeting which is to equal parts irritating and energising – the same people drone on about their workload, but we also feel a sense of being in this together. Etc.
Same as step 1 with the prompt ‘Today marks the beginning of…’
Optional : Writing might provide you with some clarity and reassurance. If you want to add a third step, consider giving something away and/ or receiving something. You might give away clothes, books, tools, anything that feels strongly linked to who you were pre transformation. And be ready to receive something to welcome you into the future state of yourself.
This exercise works because it allows for both nostalgia and anticipation.
It visualises that each stage has good and enjoyable parts. It also helps us to make visible how the two stages of being pre and post-transformation are connected. How decisions made and steps taken in one led to the other. How the same strengths or fears show up in both stages. Acknowledging these connections can help to integrate and illustrate that it is a shift rather than a fracture. Even though the shift can feel as brutal and painful as a fracture. Change and transformation are part of life. We better get more comfortable with it.
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?
The need to ponder and reflect is a basic human need and a valuable mechanism of evolution. It supports us in learning from an experience which ensured survival. In today’s complex world, we continue to benefit hugely from learning through reflection, but often we don’t have (or don’t make?) time for a deeper reflective practice that goes beyond thinking or talking about our day.
But the desire is there! ‘Reflective journaling’ returns over 1.2 million Google search results. Amazon sells over 1000 books with ‘reflective journal’ in their title. It’s clearly something people want to find out about. Reflective journaling might be the most prevalent approach to reflection, and this post focuses on writing. But reflection can of course be achieved through other means than writing, for example through a visual art journal or sketchbook.
Reflection provides the opportunity to process and integrate experiences and let them inform our future actions. This learning can be two-fold:
learning about the world and others
learning about ourselves
Learning about the world is particularly important in a world that’s changing constantly, quickly and in deep and significant ways. When we reflect on new situations and unfamiliar encounters (and our way of responding to them), we understand what has worked and what hasn’t led to a beneficial outcome. By putting ourselves in others’ shoes we develop empathy and compassion for those around us.
Learning about ourselves occurs when we make our typical patterns and responses visible through reflection. This includes emotional responses which we may not want to share with others. We can therefore attend to our emotional world as the journal offers a container to hold all kinds of experiences and feelings. Reflecting on emotional patterns builds self-regulation skills, resilience and emotional intelligence. When we use a reflective practice in the workplace, it helps us identify areas for learning and development. It can therefore inform the sometimes dreaded appraisal conversation and turn this into a shared reflection – not all reflection has to be a solitary activity. Reflection can be used as a tool for self-motivation and encouragement as it makes our progress visible, no matter how small the steps. Teresa Amabile has done extensive research on the importance of identifying and acknowledging progress in the workplace.
For learning to happen we must find a way of effectively capturing the key insights. There is always a risk of losing them in the constant busyness of our minds or in a sea of written notes. That why I find a written reflective practice so valuable. I have written about my process to find what works for me before. It is based on Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, but I now call my practice ‘Anytime Pages’, acknowledging the original approach of Julia Cameron, just with the twist that I’m writing them whenever it works for me. I figured going a little rogue on the original concept is better than not getting into a habit of daily writing at all.
But doesn’t all this writing just create more stuff? More words? More cognitive load? It’s true, even three pages a day create a lot of words, and I felt the need to reduce my writing to memorable key insights. Some people promote the idea to trust that whatever is meaningful will automatically stick. But as a recovering ‘high achiever’, I needed to process my pages in some way. In order to build a habit around my writing it had to feel useful and purposeful beyond the act of writing.
I achieve this simplification with one of my favourite art therapy processes: key words. Whenever something resonates with me, surprises me or somehow feels important, I underline it. Every now and then I write all my underlined words or phrases onto a sheet of paper. Sometimes I do this after a couple of weeks, sometimes when I have filled a journal (which takes me roughly two months). Collecting these key words helps me to record my insights in a reduced manner.
They become something I can USE:
Unexpected – my underlining is guided by my curiosity. I often underline what feels new or surprising, sometimes even dissonant, that makes my key words relevant and worth following up on as part of learning about myself.
Simple – just some key phrases – for example: from my last journal (they are just under 200 pages) I have collected five themes. This makes is manageable.
Emotional – key words resonate with me on a deeper level which in itself means they touch something inside me. Our brains have developed in a way to remember emotionally charged situations or content better than just factual stuff.
As with every creative process – it only needs to make sense to you. If you want to have a stab at developing a reflective practice here is my suggested approach to start with – remember to adjust it to whatever works for you:
Get a cheap journal, nothing fancy.
Use stream of consciousness writing, simply let the words flow without censoring or editing, ignore spelling and grammar.
Consider writing with pencil, it allows you to write fast, which is often important for stream of consciousness writing, and with little pressure (good for a daily habit, avoids any repetitive strain injuries…)
I don’t recommend typing, writing longhand seems to help me get into the flow of writing, it feels more personal and intimate, there are fewer distractions to manage. There is a form of body memory when I’ve written something by hand rather than typed it, which again supports the end goal of learning from my reflections.
As suggested by Julia Cameron, I write three A4 pages each day. It helps turning it into a habit and is achievable on a daily basis.
If you can’t get started, tune into your mind and write whatever internal chatter you hear, It might be thoughts like: I don’t know what to write, I’m bored, what a waste of time…Write that down, it’s a start.
I underline as I write. With some practice you will notice the little jolt in your body when something you just wrote is important, resonates and should be captured as key words.
Review all your key words regularly. You decide what ‘regular’ is for you. It can be every two weeks or when you have filled a journal. Whatever feels right. But set aside some time to sit with these words.
Don’t get disheartened by a few days without major insights and little or no underlining. The good stuff will bubble up eventually. Sometimes it’s like doing some stretches before you start a workout. Give yourself time to warm up.
Sometimes I create a little ‘poetic reduction’ or a tagline from my key words (hello, marketing background!). This is a way to reduce things further. But that approach is another post altogether.
Go get a journal and start writing, you’ll be surprised how much wisdom you carry inside you!
If you have any questions around this topic, email me, I’m happy to share my experience.
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.