A friend and I talked about folding a daily origami heart to mark the transition between a long day in the home office and being ourselves again.
Rituals have become important. Ways to draw invisible lines that can guide us, not just between our life on Zoom and ‘the other life’, but also through a time that has been challenging to say the least. We are still in the midst of it, but as vaccination programs roll out in many countries, people reflect and begin cautiously to imagine what life after COVID-19 might look like.
Conversations everywhere talk not only about loss but also about what we have gained. Many share that they have gained new rituals which have brought them closer. Closer to their family, to their friends, to their colleagues – even when physically distanced.
Especially in the Western cultures, rituals have been eroded over time. They got lost under layers of productivity and commerce. They fell by the wayside as we sped through life. And the rituals or traditions that still matter to us have been curtailed or made impossible. Reduced or no family meetings over Christmas, no end of year celebrations, no Valentine’s Day dinner… There is sadness, frustration, sometimes anger over all that we can’t do. And quite frankly, we are also bone-tired. We need to make space for this sadness, as bottling up emotions can at best be a temporary fix.
Beyond the sadnessthere is a place for personal and modern ritual.
It doesn’t have to feel new-agey or esoteric. Understanding the ingredients of ritual, we can all create our own rituals and bring the experience of safety and meaning to our lives. Since rituals energize us and focus our attention, they can be great way to support us in crafting a meaningful and intentional life.
Here are some ingredients of ritual that can transform ordinary actions into symbolic expression and help you create your ‘DIY ritual’:
Space and setting
An opening element to mark the beginning of your ritual, this might include sensory elements like light (lighting a candle or watching the sunrise), sounds (your own music or a song/ piece of music you listen to, or nature’s sounds), fragrances, the aroma and taste of certain foods…
The intention and meaning you want to mark with this ritual
Finding ways to ensure you are present
Elements of reflection or contemplation
Gratitude or a closing element
Do you wonder which ‘lockdown rituals’ should be carried into the next chapter of life? Start by reflecting on your needs and what feels meaningful. Notice meaningful moments throughout the day and write them down. See what patterns emerge.
If you are experiencing significant transitions this year, or in this moment, here’s a simple ritual that can be used during transition.
It’s a writing practice that helps you connect with the meaning of letting go and beginning something new. You can find it in the post “Transformation and unlearning”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I first came across art journaling around ten years ago. Full of excitement and enthusiasm I bought books, blank journals, paints… And then I waited on the sidelines. I was in awe of art journals shared online. I saw a stunning page and bought the stencil, stamp or paint that seemed to have been instrumental in making it. And then I waited again. Looking at videos and photos of other people’s creations without the heart to start.
Excuses were easy to come by:
I worked full time and didn’t have enough free, uninterrupted time to begin a page.
I didn’t have the right space. I needed a studio or at least a very large table where I could be messy and leave projects out for days.
I wasn’t good at drawing and I needed to be able to draw faces before filling an art journal.
Whatever I was going to produce wouldn’t be as good as what others were making.
Whatever I was going to create wouldn’t be original.
All the books and YouTube clips were paralyzing. There was so much inspiration online – it was easy to keep myself busy on the sidelines. It was easy to give into my fear, and my inner critic’s voice of telling me to not even try. All our beliefs of ‘not good enough’ and ‘done before’ are in the end fear based. Our excuses of time and space are rationalisations to give into our fear. (Sidenote: some of the time/space stuff is of course real, but we could make time and space if only our fears were less overwhelming…) But: fear is good, generally. It keeps us safe and makes us proceed with caution. But our fear response has a tendency to overreact, just in case… and it tries to keep us safe from such low risk activities like putting some paint on a journal page. But it isn’t the paint application our fear tries to protect us from. It is the vulnerability that comes with any creative act. Even if we have no intention of sharing our creation. Even though we could throw it if we dislike it. But somewhere deep down we know that we become visible when we create, and without the certainty of a successful outcome this can be difficult to bear.
Finally, after years of ramping up, I started my first creative journal in winter 2015. What was the catalyst? I had been through a pretty tough time in life with lots of challenges and uncertainty. I faced the self-doubt and deep thoughts such challenges prompt in us. It was the start of winter here in Melbourne with shorter days and cold weekends that called for indoor play. I still needed the impetus of a final art material shopping expedition, but then I finally got started. Because I had plenty of uncertainty in my life already, and worries and fear. And suddenly, the fear of starting on my first creative journal felt trivial.
And I haven’t stopped. I go through phases when I add daily to my creative journal. There are times when other projects occupy me. But it is the one creative practice I return to without fail. I love looking through journals and remembering what inspired a certain page. I love seeing how my style has developed. Yes, some of my early pages might make me cringe, but they were the stepping stones to something that keeps me sane, fills me up and is a rich source of insights about myself. I’m still not that good at drawing faces, but I’ve learned some tricks. I’m still dreaming of the perfect studio space, but my journaling supplies move through the house like a wandering dune. I still see journals I love and have moments of feeling less talented. But I’m filling my journals.
And on that last excuse that my journals wouldn’t be original… I wish I could say this thought has been dealt with by beginning my journaling practice. But far from! Instead it shows up more often than ever before, the side effect of a creative career I suppose. And when it does I channel Elizabeth Gilbert:
Considering how much time I needed to get started I’ve created a 5-week workshop series on Creative Journaling. My hope is that this can be an accelerator for anyone who wants to make time for creative self-exploration but doesn’t know where and how to start. I really believe in a learning by doing approach. I also hope it is a space to enjoy the momentum and support gained through working in a group. And just because it’s winter… and really cold here… it could be a wonderful opportunity for reflecting and recharging.
Self-care is a huge buzz word these days. Looking after ourselves, our physical and mental wellbeing is crucial, but sometimes I feel the idea of self-care has yet again been highjacked by commercial interests. Of course, it feels good to get your nails done, have a bubble bath and a scented candle. But self-care goes beyond products and services we buy to get some relaxing ‘me time’. Sometimes having to make time for these activities in a busy schedule can actually get quite stressful. And when we fail to fit them in it can trigger our inner critic, because we haven’t got the perfect manicure, eyebrows, hair colour… (all these examples highlight to me that self-care seems to be an idea that circulates a lot more among women – but this might be just my perspective of how I look at it…) So, what might self-care mean for you?
There are the basics. They include sufficient sleep, good nutrition, exercise, being on top of medical check-ups. Beyond this, I believe good self-care is based on two things: good self-awareness/ self-knowledge and good boundaries.
Self-awareness and knowledge are necessary to understand what it is that refuels us. I don’t get a kick out of a mani/pedi. Someone else might, and that’s totally ok, but for me a visit to a bookstore has much greater potential to help me care for myself. And that’s not just because I love to read, but also because over the years I have learned what recharges me. Bookstores are often quiet spaces; many offer a tucked-away corner where I can flick through books. I don’t have to talk to anyone (unless I seek advice) and no-one prods me. If there is music, it tends to be quiet, too. This refuels me. Noise, the waft of chemicals and close proximity to random strangers suck energy straight out of me. Knowing how certain sensory experiences impact me also helps me to make good, self-caring choices in other areas of my life. Often self-care is linked to experiences our senses enjoy. This also helps us to be in the present moment, which is the ultimate self-caring way of life.
How to improve self-knowledge: most of us will have a good idea of the energy givers and takers. If you want to get to know yourself better, I can recommend journaling. Capture each day the moments or activities that made you feel good, calm, balanced, refreshed. Do this for 2 or 3 weeks, then analyse your notes and look for patterns. You can add to this by also capturing the moments that made you feel irritated, tired, on edge; this could just be an unspecific ‘icky’ feeling in your body. Just notice this.
Thinking back to your childhood also holds a wealth of information. As children, we instinctively knew what filled us up – and usually we had the freedom and time to do just that. Take some time to remember your favourite activities, think about your favourite stories and what they were about. Which play dates were fun, which ones left you feeling tired or insecure? Which toys and activities did you gravitate to in kindergarten, which ones made you shrink and pull back?
Once we know ourselves, we need good boundaries as they help us to articulate what we need and to say ‘no’ to things we don’t want to do or don’t want to make time for. The better you know yourself the more accurately you can state your needs. Some people find it helpful to create a ‘No List’. This can include all the activities you don’t care about and that don’t do anything for you and your wellbeing. A few years ago, I was inspired by Sarah Knight’s book‘The life-changing magic of not giving a f**k’. She suggests creating lists for four categories about things you don’t care (give a f**k) about. The categories are: things; work; friends, acquaintances and strangers; family. Ever since I carry these lists in my journal and happily add to them as and when I see fit. They are a good reminder of when I should say no and speed up the process rather than agonising over the same type of request again and again.
Some more myth busting about self-care:
Self-care is not limited to solo experiences; it can include others as long as they fill you up and don’t drag you down.
Self-care doesn’t need a lot of time. Think about micro-pauses such as planting your feet solidly on the ground and taking three deep breaths during a meeting. It takes just a few seconds, can be done without anyone noticing and it can do wonders for your wellbeing and ability to set your boundaries.
Self-care doesn’t need to be costly. Depending on your needs simple things like a cup of tea, a cheap journal, an essential oil or simply a completely free walk in the park can be all it takes.
Not all self-care needs to be pre-scheduled, the more you practice the more you’ll be able to naturally do more of the self-caring things. A pre-scheduled amount of self-care time can help if you have to consider a number of others in your day to day life or after a particularly stressful period. But ultimately, it’s great to get to a place where we practice self-care without thinking too much about it.
Sometimes I get asked the simplest of questions: what happens in Art Therapy? It’s such a straightforward question, and very appropriate one, because Art Therapy is still on the fringes of the therapy field with its various approaches. As we all like to know what to expect when we engage in something new this question deserves a simple answer. I hope this article will help engage more people with Art Therapy and its rich opportunities for self-exploration and healing.
In a nutshell, Art Therapy and Creative Coaching use various creative approaches to explore experiences, emotions and thoughts. This can but doesn’t have to include verbal expression. Through this creative expression of one’s inner world, Art Therapy can unearth deep and strong emotions, some of which might have been hidden or shut away inside us for a long time. It’s useful for a broad range of mental health issues and life challenges, but due to its ability to stir up and explore deep-seated emotions it is important that anyone engaging with Art Therapy has (or is willing to learn and practice) skills of emotional regulation.
The beauty of Art Therapy is that it (re-)engages our imagination and playfulness. As humans, we are born with these but when life gets really tough we can easily get stuck in the difficulty of our situation, struggling to see a way out. We risk losing our abilities to create, imagine and play and anything that can nudge us towards these abilities can contribute to our wellbeing.
Some specific questions I have been asked:
Will I be painting and do I need to be good at art?
Art Therapy uses creative approaches and techniques to express our inner world, our emotions, thoughts, experiences, concerns, beliefs. This can include visual art making like drawing or painting, sketching or doodling; it can include movement, exploring gestures we use frequently, sounds and music, or role plays. We might arrange random objects in sandtrays or on tables, arrange images into collages or construct 3D sculptures. We can use clay, fabrics, weave threads and wool. There literally are no limitations to what we can use. I have witnessed wonderful explorations using paper bark, an air conditioning duct, broken sunnies, bent paper clips and a rock. Therefore, anyone can do it, because you don’t need to be an artist, you don’t need art skills or previous experience. You just need to embrace your creativity and your innate desire to play.
What are key principles of the therapist-client relationship?
Like all therapies, it is based on building an open, transparent and trusting relationship between client and therapist. It is my role as therapist to provide a safe space, where we can explore and name all our experiences without fearing to be judged or told what to do, think or feel. I often use mindfulness techniques to support the feeling of safety. Mindfulness helps us to stay in the present moment and can help calm down our amygdala, the brain’s smoke detector which will naturally feel alarmed every now and then when we do important and deep work with our innermost experiences. Another fundamental principle is my belief that everyone is the expert in their own life. No one can know or understand your life, your emotions, your fears and worries, your values and goals, and relationships better than you. My role is that of a guide, not a teacher.
When is Art Therapy beneficial?
Art Therapy can be beneficial in supporting people through any challenging life experience, including mental health challenges, complex trauma, traumatic events, chronic illness. As Art Therapy doesn’t rely on language and the spoken word to communicate, it can be beneficial for those who struggle with articulating their experiences through language. Anyone who is non-verbal, doesn’t speak the local language well or at all (this can for example apply to refugee communities) or those who have lost the ability to speak through illness or injury. Children also find it often easier to articulate tricky experiences through art and play. When language is accessible, I like bringing the exploration back to language. At the beginning, however, suspending our analytical and cognitive problem-solving skills can be particularly beneficial for those who use this part of the brain a lot.
Finding ways to name experiences enables sharing, creates connection and gives us a different kind of control. Being able to summarise what we have discovered helps us implementing it in our everyday life and using it to inspire change. Sometimes, people come to therapy with a specific question or goal. They know which area in their life they want to work on. But when we start walking on this pretty clear path we might still encounter a fork in the road that needs to be investigated or looks intriguing enough to follow. Often, however, the path is less clear, and all we know is that something isn’t working or doesn’t feel good and that certain patterns keep showing up again and again and interfere with the life we would like to lead. A good therapist will guide you along the path and support you in exploring the detours.
What can Art Therapy provide that talk therapy can’t?
A slightly sticky question as I don’t believe in pitching different types of therapy against each other. Ultimately it’s down to what works for the individual. In our complex world, there is room for a vast range of approaches, and often they are complementary and a holistic approach can be most beneficial. But there are some areas where Art Therapy can achieve things that are less accessible through talk therapy. Apart from being a form of therapy for those unable to speak or uncomfortable with talking, Art Therapy can also be effective in exploring traumatic and deeply emotional experiences. During traumatic experiences, the Broca’s area, the language centre in the brain, shuts down (as do various other areas in our brain, especially in the frontal lobes, our rational or executive brain). Subsequently, these experiences simply cannot be expressed in words leading to expressions such as ‘speechless terror’. But creative processes allow us to give them some form, work with them and ultimately integrate them as part of our story. The creative expressions used in Art Therapy also enable us to communicate emotional experiences that we might simply not have words for. Difficult experiences are hard to articulate, sometimes because they come with the choking emotions of shame or embarrassment; other times because they are linked to topics that have the aura of being secretive and something that cannot be shared, whether that’s due to family secrets or perceived or real social norms – as John Bowlby, an important contributor to the fields of child development and attachment theory, said, “What cannot be communicated to the [m]other cannot be communicated to the self.”
In summary: Art Therapy and Creative Coaching can use literally any creative endeavour or activity, and be tailored to the client’s abilities, preferences or interests. Therefore, it can bypass the need for language when this is necessary, desired or beneficial. Like other therapies, a respectful, transparent, safe and trusting relationship with the therapist/ coach provides the sound foundation needed for this courageous work. While it can provide support for a broad range of life challenges its appropriateness and how it might support other treatment approaches always needs to be discussed on an individual basis.
If you have specific questions or are curious, get in touch!