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.
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!