What art therapy has to say about change

“How do I actually learn best? How do I change? How do I grow? Is it through that kind of belittling myself and berating myself and humiliating myself? Or is it through something else, some other quality like self-compassion and recognizing the pain or unskillfulness of something I’ve done or said and having the energy to actually move on?

So where does that energy come from? It comes from not being stuck. And how do we get unstuck? In fact, it’s from forgiving ourselves and realizing, yeah, it happened. It was wrong. I’m gonna go on now in a different way ‘cause I’m capable of that. I am capable of change.” – Sharon Salzberg 

The key to change, as it is understood by art therapy, is awareness and acceptance. In art therapy we have various processes to help clients come to greater awareness and acceptance of the facets of themselves.

We facilitate awareness of self by through symbols and creative expression: through exploring dreams, journalling, art making. Awareness of who ‘we’ are is the goal – all the personas and different perspectives, all the different behaviours and habits, all the unmet feelings, unhealed wounds, and ways of thinking that make life harder for us.  We try to foster awareness of the sometimes ‘quieter’ inner voice of creativity, wisdom and self-love. The making of marks on the page not only expresses who we are and how we feel, but helps uncover to ourselves who we are and how we feel.

We help create acceptance through developing a positive therapeutic relationship with our clients, modelling self care and self acceptance, and practicing unconditional positive regard.  We encourage our clients to develop the ‘witness state’ and much like with meditation we help them to more easily observe their feelings and thoughts without judgement.

Like any change, the process is a ‘wiggly’ path – we step in and out of the light of awareness over time. When life is busy and we feel stressed it may be harder to be aware of our internal processes – the external inputs are coming thick and fast and we can no longer hear our quiet inner voice.

Similarly we may find the practice of acceptance easier and more difficult in certain moods, around certain people, after certain experiences. When faced with our less ‘pretty’ emotions (anger, envy, sadness or fear for example), especially if they arrive unexpectedly, we can feel disappointed and judge ourselves (‘oh, I thought I was more evolved than that! Why am I still reacting like that?’). Acceptance feels like a slippery thing that we remember but no longer have hold of. The work we do in-between our crisis moments on acceptance paves the way for new responses when the big emotions wade in.

Just as with honing, strengthening or loosening a physical muscle, this practice of developing awareness and acceptance, to allow for change, takes time, patience and all the compassionate support we can get.