Adventures in Art Therapy

I’d known for a while I needed to get back into therapy. At the end of this past spring, I was feeling, in a word, poopy. I noticed I was anxious, a little depressed, crabby, scatter-brained, and somewhat overwhelmed to some degree on most days. I wasn’t feeling motivated to do much, and even when I was doing what needed to be done, I wasn’t present or focused. Not what I wanted. I was sick of feeling this way, and I knew I needed to do something to get myself out of this rut, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do.

Therapy has always been an overall positive thing for me. I believe in it completely when it’s done well, and even when it’s not. I love having the ability and space to explore my many thoughts and feelings, with someone objective, who can offer a different perspective or ask me questions that help me get “unstuck”. I had taken a break from weekly therapy sessions for a few months, simply because it was too expensive, and I was running out of stuff to talk about. And, as it often goes, slowly but surely, things started to pile up again. I knew I needed to get back into it, but I was feeling hesitant. I felt like my previous therapist wasn’t quite the right fit anymore, but I also wasn’t thrilled about starting with someone new.

Here’s why. Whether I consciously realize it at the time or not, I have realized that I put strong emotional walls and defenses around myself. I understand why I do it. I even accept and appreciate my defenses, to a degree. The problem is that I’ve found myself bringing that to therapy- not because of what the therapist is or isn’t doing, but because of me and my personal junk. In a place where I’m supposed to- and am PAYING to- be 100% myself without walls or judgment, and I still won’t let down my guard. I could, but I often don’t. And the problem with a lot of kinds of therapy is that just talking with supportive reflection is especially enabling for me to stay in this headspace, so I knew I needed to think outside the box and get creative. Literally.

I have always liked art of most kinds, and have enjoyed making it (or at least attempting to. It makes me feel connected to myself, even to God, as I go through the process of creating. And bonus, I’ve been told I’m pretty good at artsy stuff, though I’ve never put more than casual study into getting any better at any particular craft. However, as I got older, I stopped creating as often. I never prioritized it, despite how much it benefits me. Here and there, I would make something, feel really good about it, think “I should do more of that”, and not follow through. So when the idea of doing art therapy popped into my head, I was surprised to have the thought, “Ooo, I think I’d like that- it sounds fun!” (This was especially refreshing, considering the funk I’d been in.)

Now how to make this happen. I found an art therapist through, because ... pandemic, and it’s pretty cost effective and convenient. I signed on and met my therapist Joline for the first time, and she gave me my first assignment: “Create a tree, a house, and a person this week. Use whatever medium you want, send me a picture, and we’ll talk about it.”

I knew this was the right direction for me, because I hated the assignment IMMEDIATELY. My thought stream went something like this: “What do you mean, “whatever medium you want”?! That’s too many options! I mean, what kind of tree? What kind of person? Do I make them separate or together? Can I use a reference photo? How much time do I spend on this? What if it’s ugly? What if I look stupid or wierd? What if the thing I make isn’t good enough? What if I do it wrong, and she thinks I’m cookoo-bananas? What if I realize I actually AM cookoo-bananas?!?” I started to feel a bit panicky, felt the need to people-please rising, the perfectionism creeping in, the fact that I cared SO MUCH about what this total stranger would think of me, all in a matter of minutes. Thankfully, I kept it together in the moment, but WOAH.

And that’s how I knew I was doing the right thing. You see, these thoughts and feelings are issues I’ve struggled with my whole life- not feeling good enough, always fearing disappointing others, denying and repressing my own needs to make others happy, feeling that anything less than perfection isn’t acceptable. I’ve come a long way with learning how to manage these parts of me, but those little unhelpful turds are still there, lurking, waiting for moments of weakness. As I thought about starting my first project, staring into the abyss of my craft closet, I almost gave up. I felt an inner battle raging- the angel and the devil on my shoulders, whispering into my ears, wrestling for my attention and focus.

Thankfully, a few days later, I decided to just go for it. I drew a tree. Was it art gallery worthy, or even hallway-worthy? Nope. Did I technically do the assignment wrong? Yes. (I was supposed to do one drawing of a tree house and person, but I made three separate ones. Oops.) Did the therapist judge my drawings? Well, technically ... yes. That’s her job. But mostly, she pointed out what the pieces might say about me as a person, not judging my artistic ability. She gave me feedback on different elements of the drawings- the symbolism of shapes, colors, positioning of different elements of the pieces. (My favorite part of the session was when she told me my house drawing showed a desire to be perfect, and I laughed out loud and told her I actually had to stop myself from using a ruler to make the lines straighter!)

As we sat and discussed my drawings, I wasn’t surprised by much of what she said. A couple things caught me off-guard, but she was nice about it. It gave me some ideas of things to work on in myself, and what I'm doing well. Most significantly, I noticed the messages that I was able to give myself to help me break through the creative paralysis:

“What can I do to help myself feel less anxious about this?”

“It doesn’t need to be perfect, or even good, because who even defines what “good art” is?”

“Self, the process of creating- what you learn, what you try, just doing your best- is more important than the product you create.”

“My value doesn’t come from my abilities, or what I produce.”

“This process has a purpose, and I don’t know exactly what it is, but I’m curious to find out.”

“Ooo, I really like what I did there! Good job, me!”

“This makes me feel like a little kid again!”

“Wow, right now I feel like I’m in a creative flow, and it’s fun!”

“I just feel good while I’m doing this.”

“Huh, I never thought about it that way before…”

“Seeing this makes me feel at peace.”

It’s been a few weeks now, and I’ve been really grateful for this process of art therapy. It’s brought me back to myself, in a way. The stuff coming up might continue to pop up in different ways in different seasons, but at least I have awareness of them, and more options for how I choose to handle them. I'm glad I tried art therapy, and I look forward to seeing where it takes me.

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