Inside each of us is a child who wants to play.
Once upon a time she could scribble and get messy, she could paint mummy and daddy with legs sticking out of their heads and the sky was a blue stripe across the top of the page, accompanied by a happy circle of sun with lines sticking out all round it. People smiled indulgently and thought her pictures were wonderful. Oblivious to lines, rules and images of perfection, she was free to explore and express her natural creativity.
Then people began to tell her how it should look. They taught her how to colour in between the lines, explaining that people didn’t really have blue faces did they, and how much better her picture would look if it was neat and tidy like her sister’s... And so she learnt that it was important to get it right. Being anxious to please, she watched and copied and changed her style, and the free, creative, messy little girl became a good girl who felt safer when she learnt the rules and stuck to them.
Then one day, when she was grown up and feeling sad about lots of things, she went to see a Counsellor who asked her to draw how she felt. Inside her tummy she felt the anxious tension of a child who wasn’t sure what was the right thing to. And even though she was 43 years old, she felt she was 4 or 5, the pen frozen in her hand, the blank paper taunting her with possibilities of failure and ridicule. To feel those feelings again, to touch shame and pain, felt very scary, and so she said she’d rather just talk, thank you, and perhaps do the drawing another time.
Touching the Unconscious
Creative therapy has extraordinary power to connect us with our past and, more importantly, with how we felt when we were small.
Unconscious memories and feelings, pain and trauma we have pushed away, rationalised into thoughts in our heads or stored away in body pain, begin to stir and can at last be safely identified, owned and released.
Maybe our way of dealing with these troublesome emotions was to act them out destructively, tip-trucking our anger onto innocent people or using control and manipulation to try and make our world safe. Exploring these reactions through symbols, pictures, art and craft work, using toys, stones, buttons or clay can provide insight and new ways forward into emotional health.
And it’s fast.
Working with toys
I am often astonished at how rapidly creative therapy works. Place a collection of small dolls or figures in front of a client and family dynamics can emerge in minutes. The Jellycat range used to include parents, grandparents, children and babies, along with fairy tale characters, baddies and goodies, all of which could be used to represent family members (there are still some available on E-bay and some shops). I also use Papo figures which convey strength through tough warriors, knights in armour, kings, queens and a rather fetching Maid Marian on horseback!
I have a large collection of small plastic animals which add a further dimension by providing a great variety of size, shape, texture, style of movement and context (air, sea, underground). An abusive uncle could become a sabre-toothed tiger, the weak mother a mouse and so on. I once used two animals to work on a difficult relationship and realised the other person was like a bee - dripping honey, but with a sting in the tail! With her I became a highly defended armadillo!
Toys, figures and animals can also be used to help a client explore different ‘the different parts of me’. When I did this exercise for myself, I could readily identify myself as the lionness with her cubs, but I realised this wasn’t enough; I also needed to own the ‘lion’ within me and the strength that this brought to balance out the gentleness. I also needed three or four dolls to explore the child parts of me including a good Brethren girl, complete with hat and coat (my ‘adapted child’ in TA terms) and another in jeans and t-shirt who is my free child!
I encourage clients to find a doll to represent their inner child, and am impacted by the importance of the search itself. I am touched at how often client and doll resemble each other! Changing the doll’s appearance to match the feelings about her can also be very powerful and I have seen them arrive dirty and ragged, carrying heavy baggage and symbols of pain, sometimes bound up and often hidden away. But over time, with help and healing, a transformation takes place and it is profoundly moving to see how the doll’s new clothes and appearance express the new-found sense of self-worth the client is finding.
I am often asked if this ‘creative stuff’ works with men as well as women. The answer is yes, it does, although I gather men often find it easier to work with animals than dolls!
We access unconscious areas so quickly and effectively because much of creative therapy is about working with symbols. One of the most powerful ways of working I know is to ask a client to think of a fairy tale, and then to draw which scene they can see. Cinderella is often a favourite, but the particular scene may be anything from sitting in the ashes to the stroke of midnight or the fitting of the shoe. The desire for a rescuer, be it a fairy godmother or handsome prince, is another frequent theme. The message of the picture is important and I encourage the client to write it over the picture then add speech bubbles to give all the elements of the picture a voice.
Pam drew Cinderella sitting sadly by the fireplace with her father, stepmother and sisters far away in a corner; the message was, You don’t belong in this family! Pam very quickly touched strong issues of rejection, particularly feeling abandoned by her father. This was new insight for her as her major focus had previously centred around the ‘cruel stepmother’.
Blocks to Creativity
Some clients are nicely self-propelling. Place a blank sheet of paper in front on them and a bunch of coloured pens, and you can happily leave them to play. I’ve been seeing Lesley for about a year now, and she is a joy to work with as creative therapy is a wonderful journey of discovery for her. She will often sit back in the middle of doing some drawing or working with pictures for instance and say, “This is amazing!” as she makes connections and gains insight through her own work.
But, as we’ve already said, many clients are reluctant to put pen to paper, not least because they fear that what they draw will look ‘pathetic’ or ‘stupid’, and this often has its roots in childhood. Meryl had a near panic attack when I showed her my box of craft materials. It took me half an hour to get her stress level down to the place where she could even think about the collage we were going to make together. She desperately wanted to try, but it triggered so many painful memories for her and she was sure that it would end in failure and I would be ‘disappointed’ in her. As we worked together over several weeks, her confidence grew as we sat on the floor and ‘played’ together with the wonderful array of materials. Meryl began to enjoy herself and the following autumn enrolled in a local art class near her home. She discovered that she actually had a talent and for the first time in her life began to receive praise for something she had created.
There is undoubtedly an element of parent-child which can emerge in creative therapy and this may be the first time a client has ever experienced encouragement and approval in this area. So many of us are driven by the desire to ‘get it right’, to please others, to be perfect or at least ‘good’ at something. The best ideas are often our first ideas, those that come unbidden, spontaneous, perhaps a little whacky... the aim is to help clients capture these, explore them and celebrate them.
There are so many issues that can arise at the very thought of doing creative work! Fear of taking risks, fear of failure, fear of looking silly... These are often rooted in shame. A lack of self-belief, a need to be in control, an inability to play... These feelings alone can provide rich material for weeks of therapy. And it’s not just the clients! Many counsellors feel unable to work in creative areas because they too have feelings of inadequacy about their own creative skills. But it’s not about artistic ability - in fact, if we have talented artists on our courses we often encourage them to use their non-dominant hand. It’s about expressing feelings, not producing a masterpiece! But the fact remains that we will find it difficult to take our client into areas which we ourselves have not processed – a good reason for counsellors to be in personal therapy.
How do you get started?
Why not start by building a collection of pictures? You could begin by rooting through that stack of birthday cards you’ve stashed away in the cupboard, or browse through old magazines or picture books you can sacrifice. The internet is a limitless source of downloadable images, and I explain how to do this in my Handbook of Creative Counselling No. 2 (Andrew, 2008). Look for a variety of moods and atmospheres, people in unusual situations, groups, children, families, landscapes and so on. Simply ask your client to choose the ones they like or dislike and work with the feelings that come up. Sometimes I suggest the client reproduce their picture very simply on flip chart paper and draw themselves into the scene, again adding a feeling title, giving the different bits of the image ‘voices’, and capturing feelings.
Building a collection of toys and animals takes time and can be expensive if you decide to buy new, but these are the tools of my trade and it feels like an important investment. Some counsellors I know have advertised in their church magazine for toys that families no longer need. Despite Health and Safety precautions, charity shops still usually carry toys and figures, and card shops can be a rich source of goodies. I once found a key ring of a little graduate, complete with mortar board, with “Clever Clogs” written on it! Perfect!
In terms of drawing and artwork, a simple idea is to think of a word or phrase that describes how you are feeling right now, eg stressed, challenged, excited....
Write this down and add a couple of words or phrases that expand it a little, eg after stressed you might write pulled in different directions, hassled. (You need to know I’m writing this two weeks before Christmas...)
Finally, looking with the eyes of your heart, think of a picture that captures the feeling and draw it very simply on the page. An optional extra is to wait quietly and see what you feel God might be saying about what you have drawn.
You’ve just done an FOE - Feel it, Own it, Express it! It’s an effective way of tuning in to where we are, working with immediacy and self-awareness. When I work this way with a client, I often encourage her to work on a flip chart size piece of paper and to wait and ‘see if there’s more’. Often the picture grows and develops revealing more and more of what is going on in the unconscious. It’s a good starter exercise if the client isn’t sure what they want to work on, or if you get stuck in the middle of a session and can’t quite work out what’s going on.
A counsellor friend of mine has persuaded two friends from church to spend a couple of hours with her now and then to practise working in these ways before she tries it out on her clients! This is a great idea and if it is seen as ‘playing’ together it can reduce the anxiety about ‘getting it right’.
And what about that child inside you who wants to play? Why not try having a dialogue with him/her? Use your right (dominant) hand to write as an adult and your non-dominant hand to write from the child place. Have a conversation between you... you may be surprised at the result!
* For those of you who are keen to learn more, Deep Release runs Creative weekends where you can practise the skills described above and learn many more.
* Pauline’s Handbooks of Creative Counselling are a rich resource of many different ways of working creatively.