Monday, September 26, 2011

Empathy and Creating


Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion.

 Many of the children I work with do not appear to have empathy. Due to their own needs and suffering, they find it difficult to relate to the suffering of others. I do believe that art-making helps create an empathy connection between people.

Going to poetry readings, creating visual art projects together, doing communal art projects does help create a sense of community, connection and empathy. When we realize that we are all connected, then we do become creative and empathic in new ways. We know that by going to art workshops, joining art groups and spending an afternoon playing with a friend in our studio, helps us feel freshly creative in new and different ways. Deep empathy is a knowledge that we are not that different. There is something about working together to create something new that joins us at a heart level. There is a nakedness when we are creating something due to our usual barriers and defenses being lowered, we are more present, and emotionally unguarded. In my Art Therapy practice I have watched many tough boys soften and tear up when they are making something with me.
A lot of the children I work with do not have loving caring parents who help them feel safe, cared for, and understood. Their parents are in crisis and they cannot be there for their children. When I help these children create what they envision in my Art Therapy studio it gives them that deep need for connection. Creating together tells them that they are heard, seen and cared for by an adult. It helps them develop empathy on a somatic level.

Daniel Pink has written a book called A Whole New Mind.  He writes about how important creativity, empathy and right brain thinking are. To survive, we need to work hard helping children develop empathy and keep working on ways for us to deepen our own empathic response.

Mark Brady writes that we come pre-wired for empathy, but that children who have suffered trauma and abuse can have that wiring reorganized.

There is a male teenager that I have worked with for two years now. When he first came, due to his early years of neglect he was very dissociated, not trusting, or able to connect. We worked along side each other for months making things. Our sessions mostly looked like him going through his “thinking drawer” a drawer that I have in the studio filled with stuff. I added new things to it each week as I got to know what he liked. He was not interested in doing conventional art projects he wanted to make his own stuff. 
Thinking Drawer

He has a very creative, inventive mind. Each week I would sit beside him, finding him things and talking a bit. Slowly he started to relate more to me and slowly we started to have more of a connection. I know he loves coming here, but what I am working on is attachment repair and empathy building and it is slow careful work. As his therapist I am not trying to be the mother he didn’t have, but I am trying to help him open up to experience some of the feelings that most children have in their childhood experience with a caring parent; trust, safety, care and empathy. He is changing. Before he often acted like I wasn’t there and he had a strong ability to dissociate or tune out. Now when he makes himself a smoothie he asks if I want some. This is a large step. Small changes mean big shifts in the work that I do. When he comes in the door, instead of looking at the art table to see what goodies I have, he looks for me. His eyes light when he sees me and he talks to me. This never happened in the first six months.
We now have a real connection. He knows that I accept and care for him just as he is. Most of the people in his life are working hard to help him change and that may be important; however, it is also important to have someone in his life to accept him as he is with all his strengths and flaws, and it is me. In this way, I am helping him develop empathy.

Read my latest post at  Createmixedmedia on the Emotional Intelligence of Artists.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Process Art Making Workshop

I just taught a workshop to child educators on Process Art Making. Process art is making art with focusing on the process not the product. It is important because it encourages children to find their own unique expression in a relaxed, playful atmosphere. Children are encouraged to be experimental, curious, playful, open, and adventurous in their exploration of art materials, techniques, instruments and methods of working. This way of creating is body and emotion centered where children are welcome to use their whole body and emotional response in their creative work.  The group I worked with did the art activities that I often do with children so they could experience the process. 

            Central to this way of working, is to provide children with interesting materials and enough instructions that they feel confident to create but not so much that they feel that there is ‘one way or a way’ to create. The teacher is not the director or authority in this process, they are there to assist or help the child’s emerging process. The teacher needs to be playful, open and free of their own judgments or ideas of how the art or creative process should unfold. The creative work does not have to be anything, it may have been an experiment with the tools, or a hour of interest in mixing paint or an interest in how one thing leads to another thing when working with art materials. To be asking children what something is, limits the creative process of discovery, which takes time and is necessary before a child arrives at a finished something. To work in this way, it is helpful to have uninterrupted time in order to experiment with materials, come back to the work and rework. The environment should be inviting and free of restrictive materials that don’t allow the child to move around and create freely.  Children may want to communicate to each other while they create, dance, sing, move and or use other means of communicating to get deeper into their process. There is no ‘right way’ to create. 
 In process art making children may be faced with what they think is a problem, ie. the materials not working they way they thought, and they should be allowed the space and time to problem solve on their own. This is important life learning that later becomes applied to problem solving in other areas in their lives.
When children are creating, they are forming their own sense of identity, They are figuring out how their externalize their feelings and thoughts. They try on different persona, roles, and they copy others. This is important to allow for identity formation through the creative process. They learn agency, autonomy, and empowerment through taking ownership of their creative process and ability to freely explore and grow.

 I did a activity that I call “Creativity Musical Chairs.” I set up 40 different art activities that they could move around the tables and experience. I played different kinds of music and after each song (about 5 minutes) they move to the next activity. After awhile people become playful, open and in the flow. They found that different music inspired them to create differently, as did the materials, and the people that they are working beside. Once in awhile I would interrupt the process and have them close their eyes and image a favorite place and then return to their art making, get them to use their non-dominate hand, or hop on one foot, etc. People find that having a variety of materials to explore, different music to inspire them and no rules opens up their creative abilities in amazing ways. 

If you are interested in Arts in Education this is an interesting story "10 Salient Studies on the Arts in Education."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Relationship Repair

A client doing Art Therapy and relationship work.

In the trauma work that I do with children, teens and adults, I work with relationship repairs.  Broken relationships with parents, siblings, partners and friends need repair in order for the adult or child to move on.  The repair does not have to be face to face nor does the other person have to be alive.  The repair is for the adult or child who is still traumatized, stuck or hurt by the rupture to feel free in their lives.

The issues that emerge in one relationship will emerge again if not faced, expressed and resolved. That is why I do repair work, so the person does not blindly keep living through the same relationship nightmare or trauma.

For example, an abuse cycle needs to be broken so that every man in an abused woman’s life does not become a repeat of the original abusive husband.  Patterns can be reframed, and changed.

I need to work with how the client has internalized the problemic pattern (how they expect the pattern to be replayed and how they unconsciously keep reacting to their part of the pattern) and work with the external pattern with other people in their lives.

Mark Brady writes, “The relationship we repair with others, we simultaneously repair with ourselves.” Some of the children I see in my practice have disorganized brains due to brain injuries, FAS, ADHD, PTSD, Autism, etc.  This work can be done and needs to be done with all children that have had trauma with their birth parents or foster parents if they are still stuck in the re-actionment of the trauma.

I work with an amazing girl in her twenties who has complex health and mental problems due to serious abuse and neglect as a foster child.  She has very limited verbal skills but she repeats her abuse story over and over to anyone who will listen. When we talk about what happened to her as a child, I tell her that her foster mom is sorry for what she did. Her foster mom will never be here to tell her that to her face nor would she be able to apologize to her. But for my client, actually hearing the words from her foster mother is not as important as her needing to hear those words from me or anyone who she believes can talk for her foster mother.  In order to help my client move out of her trauma memory, I need to tell her what she needed to hear as a child. In a different situation relationship repair can happen by a parent telling a child years after an abusive situation how sorry and wrong they were for causing that child to suffer. Husbands can apologize to wives and wives can apologize to husbands.  Repairs happen when the child or adult can let go of a past hurt or pain and move forward.  There are many ways that this can happen. Sometimes hearing for the first time from a father that you were loved can be a powerful repair.

Knowing how your body holds the pattern from the original wounding is also important.  The client I talked about lashes out violently towards women whom remind her of her foster mother and is constantly looking for the signs that keep her tied to the past. I hope with her, even though she suffers from brain damage and serve trauma that she will hear my words of forgiveness from her foster mother deeply enough that we can reframe it and she can live in the present not her past.  This is part of the complex healing work that needs to be done.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Designing an Art Therapy Studio

 During the summer my Art Therapy Studio looked like this:
under construction

Now it looks like this:

When redisigning a space for therapy work, I feel it is important to create a space that feels open, warm, creative and soothing. People come into the space to do their therapeutic work and I want them to feel welcome, grounded, excited, and to be able to be expressive in the space. I want them to feel that they belong and that they can open up and do the internal searching that they need to in a protective, and beautiful environment.

I chose a light blue (for the sky) and chocolate brown (for the earth) for the colours of the Art Studio to help induce a creative atmosphere. The reading area is comfortable and inviting for tea drinking, reading together, playing games and talking.

The talk process room is composed of rich warm colors deep reds, pumpkin orange, and green.

The sandtray area is small and very organized. I needed to fit a lot of tiny objects into a small space so people could easily access and find objects quickly when they work with the sandtrays.

The paint studio is an open area that allows for messy, expressive work to happen. I have large sheets of white paper on the walls that invite paint to be sprayed, splashed, and perhaps even thrown. There is also room here for movement and dance.

The craft room has bright colours and is very organized so I can find supplies easily and quickly. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Art Therapy and Difficult People

“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”   Randy Pausch

There is a great deal of talk about the importance of being happy.  Positive Psychology  is based on the study and research of what happiness is and on how being happy enriches our lives. By using different techniques and means of perceiving what is right in our life instead of focusing on what is wrong, we become healthy, more balanced and of course happier. What is one thing that gets in the way of our happiness? Difficult people. We all struggle with people that we find difficult in our lives. For some people, it is the Know-It-Alls that drive them nuts. They are the people who appear to have an answer to everything and who are defensive if anyone else has an opinion. Then, we have the passive types who never let you know where they stand then criticize you and everyone else behind your back. We have to deal with the dictators who bully and intimidate their way through life. We can’t forget the yes people who are always agreeing and never delivering and the no people who can always point out something that won’t work. 
So what to do? First, identify which types bother you and which types you can live with. Once you have done that, pick someone who has frustrated you lately. Draw their picture. Write or draw what it is about them that bothers you and why. Pretend that you are the person and write down what you think they fear and why you think that they may be acting in this way with others. Now think of three positives things about this person. Think of three things that could help this person feel less threatened by people. Know-it-alls often feel unheard, how can you let them know that you hear them and still be able to have room to speak yourself?  Passive aggressive types often feel powerless and ineffective, how can you let this person know that you feel that they are talented and able? Dictators often feel threatened because they have been hurt in the past, how can you let them know that you are not a threat but also that you are not a pushover? Yes people have not found their own voice, how can you encourage them to speak up for themselves?  No people have learned that whatever they do will be criticized, how can you let them know that you will support them?


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