Going with the Flow

Before you can go with the flow, you have to find it. I have been struggling for a few days to come up with some design concepts. I tried some of the Little Art tricks: looking at art books, walking around the art store, playing with some materials. Nothing was working. I went back to the art store this morning with a color scheme in mind. And voila! The project started to come together.

Once I dove into the project, flow started happening. Just thinking about it did not work, I had to get my hands dirty. As the project progressed, the ideas just kept rushing in. Now that it is nearing completion, I am very satisfied with the outcome and it is nothing close to how I initially imagined it. It’s that magic “art thing” that happens when we trust the creative process. I trust that I have the skills and imagination to bring my creative vision to life. I trust that ideas will build on each other. I trust that whatever I do is more than enough. I trust the work to evolve in the way it is meant to. Similar to an endorphin rush, that “aha moment” of art making is what keeps me coming back for more. I trust that I can find it over and over.

I recently worked on an art project with a friend. She commented on how confident I was in the work I was doing. I asked her “what’s the worst that could happen?” because for me the worst would have been making the wrong line and having to start over.  She replied “failure, humiliation, not being good at art, messing up, feeling stupid.” Yowza. It illuminated for me how much can be invested in the simple act of art making and gave me renewed empathy for my clients. It also reminded me that something that is mostly fun for me can be treacherous ground for others.

What gets in your way of going with the creative flow? Do you find yourself bogged down by some of these negative self-statements? Do you get stuck in the planning phase? Is completion a problem for  you? I encourage you to attend to your process and discover what is preventing your creative flow. It takes time to feel comfortable moving in the flow of the process. Be gentle with yourself as you make your way.


Altered Human

I recently had a difficult interaction with someone in my personal circle. I was very upset by their words and actions and could not find a single lick of empathy or  understanding for them. A few days later, a client said some unkind things to me and guess what? I wrote it off as them having a bad day, didn’t take their behavior personally, and walked away from the interaction unscathed and unbothered. In thinking about this disconnect, this ability to bear some things and not others, I started wondering how I could tap into my “therapist self” more often.

How can I be less invested emotionally in the outcome of difficult interactions?  I care about the relationship and want things to work out, so how can I find some kindness? I know I have it in here somewhere, I found it for my client after all. What is the difference between these two interactions that I could find it in one situation and not another? Sure, there are all the boundaries around the relationship with the client but their words just rolled right off of me.

My question for myself is how to be as kind as I can to everyone. How do I take the patience and humility that I can garner for my clients and apply it to the other relationships in my life? How can I be my best self in my roles as  friend, partner, family member, employee, supervisor, customer, teacher, neighbor? Everyday I practice being as supportive and understanding as I can to my clients. Admittedly, some days are better than others. But I try my best. I want to be able to display these same attributes in my other relationships too.

Being a therapist has altered me. It takes me outside of my narrow inner world and gives me the opportunity to have multiple interactions with others. In doing this, I learn so much about myself. Through this work, I have learned that  I do have some patience after all and that being sensitive can be an asset. I have been able to find empathy for others in my own life where before only hurt lived. Hearing about the challenges others face has opened my eyes to the fact that we are all just doing our best to get by in this world. It takes the sting out of difficult interactions when you can recognize that the other person is probably having a tough day and that their behavior towards you likely has absolutely nothing to do with you.

Has your own work altered you? What have you learned from doing this work that you apply in the rest of your life?

Art Smarts

As part of my undergraduate art studies, I had to take quite a few art history courses. My professors can attest that I did better in some of them than others. This largely had to do with my interest level. One can only look at so many Gothic churches and Renaissance paintings. I never really cared about all the religious themes and parts of churches, etc. But contemporary art-well, I could study that all day long. I can appreciate all of the history though. There is a difference between liking a work of art and appreciating it. What I like is narrow and suited to my own particular choices of media and content. What I appreciate is the grand scheme of movements, the breaks from convention that have rocked the art world throughout time.

I teach art history as part of my art therapy groups. It is important to understand the tradition that we artists are a part of. I want my clients to have the language of art, a visual vocabulary if you will. We look at art work and dissect it in terms of the elements and principles of design. Is it harmonious? Where is the motion? How does the artist use line, shape and form? Where does your eye go to first and how does it move over the work? How does the artist use color? What are primary, secondary and tertiary colors and how do they relate to each other and inform the work?

By learning the language of art, my clients learn the critical thinking skills to employ in their own work. I am not primarily teaching them how to be fine artists, but they seem to enjoy the art making process more when they understand the mechanisms and history of art.  They especially enjoy hearing about the personal lives of the artists.

There is much debate about whether mental illness contributes to creativity and I don’t intend to resolve the controversy in this forum. But hearing about artists who have contented with serious mental illness and/or addictions seems to help my clients have a context within which to understand their own illnesses and art making. It actually seems to give them hope. If they could do it, then so can I. And look what they did in spite of their struggles.

Building recovery skills is a large part of my work. Teaching art history appears to build confidence, inspire hope, and pique interest in art making. Who could ask for more?

A Matter of Degrees

I am often asked what one has to do to become an art therapist. I am going to tackle this question from two points today: the personal qualities one must have and the credentials and degrees that are needed to practice.

To be an art therapist, or any kind of therapist, in my opinion one must have  a level of compassion for others. You must have a tolerance for hearing painful stories and knowing that people are still living in difficult situations. You must be patient. Change does not happen overnight for anyone and it cannot be forced. You must be humble. Therapists do not have the secret to a happy life and cannot dictate what will be meaningful and important to others.  You must be hopeful. If you don’t believe that a person can change and grow, they won’t believe it either. When someone is in the depths of despair, you have to hold onto hope for them. You must be willing to face heartbreak, yours and the clients. You must be willing to educate others about your work. Art therapy is still unknown to many, and you will constantly be explaining your work to others. You must be able to use yourself as a tool. By this I mean you are able to hold onto other ‘s pain, let them bounce their feelings off of you, attend to your own internal responses, and reflect back to them from a place of honesty, compassion, and non-judgement.  You must have a level of self-knowledge. This doesn’t mean that your own life is all worked out and perfect. I know plenty of therapists and we all have our own daily struggles. But you must be  willing to look closely at yourself and your own actions and feelings so that you are responding to clients, not simply reacting.

Credentials and insurance reimbursement vary widely depending on where you live, so I am just going to talk about my decisions regarding degrees. My undergraduate degree was a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a minor in Psychology. There was no such thing as a bachelor’s degree in Art Therapy when I was an undergrad. I am glad I got a broader degree because I was exposed to the full liberal and fine arts education as opposed to a narrow specialization. It was important for me to consider all of my options and not lock into anything at the beginning of my higher education. I chose to specialize when I got to graduate school and have a Master’s in Art Therapy. Now the question is whether to get a PhD.

When I was in high school, I dreamed of getting a PhD. Instead of writing out my imagined married name, I wrote out my name with a string of letters after it. Now, I feel very differently about it. I want to have a PhD, I just don’t want to get one. There are a few PhD programs in Expressive Therapies, but the purpose of them seems to be to prepare you for a life in academia and research. This is not the direction I want to go. Anyway, I am already teaching and don’t need a PhD to do research or publish. A PsyD interests me, but again I don’t think it would further my career in a way that I would want. I would have to do some full-time internships, and how would I do that and still work? I also don’t need it to bill insurance, as my current credential of Licensed Mental Health Counselor allows me to do that.

The bottom line, as often happens, is money. If I won the lottery, I might consider going back to school. As it stands, I can’t work and go to school and the degree options available to me won’t further my career in any substantial way. The debt I  would incur would offset any potential increase in salary.

So what  is my advice to the person interested in becoming an art therapist? Get as many credits as you can in art and psychology as an undergrad. Find out what the requirements are to practice where you live. The credentials and ability to bill insurance vary widely. Get  whatever credentials you can related to art therapy.  Get whatever clinical license you can in your area. Get a Master’s Degree. You won’t be able to get any credentials without it. It is hard work to attain all of these, believe me, I know. But it will likely set you up to practice at both agencies and independently.  And most importantly, don’t give up. Connect with everyone you can in person and  on-line to buoy you on your journey.

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