Showing up and letting your art be seen by others takes courage.
I've been lucky enough to sit with folks courageous enough to bring their creative work forward in individual and group therapy sessions, individual and group supervision, while leading trainings, and facilitating workshops. I've worked with folks as young as 6, as well as folks in their 60s, I've facilitated creative interventions in the U.S., Haiti, and Nicaragua, and in each case I've needed to create a space where folks can feel courageous enough to try something new, take a risk, and be seen by myself and others.
And while there are always folks that are eager to get started, who light up when they see art materials, there are also usually folks that get uncomfortable, who shift in their seat, suddenly need to get up and use the bathroom (in one meeting where I was facilitating a creative reflection exercise with my peers, a colleague got up in the beginning of the meeting to use the bathroom and stayed there for a good 20 minutes or so...she confessed later that the sight of the art materials on the table in front of us was too intimidating).
I don't take for granted the great privilege of having folks be willing to create art. Art making is always performative, and entails the willingness to show oneself and, in doing so, being seen.
As an expressive arts therapist, I consider it part of my job to create the conditions where folks feel comfortable enough to be seen, to share their work, and take this risk.
Over the years, I've developed a system (I love acronyms!) to help articulate what I consider to be important elements in making folks comfortable enough to show up in this way.
Originally, I used this in training other clinicians to run groups. Each element listed below is important in setting up a space where the young people experiencing trauma who I used to serve in alternative school and juvenile justice programs feel safe enough to be vulnerable and share.
I've also used this in private practice with folks who were trying to approach a difficult conversation, for example when trying to approach a family member about a persistent and recurring pattern of interaction that felt problematic or painful.
Each of these situations: creating something in therapy, leading a group to create something together, or approaching a challenging conversation with a loved one, require that we feel safe and supported enough to take a risk. Through the lens of attachment, I consider this "secure base" from which we can branch out into unfamiliar and risky territory, knowing that we have the this safe place to hold and support us.
The acronym is ISCORE, and are considered sequentially:
I- intention Set a clear intention
When we are preparing to take a risk, or before entering into a challenging situation or confrontation, it’s best to be mindful of our intention. Why is taking this risk important? What is the outcome that I am hoping for? In creating art, we can set the intention of connecting to our inherent creative wisdom, or simply connecting to the joy of creating. In facilitating a group, we may connect with the intention of helping others recognize their inherent creativity. In a challenging situation with a loved one, we can remind ourselves that our desire it so be closer with the other person. Intending to hear and understand the other person, as well as being heard and understood ourselves is also a good place to start.
S- safety. Consider and ensure physical safety, as well as mental and emotional safety
This entails attuning to both your physical, mental, and emotional cues that indicate you may be getting activated, as well as the cues from the client, group, or conversation partner... and having a plan in place to address it. For example- if you notice your client is starting to fidget or get overwhelmed, you can make the art directive simpler. In a group setting, consider wether certain group members feel safer being closer to the door. If, while having a difficult conversation with your partner, you notice that your palms are starting to sweat, you can use that as a cue to excuse yourself to the bathroom in order to have a break.
C- curiosity. Engaging with a sense of genuine curiosity and desire to hear and understand the other person
When coming into any new situation, be that with an individual or group, see what you are most curious about. What is interesting, new, or intriguing? Connect to the part of you that feels most interested and invested in the other person, who they are, and what they have to say. Engage from a place of genuine desire to hear and understand, as opposed to listening in order to respond, prove a point, or further any agenda you may have. This may include throwing out any idea you may have had about where this session, group, or conversation was going to go.
O- openness. As opposed to engaging with certainty, defensiveness, or derision
We often have many strategies that we use to help us stay safe, comfortable, and "in control" (I'm putting that in quotes to emphasize that being in control is almost always an illusion). When taking a risk, these strategies may get ahead of us by convincing us that we already know what's going to happen, for example, or cause us to engage with defensiveness in order to protect ourselves from being hurt, or dismiss the importance of this art activity, or group, or challenging issue in order to protect us from pain. Allowing yourself to approach from a place of openness, not coming in with an agenda, or need to have things go a certain way, or needing to prove the other person wrong is important for creating a sense of safety for all.
Paradoxically, dropping the defenses that we normally use to help keep us safe, can allow us to meet any challenge we may encounter with more flexibility, resources, and choice.
R- ritual/routine. Identifying a specific ritual or routine that will support you.
The beauty or a ritual or routine, is that you don't have to think about it. It helps shift what is unknown to what is known, and can serve as its own comforting support when facing a challenge. When creating safety in group, I found that having a consistent and repeated opening and closing allows for a sense of ease and comfort by helping group members know what to expect each time. It could be as simple as beginning and ending with a one word check in/check out. The same for a one time workshop or group- repeating the same framework for observing and responding to one's own and others' work creates a sense of consistency and calm.
A ritual or routine for self care before and after engaging in a challenging conversation is also important. This may look like making sure you're drinking enough water throughout the day, or engaging in other self care practices like yoga, meditation, journaling or drawing. These practices can be a way to prepare, as well as reflect on our intention, as well as help us evaluate how things went.
E- evaluation. Evaluating with courage and a sincere desire to "do better"
As Maya Angelou famously said:
Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, do better.
Evaluating a given interaction with curiosity and courage gives you the chance to "know better". You can approach using this framework as a type of experiment- approach this challenge (or challenging conversation) as a scientist would- curious, interested, and open to the outcome. Have a plan and then honestly evaluating the result. How was that interaction? What evidence do I have to support my conclusion? What worked and what didn't? What do I want to stop, start, or continue doing? What can I do differently next time?
This evaluative process can happen independently, using a supportive ritual practice, for example. In a group setting or working individually, as well as engaging with a loved one, it's important to engage the other person(s) in evaluating. Asking, "how was that for you?" is a simple way to open up the conversation in evaluating and gauging the level of safety, curiosity, and openness that was present, and in considering what intention or ritual is needed the next time.
Keeping this framework in mind has been very important for me in my work, and I hope it serves you- whether you are helping others, or need a handy acronym to keep in mind as you attempt to navigate a tricky conversation at work or at home.
When we are pushing ourselves to try something new or different- whether that means working creatively and allowing ourselves to be seen through our artistic expression, or being vulnerable enough to ask our partner for what we really want, we need to create the conditions that allow us to feel supported - and safe- enough to take that risk.
My hope is that the more you practice this, and the more fearless you can be in letting go of the strategies you've used in the past to protect yourself from taking a risk, the more you can begin to develop new strategies, and the more you find that you can meet any challenge with more peace, equanimity and ease.