What is Expressive Arts Therapy?
Updated: Nov 5, 2020
When people ask me what I do, the response is often , "Oh...that's sounds interesting!", then they look at me expectantly, waiting for me to elaborate. Sometimes they'll add- "So, do you work with kids primarily?", which is an important point that I'll come back to.
But first, I like to explain that expressive arts therapy is an alternative to traditional talk therapy.
When Freud, the father of modern psychology, started doing what he was doing- mainly by helping people free associate and discuss their deep seated unconscious issues in order to find insight and release from neuroses, he coined it "The Talking Cure". And that idea has persisted to this day- that when people are able to talk about what is bothering them, they will then get better.
I have seen that this is, in fact, the case for many people. By giving themselves the space and time to sit and reflect in a meaningful way on issues that they have rarely - or maybe never- discussed with a trained, competent, and trustworthy fellow human being, they are able to find some relief from their pain.
Alternatively, in our culture, we are taught to value logic and reason over emotional connection or paying attention to our physical body. People can become very adept at talking about their problems, reasoning through their issues, or using logic to sidestep deeper emotional challenges. You may know people that have been in therapy for years, talking about the same issue that has been a problem for them since the beginning. And while they may be experiencing some benefit from this therapy, they don't seem to be experiencing relief, healing, or moving forward.
In expressive arts therapy, we pay attention to what is happening on 3 levels- mental, emotional, and physical. Each of these levels correspond to a modality, or mode of expression, that is used:
Mental- connected to words or story: talking or writing
Emotional- connected to our emotional experience: art making, music
Physical- connected to our body experience: movement
By giving time and space to each of these levels of experience, and means of expressing, we have a chance to do what Jung describes as individuation: the taking apart and examining of individual pieces and putting them back together in an integrated whole.
Integration is key, and part of what distinguishes expressive arts therapy from any of the other creative therapies. Healing happens by moving through each modality, not just one. So, for example you may draw a picture, then create a movement or gesture in response to the drawing, and finally create a written response in the form of a story or poem. In this way, any ideas, thoughts, images (mental), along with any feelings (emotional), and bodily experiences (physical) are examined individually through each modality and then integrated into a cohesive whole.
Here's a brief video that outlines this process, along with examples of what a session may look like:
In expressive arts therapy, the process is what's important...which brings me back to my earlier point. When people ask if I work primarily with kids, I am reminded of the quote from Picasso:
"Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up"
We often decide, around the age of 7 or 8, whether we are an Artist or not. Around this same time is when what we are imagining in our minds does not always correspond with what we are producing on the blank sheet in front of us. We may become frustrated or disappointed, worse yet, others may laugh at our attempts, or embarrass us for our drawings. And these early experiences should not be dismissed. Creativity asks us to show up in the world, to come forward and to be seen. And by labeling ourselves as Artist or Not an Artist, we signal how and when we are willing to show up and be seen.
In my work, each session may look different depending on what the individual or couple is bringing that day. My job is to look for patterns or draw meaningful connections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that make up our experiences- both past and present. I may ask someone to draw an idea or image that is a recurring theme, physically move through an imaginal space in the room, or to write a letter to their problem.
Each directive is an opportunity to explore one of the 3 levels of awareness, and together we move through each level to see what we may have missed, what is asking to be acknowledged or remembered.
Creativity requires courage. It requires vulnerability, a willingness to be surprised, to not know. Expressive arts therapy asks you to step into the act of creating, without worrying about the what is created. Again,
The focus is on the process, not the product.
The same openness and curiosity that invites the response, "Oh...that sounds interesting!" is really all that's needed to get started.