Counselling as an active and creative process
Recalling memories about our life history and exploring our past is a normal aspect of counselling. It is an expected part of the process of healing and growth that occurs in the therapy room. Usually, this exploration is undertaken through spoken communication: we speak about our life and the counsellor listens, asking relevant questions as our story unfolds, and accepting and supporting us as we experience the emotions – whatever they may be – that are provoked by those experiences and their exploration. Maybe it is for this reason that counselling can often be misunderstood as a passive process: we simply sit in a chair and we talk about our life experiences, our feelings, and our thoughts. And yet counselling is, in my opinion, a very active process of engagement with those very things. We may indeed be sitting in a chair, and yet we can also be actively exploring our life and our self, our relationships both past and present, and imagining our future potential. We can be processing and re-processing our experiences and our sense of who we are; we can engage in a process of growth, and involve ourselves in striving purposely forward.
Thinking and speaking about experiences is indeed an active engagement, and experiencing and relating the emotions that this provokes is a further engagement in actively processing our past. Sometimes, however, this can keep us in the 'logic' area of our mind, the 'left-brain' processing that may be useful for so much in our everyday lives. The counselling process also benefits from logic and from thinking about our experiences, and yet there may be more available to us in the counselling room than logic, thinking and speaking.
The introduction of creative elements into our therapy can help us to move away from the logic of 'left-brain' processes and into the non-verbal and deeply emotional 'right-brain' processes. This may be useful in many ways, especially if the problem we take to counselling is rooted in unprocessed – or partially processed – emotions related to situations or events that occurred in childhood. Often, we are only partially aware of what is causing our problems. Maybe we are aware of how we feel, and yet we are not sure what brings on that feeling, or we are aware that an experience in our past is an important part of how we are today and yet we may not be aware of what the connection is. Traumatic events in childhood are often carried with us in non-verbal ways. Our ability to access our experiences from those times, particularly the unprocessed emotions associated with those experiences, can be even more restricted when we are limited to verbal communication.
To be able to show what something feels like, rather than to try to describe it in words, can help us to see the emotional impact of traumatic events laid out in front of us. This brings a different perspective, allowing us to examine that impact in ways that can bring some clarity and the ability to process that which has happened in a more thorough way. As adults we may often feel 'childish' engaging in drawing, painting, modelling with clay or dough, or using a tray of sand and figurines to illustrate and express our experiences and feeling. It is true that this is 'childlike' behaviour, and that it feels like playing, and yet this is not playing. This is a way of accessing and processing the impact of emotionally traumatic events that have happened in the past, or are still happening now.
Certified play therapists work mainly with children and use play to help them express their experiences and feelings. Other therapists are not certified Play Therapists and yet are trained to effectively integrate creative elements into a broader approach to working with adult clients. Working with a therapist who is trained in creative approaches to therapy can be a very rewarding and often surprising experience. Not only can we find in front of us an illustration of our experience and emotion, we can have the opportunity to interact with it in the present and to alter the feeling, and maybe change our perspective on both the events and on our self-image.