Person-centred Art Therapy - some questions answered
Western culture tends to focus largely on the verbal, rational and critical – “thinking” modes which are governed by the left side of the brain. It places less value on the non-verbal, intuitive, imaginative and creative impulses which originate in the right side of the brain, and most of us, as we grow up, tend to lose touch with this non-verbal intelligence.
Almost all of us are born creative. Watch a young child working with paper and crayons: notice how freely and unselfconsciously they express themselves. They are doing what comes naturally – using right-brain functions. As the child grows older, such spontaneous self-expression begins to be over-laid with rational, left-brain considerations such as meeting the expectations of others, producing something useful, “doing it better”, “getting it right”.
To become more integrated, more balanced, we need to access both verbal and non-verbal intelligence, both rational and intuitive knowing. The use of art materials in a counselling session can help us to do this.
I’m no good at drawing – can I do art therapy?
Yes! Making an image in a therapy session is not about creating a “work of art”, but about tapping into the spontaneous, intuitive part of the self that knows what’s really going on for us - beneath the surface, perhaps beyond the edge of awareness. It can be helpful both for those who find it hard to put things into words, and for highly articulate people who can use words to defend and distract from what is important.
Isn’t that rather scary, even dangerous?
Whenever we engage with art materials, we project something of ourself onto the image that we make. This can be a very releasing experience, and a safe way to discharge strong emotion, as the paper can literally “contain” what is expressed.
Will the counsellor tell me what my image means?
In the person-centred approach to art therapy, the counsellor trusts that you, the client, will find out for yourself what your image is telling you, when you are ready. So no, they will not interpret or impose their own ideas about your work, but rather they will facilitate your exploration of your image. This is a gentle and safe process. And unlike words, which can be forgotten, an image will keep, and can yield up its message later, when you are ready to receive it.
I don’t feel very spontaneous – how will I ever get started?
Your counsellor will help you to relax and get to a calm, empty, non-thinking place in your mind. They will then invite you to allow an image to arise, usually on a theme that they will suggest. This may be a word or phrase, or they might take you through a brief guided fantasy. The subject really doesn’t matter – whatever is important to you will find its way into the image that comes to you. When you have had a good look at whatever you are seeing in your “mind’s eye”, you will be invited to fairly quickly set it down on paper in whatever way you wish. The whole process will take no more than about 8 to10 minutes. Speed is important, as the longer you work on your image, the more likely you are to move out of “intuitive” mode and enter “thinking” mode. It will also leave plenty of time within the session for you to explore the image together and discuss whatever it may bring up.
The author of this article uses person-centred art therapy skills, and makes no claim to be an art therapist.