Why use creative methods in counselling?

Creativity is not an easy concept to define; whenever I think of creativity or creative activities, I envision beautiful works of art such as poetry, drawings and paintings. It is only when I step back from creativity as a form of artistic expression, that I think of it in its simplest form as being nothing more than something that one creates. Sawyer (2012) defines creativity as being, "A new mental combination that is expressed in the world." Simply put, creativity is a novel combination of thoughts or actions that someone puts out into the world rather than keeping within the confines of their own mind.


Creative methods of counselling

When one considers counselling, one may well think of it as a listening exercise. Very rarely (I assume) would one imagine anything outside of the realms of talking therapies. However, through implementing some more creative methods in my own practice, I have been shown the many advantages to clients of integrating these methods not only in the therapy room but within their daily lives.

Creativity potentially arises from a need or desire for a solution to a problem; an easier way of accomplishing a task. In fact, most human inventions were created as someone perceived a need for tasks to be made easier. As Kottler and Hecker (2008) suggest, some of our most creative ideas are born out of frustration.

In a world where technological advances mean that human beings very rarely need to exercise their creativity, it seems that we are becoming increasingly detached from creative practices. This detachment could be linked to the growing rise in mental health and neurological diseases. Furthermore, any type of everyday activity can be an opportunity to express creativity and the potential for creativity is universal, Schmitt (2015).

Carl Rogers, (1957) founder of the person centred school of therapy, argued that all living things have what he refers to as ‘the actualising tendency’; a desire that pushes the organism towards growth. As humans, we all want to express ourselves creatively and reach our fullest potential.

Like a flower pushing through the cracks in the concrete, humans will persist to strive towards growth even when the environment does not support such growth.

When there is this lack of person/environment fit, the person has no choice but to adapt. Through this lens, creativity can be understood as a strategy for survival and can aid people in better understanding themselves and their environment, therefore, improving their overall health and well-being.

Whilst there are numerous creative methods that we may implement in the counselling room, this article addresses the use of music as a tool for emotional intelligence.

There are many reasons why music is such a powerful tool for learning emotional intelligence. According to Mayer, Salovey, and Caruso (1999), emotional intelligence is the "Capacity to recognise the meanings of emotions and their relationships, as well as to reason and solve problems based on them."

Throughout history, connections have been made between music and emotions. In early human cultures, music was believed to function as a tool for emotional expression, communication, mating calls, and as a precursor to the spoken language (Radocy and Boyle, 1988).

The areas of the brain that interpret music are also associated with the parts that interpret emotions. It has been observed that music affects aspects of a person’s physicality such as heart rate, pulse rate, and breathing. Music can both create and transform moods and is, therefore, an ideal tool for encouraging emotional awareness.

According to Steiner and Hall (2017), when we connect with the arts, we allow ourselves to surrender to the experience, travelling wherever the art takes us, suspending our daily thinking, and gaining access to a deeper part of ourselves.

Another important aspect of music is that it creates a structure in which the emotional experience can be contained. Generally, a song will have a beginning, a middle, and an end, providing a clear endpoint for the musical experience. When the music begins, imagine that a feeling is evoked, and as the song progresses, the emotion either deepens or shifts in response to the melody.

Any tension that is created by the qualities of the piece are eventually released as the song finds a resolution. This closure of an emotional state can help with emotional management. Pellitteri and Nakhutina (1999) suggest that listening to music can be a starting point for the development of emotional perception skills, self-awareness, and empathy. With this being said, emotional intelligence requires a great degree of vulnerability.

Exposing one's fragility, regardless of gender, is frowned upon in our society, particularly among men. According to Brené Brown, vulnerability is not a weakness and may be the foundation for honest, meaningful relationships. She claims that vulnerability stems from shame and alienation, and that successful people embrace vulnerability and gain connection from it (Brown, 2015).

One study by Parker (2018) found that a group of men participating in a facilitated group interaction with a musician allowed for discussions and reflections on 'deeper' emotions. The interviews that followed reinforced many men's inner fear of seeming vulnerable and exposed them by acknowledging and admitting to certain emotions that are not usually discussed.

Participants in this study were able to access thoughts on a deeper level. They talked about how a particular song could evoke feelings of warmth and memories of the places they grew up. While this study was conducted in a group setting, it does give strength to the hypothesis that music can be used to aid in raising people’s emotional awareness and enabling them to be more vulnerable with themselves and others.

Using music within counselling has been shown to have many strengths, and is shown to be effective in aiding both progress and recovery in a wide array of mental health conditions. Music can help people to better access their emotions and release them, potentially helping them to reach a place of closure, where they are spending more time in the present moment; improving their overall well-being.

When we consider that humans all have an innate drive towards growth and a desire to express themselves creatively, we can view creativity as a strategy for survival. As Carl Rogers observed, humans are primed for creation.

With all this being said, this intervention will not be appropriate for everyone since it has the potential to be emotionally overwhelming, particularly for those who have experienced a history of trauma. A mental health professional such as a counsellor or psychotherapist can best advise you of a therapeutic plan to include creative or musical elements and is able to hold a safe space so that you can work through your difficult emotions.

I also wish to stress that using music as part of a psychotherapy support plan is not the same as music therapy, this is its own protected field of therapy and should only be performed by a trained music therapist.

3 ways to use music to improve your emotional intelligence at home

1. Create a playlist

Think about an emotion that you would like to get to know better. This can be any emotion that resonates for you at the moment, or that has been troubling you (there are no right and wrongs when it comes to our emotions and we are not trying to shame any emotion). Try to create a playlist of songs that express this emotion. Pick roughly five to 10 songs and use this as your go-to playlist when you wish to get in touch with this feeling.

2. Change your emotional state

If you are feeling stuck in a particular emotion, try to listen to something that you know will change your emotional state, it may be that one song that always puts a smile on your face, or perhaps a song that was played at your wedding as the first dance, or a song that makes you want to ‘break stuff’. Whatever the state is that you are hoping to achieve, find a sound that matches that energy for you and really get into it.

3. Create a playlist for someone else, to express how they make you feel

If you are feeling disconnected or if you just want to let that special person in your life know how you are feeling, try creating a playlist that helps you to express this to them. Think about the message that you want the person listening to hear. Think of what the person may feel like when they listen to the playlist, what they may look like, what they may wish to respond. Whether you decide to share your playlist with them or not, this can be a great way of finding out how you feel about a person or a situation.

Therapists' top tip: 

It is useful to notice what is going on in your body as you listen to and feel the vibrations of the music. You may also find it helpful to make a note of these bodily feelings and notice any changes (again no judgment, just noticing). You may find it useful to look at an emotions wheels - there are many different varieties of these readily available to look at online or download, choose the one that works best for you. 

Finally, learning to better understand your emotions can be an incredibly powerful tool in the healing process, take your time with any practices and attend to your emotions as and when they arise. If you are struggling with your mental health and finding identifying your emotions challenging, it is always best to seek professional advice. Counselling can help you to implement some of these practices and provide you with a safe space to talk through any discomforts as and when they arise.

Brown, B. (2006). Shame resilience theory: A grounded theory study on women and shame. Families in Society, 87(1), 43-52. 

Brown, B. (2015). Daring Greatly. New York, NY: Avery. 

David K. Carson, Kent W. Becker. (2004) When Lightning Strikes: Reexamining Creativity in Psychotherapy. Journal of Counseling & Development 82:1, pages 111-115. 

Mayer, Caruso and Salovey. (1999). Emotional intelligence meets traditional standards for an intelligence. Intelligence. 27 (4), 267-298. 

PELLITTERI, J., STERN, R. and NAKHUTINA, L., 1999. Music: The sounds of emotional intelligence. Voices From the Middle, 7(1), pp. 25-29. 

Rogers, C. (1957). The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change, Journal of Consulting Psychology. 21, 95–103. 

Sawyer, R.K. (2012) Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Abergavenny, Sir Fynwy, NP7 5NP
Written by Carrie Warren, BA (Hons) Counselling and therapeutic practices
Abergavenny, Sir Fynwy, NP7 5NP

I am a Pluralistic psychotherapist working with both individuals and couples in my private practice an Abergavenny, Monmouthshire. I hold a level 6 Ba(Hons) in counselling and therapeutic practices that I gained through USW. I work with clients face to face and online.

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