Using Expressive Arts in Therapy

eafwebimages-v91When I reflected on this question about the use of expressive arts in my work, I was surprised to find that it has taken more of a prominent role than I had realized. The foundation of my training is in psychodynamic and family systems, with training in many other therapies layered on. I don’t identify myself as an art therapist, yet meeting my clients where they are – that tried and true social work value – has required the use of expressive arts at different times, with different populations. When I finished my MSW, my first job was at a child guidance center, where I learned about working with kids through play therapy that often included art. Then I did a post graduate year-long training in Virginia Satir’s model of family therapy, which included family “sculpting” and other tools that moved far beyond talk therapy, which I also value greatly, as the repair in disrupted attachment that can occur through the therapeutic alliance is often profound.

At the same child guidance center, I trained in sand-tray therapy, an infinitely creative process of listening to and witnessing the unconscious wisdom that seems to direct the process quite effortlessly for many clients. I’m aware that there are widely divergent schools of thought within all of the modalities that I bring up, but the through-line for me is that all of the creative expression that I have incorporated in my work has opened up surprising connections for my clients and me; I have found great resonant meaning in their expressive explorations that connect with our collective humanity, all without the use of interpretation or self-disclosure, but instead a kind of shared awe as we witness together the clarity and integration that can emerge through creative inquiry.

Shortly after moving to Seattle in 2004, I took a six year break from private practice in which I did adult and pediatric hospice and palliative care social work; once again, I found myself using art to connect with kids’ experiences. Now back in private practice, I am co-leading a group with my colleague, Jane Fleming, called “Reclaiming Our Lives” for women in mid-life. The group combines contemplative mindfulness practices, ritual, and creative expression to bring more clearly into awareness what is most important and how to align our lives accordingly. We envisioned it also as a bit of an antidote for women feeling overextended, overbooked, overstimulated, and exhausted. It’s also a natural calling, as I find that as we are both well into mid-life, we and many women during this phase of life are in this sorting process already, trying to shed what is no longer useful and opening to what is most nourishing and enriching. So, the creative process for Jane and me is that we design each group in response to what has come up before for the group participants. We always include a simple ritual, even as simple as lighting a candle; a silent time wherein we introduce a meditation or contemplative practice; and an activity of creative expression, done in silence. We also allow time for check-in and reflection on the process.

So far, we have used drawing, writing, weaving, sculpting, collage, and story-telling. As we continue to respond to what each group brings and how they evolve as a group – we will be starting our third eight week cohort in February- we will continue to add on what seems to fit, expanding the list above. Some of the women in our group have recently sparked a curiosity about adding more movement and sound into our process. So far, the only movement has been walking meditation and gentle stretching. Who knows what might happen next? We don’t and that’s what makes the process so rich.

This article was first published in the Winter 2014 Newsletter of the Washington State Society for Clinical Social Workers. My thanks to them for asking the question that led to this article.