Everyone has a unique personal history. Some people are blessed to grow up in a nurturing environment without incident or trauma. However, people’s lives can be impacted by certain negative experiences such as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Some have grown up in poverty, surrounded by addictions or untreated mental health issues. Some have experienced a family member’s disabling illness and/or death. Despite people experiencing similar negative life events, their impact is unique from person to person. How people process and understand negative experiences may be related to their nature, environment, learned behaviours or how they perceive things. The person’s perception has the most value because it provides insight into how they feel and think.
Beck (2011), the founder of cognitive behavioural therapy, stated that how we feel emotionally is dependent on how we perceive situations. Our mood is proportionally related to our perception. For example, Joan feels like if she does A, it will result in the worst thing possible happening. She feels anxious and will not try A. Mary feels like if she tries A, she may have a shot at gaining B and although she may fail, she thinks it is a learning experience and she can always try again if she fails. Mary achieves A and gets B, and Joan does not. However, Joan may try it later or doing something different if she wraps her mind around it. In art therapy sessions, I focus on allowing a client to have a safe space to work through their lived experiences, concerns and feelings. They make art with any materials they chose to express and work through things.
This collage depicts an art therapy process. The art and identifying details have been altered for anonymity. It represents the artist’s past and negative life experiences and her current desires to move forward in pursuit of her goals. Joan has done art therapy at Art Therapy Guelph for six months and participated and originally came in because of negative thoughts and anxiety.
In her work, Joan depicts herself as an archer, launching an arrow. The arrow represents her efforts to achieve her goals. Joan says that the negative thoughts about being not quite good enough often creep in. These thoughts are represented by animals that bite like the lion, snake, and shark. They are relatively small in comparison to her. The pile of sticks and rubble that she stands on represents her family history. She recognizes it as the foundation of her anxious thoughts, self-doubt, and self-criticism. The archer is climbing up over the rubble, setting goals and moving towards them. She hears the negative chatter but keeps moving forward. The bright flowers and colours represent what her life will look like when she achieves her goals.
The discussion of her piece led to some personal insight for Joan. She recognized her limiting thoughts are much smaller than they used to be as indicated by their size in her art. We discussed how everyone has negative thoughts, but what we do with them is key. Are they present to protect us, limit us or are they just noise? Joan’s art therapy session helped her recognize she has gained personal insight skills now assesses thoughts as valid or not. She can choose what to do with them. For example, she can classify them as simply noisy mind chatter or protective messages. In this instance, she was stepping over them and moving past them to reach her goals.
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