Creating your 10% action list
As the end of the year is racing towards me, I begin to reflect on the year, what worked, what changed, where did I move forward and where do I feel stuck. It comes with the territory of an annual review that I’m pondering what I have achieved this year and what my intentions and goals for next year might be. I have a dedicated process which I’ve been using for years now. It involves choosing one word for the year and exploring it on a monthly basis using some coaching techniques and art invitations.
On a side note: last week, I've launched an online course to share part of this process with you. It's called 'Living with Intention', and you can find out more here or here. It's totally self-paced and you can start at any time, but as the year draws to a close, it might be a perfect gift to yourself right now. This process provides a great framework to keep me on track and celebrate progress. Typically, around October/ November I sense that I’m ready to let this year’s word go to make space for a new word. This year, my word is ‘open’ by the way.
As I entered ‘debrief stage’ I did some research on goal setting. It’s undoubtedly useful, but can also create a lot of stress, especially when we miss deadlines, fail to reach a goal altogether or feel that other people’s goals are so much more worthy, audacious and impressive. Many of us have the false belief that big success requires big action. This makes us susceptible to signing up to slightly unrealistic New Year’s resolutions, unpractical 30-day challenges or food plans that can’t withstand contact with the battlefield of everyday life. It also turns us into harsh critics when judging our own progress or success. I often catch myself expecting my achievements to be mind-blowing and nothing short of a total reinvention.
Enter: the concept of aggregation of marginal gains. Sports teams are often quoted to be doing this well. Dave Brailsford who led Team Sky and British Cycling to success has applied the idea of making lots of tiny changes which eventually added up and led to significant increases in performance. Habit guru James Clear writes about this here.
What I like about this concept is that it feels much more doable. We don’t have to make all the tiny changes at once. Given few of us operate with a support team comparable to Team Sky’s we need to pace ourselves. We can build our marginal gains over time, trusting that they can add up and lead to the desired outcome.
A similar idea was discussed in a workshop I attended. It was about stuckness and resistance, specifically in the context of trauma. But feeling stuck happens to everyone and is part of life. So, I see a broader application of what was shared. The presenter, the wonderful Janina Fisher, spoke about her concept of 10% solutions when working with people through recovery and healing. She noticed that people would try something she had suggested only to come back and say, ‘It didn’t work for me’. But when looking into it, they realised it made them feel a bit better, maybe 15%, maybe 10%, maybe just 5%. But this led to the understanding that there are no silver bullets. We'll never find the one thing that will sort things out when we find ourselves in a crisis or difficult spot.
We live in a culture of problem fixing and it is tempting to keep searching for the silver bullet. How could we not believe that our life would be wildly successful if only we managed to do the five magical things wildly successful people do. Allegedly. And typically, before 5am. Equally, when we are being asked for support or advice, we feel the pressure of coming up with the one size fits all solution that will turn things around.
Instead we should all be drawing up our own 10% action list. Rather than feeling self-care requires a weekend off the grid, we can have a list of tiny actions that add up. A healthy meal, one hour more sleep, a quick walk in the park, listening to your favourite song. Rather than choosing one New Year’s resolution, which is likely to drop off the radar before February, we can choose a guiding word and use it as a platform for setting small goals and inviting subtle change. And by the end of the year, we might look back and realise the aggregated effect. We should create a pick & mix menu for when we need extra support.
It's actually quite important to capture this list outside of our heads. Don't rely on your memory. Because, usually, when we feel low and are questioning ourselves, our brain is a bit off in its ability to make smart decisions. It’s certainly not very creative in coming up with ideas to break the spell of feeling low. Having a physical list to choose from can make all the difference.
Here are a few things you'd find on my 10% solution list: Journaling; coffee (ideally with good company!); a shower; Mika's 'Grace Kelly' and songs from the crazy Bavarian band Bananafishbones (a special mention to 'Easy Day'); some former clients have made beautiful art responses for me, so I look at those; cooking one of my favourite recipes; finding an inspiring podcast or blog; talking to someone close; I cannot leave art journaling off the list; making a 5-minute collage; reading; None of these can single-handedly save my day, but each one can make a day look a little brighter.
I’m curious – what will you put on your 10% action list?
The need to ponder and reflect is a basic human need and a valuable mechanism of evolution. It supports us in learning from an experience which ensured survival. In today’s complex world, we continue to benefit hugely from learning through reflection, but often we don’t have (or don’t make?) time for a deeper reflective practice that goes beyond thinking or talking about our day.
But the desire is there! ‘Reflective journaling’ returns over 1.2 million Google search results. Amazon sells over 1000 books with ‘reflective journal’ in their title. It’s clearly something people want to find out about. Reflective journaling might be the most prevalent approach to reflection, and this post focuses on writing. But reflection can of course be achieved through other means than writing, for example through a visual art journal or sketchbook.
Reflection provides the opportunity to process and integrate experiences and let them inform our future actions. This learning can be two-fold: (1) learning about the world and others; (2) learning about ourselves.
Learning about the world is particularly important in a world that’s changing constantly, quickly and in deep and significant ways. When we reflect on new situations and unfamiliar encounters (and our way of responding to them), we understand what has worked and what hasn’t led to a beneficial outcome. By putting ourselves in others’ shoes we develop empathy and compassion for those around us.
Learning about ourselves occurs when we make our typical patterns and responses visible through reflection. This includes emotional responses which we may not want to share with others. We can therefore attend to our emotional world as the journal offers a container to hold all kinds of experiences and feelings. Reflecting on emotional patterns builds self-regulation skills, resilience and emotional intelligence. When we use a reflective practice in the workplace, it helps us identify areas for learning and development. It can therefore inform the sometimes dreaded appraisal conversation and turn this into a shared reflection – not all reflection has to be a solitary activity. Reflection can be used as a tool for self-motivation and encouragement as it makes our progress visible, no matter how small the steps. Teresa Amabile has done extensive research on the importance of identifying and acknowledging progress in the workplace.
For learning to happen we must find a way of effectively capturing the key insights. There is always a risk of losing them in the constant busyness of our minds or in a sea of written notes. That why I find a written reflective practice so valuable. I have written about my process to find what works for me before. It is based on Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, but I now call my practice ‘Anytime Pages’, acknowledging the original approach of Julia Cameron, just with the twist that I’m writing them whenever it works for me. I figured going a little rogue on the original concept is better than not getting into a habit of daily writing at all.
But doesn’t all this writing just create more stuff? More words? More cognitive load? It's true, even three pages a day create a lot of words, and I felt the need to reduce my writing to memorable key insights. Some people promote the idea to trust that whatever is meaningful will automatically stick. But as a recovering ‘high achiever’, I needed to process my pages in some way. In order to build a habit around my writing it had to feel useful and purposeful beyond the act of writing.
I achieve this simplification with one of my favourite art therapy processes: key words. Whenever something resonates with me, surprises me or somehow feels important, I underline it. Every now and then I write all my underlined words or phrases onto a sheet of paper. Sometimes I do this after a couple of weeks, sometimes when I have filled a journal (which takes me roughly two months). Collecting these key words helps me to record my insights in a reduced manner. They become something I can USE:
Unexpected – my underlining is guided by my curiosity. I often underline what feels new or surprising, sometimes even dissonant, that makes my key words relevant and worth following up on as part of learning about myself.
Simple – just some key phrases – for example: from my last journal (they are just under 200 pages) I have collected five themes. This makes is manageable.
Emotional – key words resonate with me on a deeper level which in itself means they touch something inside me. Our brains have developed in a way to remember emotionally charged situations or content better than just factual stuff.
As with every creative process – it only needs to make sense to you. If you want to have a stab at developing a reflective practice here is my suggested approach to start with – remember to adjust it to whatever works for you:
Sometimes I create a little ‘poetic reduction’ or a tagline from my key words (hello, marketing background!). This is a way to reduce things further. But that approach is another post altogether.
Go get a journal and start writing, you’ll be surprised how much wisdom you carry inside you!
If you have any questions around this topic, email me, I'm happy to share my experience.
The power of play
Recently, I’ve been pondering the power of play. Where I trained for my Art Therapy Masters, the following quote underpinned their teaching philosophy:
Tell me and I forget,
teach me and I remember,
involve me and I learn.
And I must say, it was a very unique teaching and learning environment. Out with the bell curves of performance, in with the flexibility to adjust to individuals with their imperfections and unique ways of thinking, learning and expressing themselves. I was in heaven. I’ve never done less revising in my life, yet I can tap with ease into an internal catalogue of knowledge, creative processes and procedures and apply them in my client work. I can remember every detail of key moments in my training where I had an insight about my typical patterns and the way I am in the world. I don’t need to write them down, I can remember them with my entire body.
Recently, I experienced this way of learning again when trying to get my head round proper colour mixing – not all Art Therapists have a Fine Arts Degree... I have read multiple times about colour theory, I have stared down many colour wheels, I have watched plenty of online videos. But still, so often I created mud! Then I watched an online video by the artist Ginger Cook and she suggested creating your own colour mixing journal. So rather than listening, watching, reading… I actually mixed alongside and painted colour swatches in my journal. I was still creating some mud, but now by design, it was part of the experimenting to understand how pigments react with each other. I celebrated the creation of some beautiful shades when I got the cool/warm mix right and added just the perfect touch of raw umber – who knew! The colour mixing journal is a playful and hands-on way of learning. The process of mixing and capturing the ‘colour recipe’ has sunk in so much quicker and deeper than any other approach I’ve tried before.
I can see the same learning process taking place in Art Therapy and Creative Coaching. We involve our hands (and sometimes the whole body), we make and create, we play and experiment with materials, we embrace the process with all its accidents, stop/starts and detours. There is a place for talking and written reflection as well. It ensures a whole-brain approach and assists us with integrating our insights.
My colour mixing journal as well as the many art therapy sessions I was privileged to witness also reflect the research conducted by Dr. Karyn Purvis of Texas Christian University: without playful engagement, it takes over 400 repetitions to learn something new, as in create a new synapse in the brain. Alternatively, you can involve play in your learning and you’ll only need about 12 repetitions! This should be a major selling point for play in the time poor era we live in.
I have been thinking about all the gems I read in books which get lost and forgotten quickly. Frustrated by not getting the most of my reading, I came up with a new playful approach: I write key sentences that resonate with me on a piece of paper. When I’ve finished the book, I sit down with all the paper pieces and shuffle them around to create a little ‘poem’ out of the snippets. Here’s an example how I remember key principles of Twyla Tharp’s wonderful book “The Creative Habit”.
From this example you’ll see that it might not make much sense to you. And that’s ok. It only needs to make sense to me. I’m not sharing it to share the key take outs from the book, best go and read it yourself! I share it as a technique of playful learning involving an arts-based process. And that’s important to remember, whatever your next creative experiment, it only has to make sense to you. Whether it’s a mind map, a colour swatch journal or a book poem, it’s all about personal meaning!
Next time, when you want to learn something new, how can you get hands-on and playful with it? Can you create a journal or collage, sketch a diagram, hang up a huge sheet of butchers paper and add doodles, post-it notes, images… In business meetings, a mind map or sketchnotes can add playfulness and assist with memorising the content.
As I’m loving my book poetry so much, I have come up with a new workshop which I offer in collaboration with Laneway Learning. We’ll play with words, experiment with different approaches to found poetry.
Find out more here.
“Winter, a lingering season, is a time to gather golden moments, embark upon a sentimental journey, and enjoy every idle hour.”
– John Boswell
This winter I want to slow down, take fewer decisions, conserve energy, reflect and recharge. It’s the first time that I fully recognise this shift in energy… I’ve spent many winters in the Northern hemisphere where Christmas and the beginning of a new year introduce a natural pause. The darker, shorter and often snowy days call for retreat. The beginning of a new year is a natural invitation to reflect on the year gone by and gather intentions and plans for the year to come.
This is the first time I’m spending winter in the Southern hemisphere without the more rigid schedule of a Monday to Friday work week. With more freedom and flexibility in my life, I can give into my desire to hibernate a little and get stuck in some projects that fill me up. One particular practice I’ve been rekindling this winter is reflective writing. I’ve been through many false starts of developing a journaling practice. I tried Morning Pages, for example, only to realise that early morning hours are not my peak time for writing. Different writing challenges left me with a stack of half-filled notebooks. The internet is bursting with advice and techniques for reflective writing and it’s easy to get side-tracked and worry whether I’m doing it ‘right’.
One aspect I believe in is that our writing becomes a richer source of insight when we write about our inner world and emotional experiences. And for that to happen we should always write for our own eyes only. The importance of this was highlighted by James Pennebaker, an American social psychologist. He researched the impact of expressive writing on health and wellbeing in the 1980s and became a pioneer of writing therapy. His worked showed that writing about difficult experiences and the emotional responses to them led to lasting improvements of physical health, mood and level of optimism.
How to get started
When should I write? My advice is to find a time that works for you. We can make a case for writing in the morning before our brains become reactive to the day’s events. It seems sensible to write at the end of the day, as an opportunity to review and wind down, allowing for a brain dump in the hope of sound sleep. Ultimately, I think the time when you write has to fit around your typical day. Otherwise it won’t happen. You can consider splitting your writing into shorter chunks if that is more practical, for example a morning and evening check in. Once you experience the benefits of your writing practice you might find that you naturally make more time for it.
How much should I write? Unless you want to experiment with a specific format, such a Morning Pages, I suggest you remain flexible in how much or how little you write. This also makes it easier to actually do it. But write regularly, ideally daily - the odd exception is totally fine, life has its own ways of happening… And when you skip a day, don’t let that stop you. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, promotes the motto: Never miss twice.
What to write about? Write about whatever is occupying your mind. It’s called stream of consciousness writing. Structure, spelling, grammar are unimportant. You can overcome writer’s block by noticing what your senses are taking in right now. How is your body feeling? Try to catch the thoughts you’re thinking right now, without censoring. It could be: what’s for dinner, this is dull or the groceries you need to buy. And once you’ve started writing try to add your emotional experiences, don’t just write about events and tasks if you want to harness the health benefits of writing.
What works for me
I currently write ‘mid-morning pages’, based on Julia Cameron’s work in The Artist Way. Mid-morning is a realistic and manageable time for me, so that’s what I do. I stick with the three A4 pages Cameron recommends, no more, no less. I also write into a daily gratitude journal every night, three brief bullet points, every day. Beyond that my style is a ‘journaling on demand’ approach. When I’ve got lots going on I write more, reflection is part of other creative projects and my work. I embrace this additional writing in waves.
If you want to get started, I’ve got a few specific winter reflection prompts for you - remember, winter is a time of rest and renew:
What do I want to make space for?
It’s time to let go of…
If I could write myself a permission slip, this is what it’d say
What does a perfect moment of pause and rest look like for me & how does it make me feel?
What lights my inner fire?
Happy writing! My monthly newsletter also includes a regular journaling prompt… You can sign up here.
Creative excuses to avoid getting creative
I first came across art journaling around ten years ago. Full of excitement and enthusiasm I bought books, blank journals, paints... And then I waited on the sidelines. I was in awe of art journals shared online. I saw a stunning page and bought the stencil, stamp or paint that seemed to have been instrumental in making it. And then I waited again. Looking at videos and photos of other people’s creations without the heart to start.
Excuses were easy to come by:
I worked full time and didn’t have enough free, uninterrupted time to begin a page.
I didn’t have the right space. I needed a studio or at least a very large table where I could be messy and leave projects out for days.
I wasn’t good at drawing and I needed to be able to draw faces before filling an art journal.
Whatever I was going to produce wouldn’t be as good as what others were making.
Whatever I was going to create wouldn’t be original.
All the books and YouTube clips were paralyzing. There was so much inspiration online - it was easy to keep myself busy on the sidelines. It was easy to give into my fear, and my inner critic’s voice of telling me to not even try. All our beliefs of ‘not good enough’ and ‘done before’ are in the end fear based. Our excuses of time and space are rationalisations to give into our fear. (Sidenote: some of the time/space stuff is of course real, but we could make time and space if only our fears were less overwhelming…) But: fear is good, generally. It keeps us safe and makes us proceed with caution. But our fear response has a tendency to overreact, just in case… and it tries to keep us safe from such low risk activities like putting some paint on a journal page. But it isn’t the paint application our fear tries to protect us from. It is the vulnerability that comes with any creative act. Even if we have no intention of sharing our creation. Even though we could throw it if we dislike it. But somewhere deep down we know that we become visible when we create, and without the certainty of a successful outcome this can be difficult to bear.
Finally, after years of ramping up, I started my first creative journal in winter 2015. What was the catalyst? I had been through a pretty tough time in life with lots of challenges and uncertainty. I faced the self-doubt and deep thoughts such challenges prompt in us. It was the start of winter here in Melbourne with shorter days and cold weekends that called for indoor play. I still needed the impetus of a final art material shopping expedition, but then I finally got started. Because I had plenty of uncertainty in my life already, and worries and fear. And suddenly, the fear of starting on my first creative journal felt trivial.
And I haven’t stopped. I go through phases when I add daily to my creative journal. There are times when other projects occupy me. But it is the one creative practice I return to without fail. I love looking through journals and remembering what inspired a certain page. I love seeing how my style has developed. Yes, some of my early pages might make me cringe, but they were the stepping stones to something that keeps me sane, fills me up and is a rich source of insights about myself. I’m still not that good at drawing faces, but I’ve learned some tricks. I’m still dreaming of the perfect studio space, but my journaling supplies move through the house like a wandering dune. I still see journals I love and have moments of feeling less talented. But I’m filling my journals.
And on that last excuse that my journals wouldn’t be original… I wish I could say this thought has been dealt with by beginning my journaling practice. But far from! Instead it shows up more often than ever before, the side effect of a creative career I suppose. And when it does I channel Elizabeth Gilbert: “Most things have been done, but they have not yet been done by you.”
Considering how much time I needed to get started I’ve created a 5-week workshop series on Creative Journaling. My hope is that this can be an accelerator for anyone who wants to make time for creative self-exploration but doesn’t know where and how to start. I really believe in a learning by doing approach. I also hope it is a space to enjoy the momentum and support gained through working in a group. And just because it’s winter… and really cold here… it could be a wonderful opportunity for reflecting and recharging.
Find our more here and here.
Values are the work of the heart
Values are important. They are a hidden rudder, our inner compass, and when we are clear on our values, making decisions that feel good and sit right with us gets easier. They also help us to set good boundaries, to know what we want to say ‘yes’ to and what we want to say ‘no’ to.
When I introduce values in my art therapy work it can get a bit complicated and we tend to start over-thinking things. Values are often presented in long lists, and then we are asked to circle and highlight… and it gets paralysing:
- There are so many - yet we feel like subscribing to almost all of them!
- They all sound so virtuous - can we live up to them?
- What happens when values clash?
I like a metaphor Russ Harris uses for values (he is the Australian guru on Acceptance-Commitment-Therapy and has authored ‘The Happiness Trap: Stop Struggling, Start Living’). Russ uses the metaphor of an old-fashioned globe, the ones on an angle that you can spin around the axis… - Imagine that each country represents a value. As you look at the globe, you can never see all countries at the same time. The globe spins, some countries are visible, others hidden. Values behave in a similar way. In any situation in life your actions will be based on some values, never all of them simultaneously. So holding all our values and the conflicts between them becomes an important life skill.
I’ve often observed how people can get overwhelmed or disheartened when working with long lists of values - that’s where Art Therapy comes in. We can ditch the wordy lists and begin to work with images. We can also work with the qualities of different materials. We can create sculptures to represent our values. Or avatars which can be styled in a way that our values become tangible qualities. Expressing our values creatively shows us the layers of our value system, how for example our value avatar can wear a kindness cape and carry the assertiveness toolbox over the shoulder. We can see how the material we choose to depict our value for achievement has a sturdy and tough quality, and is companioned by some light and airy material that represents our spirituality.
The image shows my values avatar which I created as part of my training and with a focus on building a private practice. Her name is Jana, she lives on my desk. Her googly eyes were a creative error, she wasn't meant to look that cross-eyed into the world! Working with the hot glue gun means you have to embrace your mistakes, and her googly eyes are a good reflection of how I feel sometimes during this adventure that is Sensemaking Space. And they go hand in hand with other values she holds such as resilience and kindness, productivity. Jana's tangible nature and the individual elements of her outfit, accessories and styling created a personality I can identify with - we can even have conversations...! This makes understanding my values system much easier than if I were just thinking about my values.
When working and learning about your values, don’t just engage your rational thinking brain. Move away from the lists. Don’t get stuck on trying to rank your values, that’s really hard! Get creative instead. Draw, map, construct, find random images or objects, arrange them and play.
You can begin to explore your values in my Vision Card workshop or contact me for more information!
What happens in Art Therapy
Sometimes I get asked the simplest of questions: what happens in Art Therapy ? It’s such a straightforward question, and very appropriate one, because Art Therapy is still on the fringes of the therapy field with its various approaches. As we all like to know what to expect when we engage in something new this question deserves a simple answer. I hope this article will help engage more people with Art Therapy and its rich opportunities for self-exploration and healing.
In a nutshell, Art Therapy uses various creative approaches to explore experiences, emotions and thoughts. This can but doesn’t have to include verbal expression. Through this creative expression of one’s inner world, Art Therapy can unearth deep and strong emotions, some of which might have been hidden or shut away inside us for a long time. It’s useful for a broad range of mental health issues and life challenges, but due to its ability to stir up and explore deep-seated emotions it is important that anyone engaging with Art Therapy has (or is willing to learn and practice) skills of emotional regulation. The beauty of Art Therapy is that it (re-)engages our imagination and playfulness. As humans, we are born with these but when life gets really tough we can easily get stuck in the difficulty of our situation, struggling to see a way out. We risk losing our abilities to create, imagine and play and anything that can nudge us towards these abilities can contribute to our wellbeing.
Some specific questions I have been asked:
Will I be painting and do I need to be good at art?
Art Therapy uses creative approaches and techniques to express our inner world, our emotions, thoughts, experiences, concerns, beliefs. This can include visual art making like drawing or painting, sketching or doodling; it can include movement, exploring gestures we use frequently, sounds and music, or role plays. We might arrange random objects in sandtrays or on tables, arrange images into collages or construct 3D sculptures. We can use clay, fabrics, weave threads and wool. There literally are no limitations to what we can use. I have witnessed wonderful explorations using paper bark, an air conditioning duct, broken sunnies, bent paper clips and a rock. Therefore, anyone can do it, because you don’t need to be an artist, you don’t need art skills or previous experience. You just need to embrace your creativity and your innate desire to play.
What are key principles of the therapist-client relationship?
Like all therapies, it is based on building an open, transparent and trusting relationship between client and therapist. It is my role as therapist to provide a safe space, where we can explore and name all our experiences without fearing to be judged or told what to do, think or feel. I often use mindfulness techniques to support the feeling of safety. Mindfulness helps us to stay in the present moment and can help calm down our amygdala, the brain’s smoke detector which will naturally feel alarmed every now and then when we do important and deep work with our innermost experiences. Another fundamental principle is my belief that everyone is the expert in their own life. No one can know or understand your life, your emotions, your fears and worries, your values and goals, and relationships better than you. My role is that of a guide, not a teacher.
When is Art Therapy beneficial?
Art Therapy can be beneficial in supporting people through any challenging life experience, including mental health challenges, complex trauma, traumatic events, chronic illness. As Art Therapy doesn’t rely on language and the spoken word to communicate, it can be beneficial for those who struggle with articulating their experiences through language. Anyone who is non-verbal, doesn’t speak the local language well or at all (this can for example apply to refugee communities) or those who have lost the ability to speak through illness or injury. Children also find it often easier to articulate tricky experiences through art and play. When language is accessible, I like bringing the exploration back to language. At the beginning, however, suspending our analytical and cognitive problem-solving skills can be particularly beneficial for those who use this part of the brain a lot. Finding ways to name experiences enables sharing, creates connection and gives us a different kind of control. Being able to summarise what we have discovered helps us implementing it in our everyday life and using it to inspire change. Sometimes, people come to therapy with a specific question or goal. They know which area in their life they want to work on. But when we start walking on this pretty clear path we might still encounter a fork in the road that needs to be investigated or looks intriguing enough to follow. Often, however, the path is less clear, and all we know is that something isn’t working or doesn’t feel good and that certain patterns keep showing up again and again and interfere with the life we would like to lead. A good therapist will guide you along the path and support you in exploring the detours.
What can Art Therapy provide that talk therapy can’t?
A slightly sticky question as I don’t believe in pitching different types of therapy against each other. Ultimately it’s down to what works for the individual. In our complex world, there is room for a vast range of approaches, and often they are complementary and a holistic approach can be most beneficial. But there are some areas where Art Therapy can achieve things that are less accessible through talk therapy. Apart from being a form of therapy for those unable to speak or uncomfortable with talking, Art Therapy can also be effective in exploring traumatic and deeply emotional experiences. During traumatic experiences, the Broca’s area, the language centre in the brain, shuts down (as do various other areas in our brain, especially in the frontal lobes, our rational or executive brain). Subsequently, these experiences simply cannot be expressed in words leading to expressions such as ‘speechless terror’. But creative processes allow us to give them some form, work with them and ultimately integrate them as part of our story. The creative expressions used in Art Therapy also enable us to communicate emotional experiences that we might simply not have words for. Difficult experiences are hard to articulate, sometimes because they come with the choking emotions of shame or embarrassment; other times because they are linked to topics that have the aura of being secretive and something that cannot be shared, whether that’s due to family secrets or perceived or real social norms - as John Bowlby, an important contributor to the fields of child development and attachment theory, said, “What cannot be communicated to the [m]other cannot be communicated to the self.”
In summary: Art Therapy can use literally any creative endeavour or activity, and be tailored to the client’s abilities, preferences or interests. Therefore, it can bypass the need for language when this is necessary, desired or beneficial. Like other therapies, a respectful, transparent, safe and trusting relationship with the therapist provides the sound foundation needed for this courageous work. While it can provide support for a broad range of life challenges its appropriateness and how it might support other treatment approaches always needs to be discussed on an individual basis. If you have specific questions or are curious, get in touch!
Who has time for self-care?
Self-care is a huge buzz word these days. Looking after ourselves, our physical and mental wellbeing is crucial, but sometimes I feel the idea of self-care has yet again been highjacked by commercial interests. Of course, it feels good to get your nails done, have a bubble bath and a scented candle. But self-care goes beyond products and services we buy to get some relaxing ‘me time’. Sometimes having to make time for these activities in a busy schedule can actually get quite stressful. And when we fail to fit them in it can trigger our inner critic, because we haven’t got the perfect manicure, eyebrows, hair colour… (all these examples highlight to me that self-care seems to be an idea that circulates a lot more among women – but this might be just my perspective of how I look at it…) So, what might self-care mean for you?
There are the basics. They include sufficient sleep, good nutrition, exercise, being on top of medical check-ups. Beyond this, I believe good self-care is based on two things: good self-awareness/ self-knowledge and good boundaries.
Self-awareness and knowledge are necessary to understand what it is that refuels us. I don’t get a kick out of a mani/pedi. Someone else might, and that’s totally ok, but for me a visit to a bookstore has much greater potential to help me care for myself. And that’s not just because I love to read, but also because over the years I have learned what recharges me. Bookstores are often quiet spaces; many offer a tucked-away corner where I can flick through books. I don’t have to talk to anyone (unless I seek advice) and no-one prods me. If there is music, it tends to be quiet, too. This refuels me. Noise, the waft of chemicals and close proximity to random strangers suck energy straight out of me. Knowing how certain sensory experiences impact me also helps me to make good, self-caring choices in other areas of my life. Often self-care is linked to experiences our senses enjoy. This also helps us to be in the present moment, which is the ultimate self-caring way of life.
How to improve self-knowledge: most of us will have a good idea of the energy givers and takers. If you want to get to know yourself better, I can recommend journaling. Capture each day the moments or activities that made you feel good, calm, balanced, refreshed. Do this for 2 or 3 weeks, then analyse your notes and look for patterns. You can add to this by also capturing the moments that made you feel irritated, tired, on edge; this could just be an unspecific ‘icky’ feeling in your body. Just notice this.
Thinking back to your childhood also holds a wealth of information. As children, we instinctively knew what filled us up - and usually we had the freedom and time to do just that. Take some time to remember your favourite activities, think about your favourite stories and what they were about. Which play dates were fun, which ones left you feeling tired or insecure? Which toys and activities did you gravitate to in kindergarten, which ones made you shrink and pull back?
Once we know ourselves, we need good boundaries as they help us to articulate what we need and to say ‘no’ to things we don’t want to do or don’t want to make time for. The better you know yourself the more accurately you can state your needs. Some people find it helpful to create a ‘No List’. This can include all the activities you don’t care about and that don’t do anything for you and your wellbeing. A few years ago, I was inspired by Sarah Knight’s book ‘The life-changing magic of not giving a f**k’. She suggests creating lists for four categories about things you don’t care (give a f**k) about. The categories are: things; work; friends, acquaintances and strangers; family. Ever since I carry these lists in my journal and happily add to them as and when I see fit. They are a good reminder of when I should say no and speed up the process rather than agonising over the same type of request again and again.
Some more myth busting about self-care:
Self-care is not limited to solo experiences; it can include others as long as they fill you up and don’t drag you down.
Self-care doesn’t need a lot of time. Think about micro-pauses such as planting your feet solidly on the ground and taking three deep breaths during a meeting. It takes just a few seconds, can be done without anyone noticing and it can do wonders for your wellbeing and ability to set your boundaries.
Self-care doesn’t need to be costly. Depending on your needs simple things like a cup of tea, a cheap journal, an essential oil or simply a completely free walk in the park can be all it takes.
Not all self-care needs to be pre-scheduled, the more you practice the more you’ll be able to naturally do more of the self-caring things. A pre-scheduled amount of self-care time can help if you have to consider a number of others in your day to day life or after a particularly stressful period. But ultimately, it’s great to get to a place where we practice self-care without thinking too much about it.
Finding the trailhead in your creative process
I am on day 22 of #the100day project and my #100daysofsensemakingemotions. Once I had decided to embark on this project, I quickly devised a plan. I was going to use Tiffany Watt Smith’s ‘The Book of Human Emotions’ and create a collage a day in a journal. This is fairly typical for me and my creative process. Incubation is the first phase of any creative process, it is a phase of staying open, a phase of collecting divergent ideas and inspiration. It is often skipped in today’s fast paced world – I’m not alone in my tendency to quickly jump into doing as this is the only way to feel productive and that ‘I’ve got this’. However, incubation requires time and space, it often happens in the background when we work on something else. That’s your classic shower moment.
Initially, I described my project on Instagram with the following words: ‘to create an A-Z of emotions, using imagery, colours and words to capture 100 emotions in the form of a small book.’ So, there you go. Looking back, I notice how restricted this first project outline was. I imposed on myself the format of a book, a small one, and the order from A to Z. Luckily, I couldn’t find the right journal of around 100 pages. This bottleneck in the journal market forced me to re-enter my incubation stage. My initial idea, the second stage in the creative process, became: ‘100 days of collaging a range of emotions, possibly adding some mixed media, the rest is going to unfold as I go along.’ I kept my subject of emotions, my main art form collage, and that’s pretty much it. The initial idea is like a trailhead, a starting point. As a lover of mountains & hiking, I love this analogy from Lisa Mitchell, the author of ‘Creativity as Co-Therapist’. Arriving at the trailhead always feels energising, we’re ready, we check the time, our gear, we have an idea where this hike is taking us, roughly how long we’ll be walking, how difficult the terrain might be. And we’re ready to set off with a feeling of excitement and curiosity and without seeing the entire walk in front of us.
Whenever we try to create something or come to a decision, we must articulate an initial idea that takes into consideration our meandering thoughts from the incubating stage and remains open to changes and adjustment. Without this we become stuck, blocked and can’t get started. We might procrastinate and avoid the risk of beginning by doing more research or planning or by aborting the topic altogether. To get going we need to trust the trailhead and accept that there is always a risk that the trail might suddenly end, be poorly marked, or is treacherous…
So, how is it going with the #100daysofsensemakingemotions? It’s going well and I am so very happy that I didn’t set an A-Z order, preselect 100 emotions and didn’t find a suitable journal! The more improvised approach allows me to work with whatever emotion turns up on the day. Once I started the project, I also stopped limiting myself to just the one book and I enjoy exploring various online sources for inspiration. Without a journal I can be led by the size of the main image. And there are loads of ideas of what I might do with the 100 cards at the end. It’s still early days, but I think this more haphazard approach helps me to stick with it. This is not a manifesto to stop planning and show up in life unprepared. Bring the right gear for your hike. Take a map and a compass. But be prepared to leave the trail if it’s flooded, embrace the option to turn back if it gets too difficult or the weather changes. Without getting yourself to the trailhead you’ll never hike anywhere.
P.S. It never seizes to amaze me how we find trailheads in an art therapy session. They come in the form of an image, a colour, a twisted paper clip or a gesture. Anything goes and we are off! Contact me to find your trailhead.
100 days of sensemaking emotions
I wholeheartedly recommend starting a regular creative practice – it doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself to be artistic. Such a practice can play so many roles in our lives, including (but not limited to) self-care, learning/practicing skills, fun and play, personal growth, reflection, grounding. It can be as easy as jotting down three observations about your day every evening or cooking a new recipe every week. Every year, #the100dayproject kicks off on 2nd April, and this year I wanted to jump on board to explore the effect of doing the same small creative activity every day, so I chose to create 100 small collages illustrating emotions.
We experience emotions every single moment. They inform our perceptions, choices, actions. They ripple through our bodies. Naturally dealing with emotions shows up in a lot of my work and inspired me to play with three aspects in my #100daysofsensemakingemotions:
I want to capture the different messages emotions have for us. It’s easy to feel like a paper boat in the storm when emotions throw you around. It can feel chaotic, out of control, being in the grip of emotions. But each emotion has a very specific message for us, it starts in the emotional part of our brain and sends signals to our body to get us ready for the appropriate action. Fear for example prepares our body to fight or flight, it’s an important survival response. To fight or flight, we need our bodies to send energy to the right organs and areas in the body, and to suppress less important body processes while we deal with the threat.
I wanted to shine a light on the more obscure emotions, the ones we often haven’t got words for. For many people talking about emotional experiences isn’t something that had a place in their families. We have to keep building our emotional vocabulary because it feels so good to find a way of describing and expressing them more accurately. I find these expressions intriguing, so I started my project with an obscure emotion: Altschmerz, the weariness with the same old issues you’ve always had, the same boring flaws and anxieties. Such a familiar feeling!!
I’m setting out to create a full spectrum that doesn’t label emotions as positive or negative. I’m not a fan of that classification. All emotions are useful, they turn up to tell us something. Some might give us a pleasant feeling, others can feel difficult, or icky, or challenging. Altschmerz, for example, sounds painful and uncomfortable, but if it shows up it tells us about this thing we are again and still dealing with. It makes us consider whether it is time to accept what is, or to let go of what was. The label ‘negative’ suggests these emotions are something to avoid or reject. But: we need to be able to connect with all emotions, sit with the discomfort and let them inspire action. You might have experienced that the more we’re trying to avoid or deny an emotion the more it takes over. As human beings we are unable to selectively invite certain emotions into our lives and shut others out. If for example we try to shut out shame or anger, because they feel uncomfortable or weren’t welcome in our family, we will end up cutting off joy as well, and optimism, happiness, love, excitement. Brené Brown, renowned shame researcher captures this well: "When we numb the dark, we also numb the light."
I hope my #100daysofsensemakingemotions creates a useful resource for my work as Art Therapist. Art Therapy provides a place to safely explore all emotions and sit with the difficulty and vulnerability they can create. All our emotions are worthy of our attention!
You can find out more about #the100dayproject here.
Improvising and saying ‘yes’ – even to your fear
Recently, I’ve been inspired by reading a gem of a book called Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson. Since drama club has always been my personal nemesis, I was surprised how strongly I connected with her ideas and how her writing felt relevant for my work as an art therapist.
Although I enjoy watching performances, I feel quite self-conscious as a performer. I have anxious memories of a teacher in secondary school who saw some comedy talent in me and insisted on me starring in the school play. In the originally planned play I would have been playing a queen – now that Olivia Colman won an Oscar for her performance in The Favourite I wonder whether I’ve missed a trick… But I ended up being a lion in a much shorter play with the added benefit of having no lines other than a roar.
What stood out for me was that all the thirteen maxims covered in this book felt so relevant for someone working with a relational approach. And in the end, aren’t we all working relationally, i.e. being in relationships with colleagues, clients, suppliers and collaborators during the workday. And we continue being in relationship in our private lives with partners, families, friends and kids.
Patricia Madson encourages us to improvise our lives. She describes the ‘improv world’ as people who are easy to be with. Who doesn’t want to be ‘easy to be with’??? She encourages us to say ‘yes’ and makes the important distinction that saying ‘yes’ doesn’t and shouldn’t turn anyone into a yes-person or doormat. But it can open up some spontaneity, it lets you risk stepping into the unknown and uncomfortable.
Improvising and risk taking are hard. Evolution has given us a solid planning instinct to make sure we make it over the winter and periods low on food. Modern life continues to incentivise those well organised and prepared, it even tries to sell us funeral insurance! I’m not opposed to some sensible retirement planning, and if it helps someone to juggle their lives meal planning is also fine. But I often feel that all this planning makes us less and less comfortable to sit with stretches of unfilled time, risk or uncertainty. Without a clear direction or next step, we easily start to feel fear rising in us. We fear failure and embarrassment when we take a risk that doesn’t pay off. We fear the lack of control when we have to improvise or abandon plans. We fear rejection when others might disapprove of a decision or action we take. And FOMO (fear of missing out) is of course a well-established fear that drives us to plan and fill our days to the brim with activities.
But when we manage to stop running away from fear (assuming there is no danger to our lives) and find out what fear is trying to alert us to it can be a very insightful and useful emotion. It can motivate us and inject energy to act in a certain direction. With the mindset of improvising and an awareness of the function of fear we can say ‘yes’ to something despite a sense of dread, anxiety or worry.
I’m saying ‘yes’ to running two workshops combining some ideas of improv theatre with art therapy processes. What are you saying ‘yes’ to?
Holding on and letting go
We’re all familiar with the heart-warming reflex of a baby gripping our finger when we stroke its palm. It’s called the Palmar Grasp Reflex and makes babies hold on to things with surprising strength. But it is also unpredictable as they tend to let go suddenly. By the time we’re three to six months old we begin to make more voluntary choices what we hold onto. Have you ever wondered whether you tend to hold on to things or whether you are quick to let go?
We value holding on to things that are familiar, safe, pleasant or fun, things and people we love and care about. But life requires us to let go of things, either because of their transient nature or because they no longer serve us. The latter could be a relationship or friendship that feels no longer supportive, a job which no longer challenges us in a positive way, or simply items in our wardrobe that no longer fit who we are.
Trying to understand my typical patterns behind holding on and letting go purely cognitively has highlighted how my biases and values get in the way. Do I think being able to hold on or let go of stuff is the ‘better’ trait? If I am a ‘holder on-ner’ is this a sign of inertia or hoarding tendencies? Or a sign of loyalty? If I can let go easily – does this make me a commitment-phobe? Do I lack grit, tenacity or dependability? Or do I simply know what’s good for me and value my freedom and independence? I’ve never really gotten to the bottom of understanding my tendencies of holding on and letting go purely with my brain power.
But I have been introduced to an enlightening body-based exercise that helped shedding light on this. The exercise was shared during a workshop with Pat Ogden, a pioneer in somatic psychology and the founder and director of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute. According to Pat Ogden, grasping is one of the five basic movements. The other four are yield, push, reach and pull. This is an easy exercise you can do at home if you are curious.
How to do it: find a quiet space and an object you can drop without the object breaking or ending up with a dent in the floor. Consider spreading a blanket if it’s a hard floor. The object should be heavy enough to drop with some momentum; not a feather but bot a bowling ball either. It could be a small ball, a pen, a glue stick. Stand upright, holding the object in front of you in a firm grip, arm slightly bent. Check in with your body and your senses how that feels. Then, let the object fall to the ground and try to notice in as much detail as possible how that feels. It’s best to repeat this a few times, always checking in with your body and body sensations. Whatever feels better - the action of grasping and holding the object or the action of letting it fall to the ground - might give you a clue about your natural pattern.
Whatever your tendency - remember this Rumi quote: “Life is a balance between holding on and letting go”. Knowing our natural tendency can help us to check in with ourselves when we feel stuck – is there a good reason that is holding us back or is it that we simply operate in a pattern of feeling more comfortable with holding on? In a situation where we want to run for the hills – is there a good reason for this and should we trust our instinct, or can we recognise a pattern that we are often quick to move on? Whatever it is for you, there is no right or wrong, but it is always good to be self-aware. Email me if you have questions on the exercise! I love to hear from you.
Riding uncertainty to find the spark of joy
Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering has been around for a few years and is currently experiencing increased popularity fuelled by the Netflix series. If you have read her book, “The life-changing magic of tidying” or are an avid Netflix watcher you will probably know that the question of what sparks joy sits at the heart of her philosophy. I happily admit that by following joy and her magic folding method my T-Shirt drawers are still in good shape more than three years on! For me, the question, ‘Does it spark joy?’, emphasises the fleeting nature of joy. It suggests that joy needs to be sparked repeatedly. Joy can be a wonderful emotion as long as we accept that it will vanish quickly. Like happiness, the pursuit of joy can become a burden if we start to chase it as a continuous state.
When we expand the search for joy beyond teapots and sock drawers and apply it to careers, homes, relationships things get trickier. We all accept that these areas of life require some hard work but if the spark of joy becomes permanently absent, many of us wonder what needs to change in order to invite more moments of joy back into our lives.
While the journey towards joy is courageous it is not always a joyful one. It will almost always throw us into the chaos of uncertainty. Research has shown that we are hardwired to dislike uncertainty. Even to a degree that we prefer the certainty of a negative outcome over uncertainty! Uncertainty increases our stress levels and when we are embarking on change, we accept travelling on the road of fear and self-doubt. We receive frequent and unsolicited reminders from our inner critic that we are taking too big a risk, going into the wrong direction and are probably not up to the job of transforming anyway. We doubt whether things will ever turn out the way we hope, dream, imagine, whether they will ever spark joy.
Art therapy offers some rich ways to explore our inner critic and, on the flipside, get more acquainted with our inner teacher, wise sage or compassionate mentor. It is a way of exploring our relationship with uncertainty, especially as it doesn’t depend on a verbal expression of our experience. Expressing this turbulent journey creatively allows us to give form to it without knowing what exactly is going on, let alone why. We don’t need to have the words for how we feel in this liminal space of change. And as we progress in our exploration, we will find a way to give voice to the mucky terrain of change and uncertainty and find ways how we can best traverse it, always with the possibility and intention to rediscover joy.
Therapy versus coaching
As I am refining how I work as an Art Therapist and how I weave my business background, my leadership and mentoring experience into my work, I have been pondering the difference between therapy and coaching. My online research on the topic suggests that a key difference is that therapy concerns itself with the past whereas coaching looks to the future. Therapy is often seen as a process that takes years and is often open-ended, whereas coaching works towards a clear timeframe, specific goals and moves along much faster. And while I can see where this reasoning might be coming from, I don’t think I agree.
My starting point with a client is always: what’s right here, in front of us? Hence one could say we work a lot with the present. As we explore art work created in session we work with the present and what we have created right now and what the process was like. We might look into the past to explore engrained patterns and where they might stem from, examine relationships, relate our present experience to memories or similar past experiences, and to find out more about our value and belief system. At the same time, we always keep the future in mind – how do I want to be with this in the future? Is it ok, is it working, is it aligned with my values? Do I want to change, how?
My work has to be entirely client-centric, whether we move along faster or at a slower pace, whether someone has the desire or capacity to ‘do homework’ (for example some journaling or an art procedure) in-between session or not, it all depends on the needs of the individual.
In the end, whether we choose to engage in therapy or coaching, the goal is to lead a meaningful and values-aligned life. Every shift in therapy aims at creating a ‘towards move’, a move towards our values, towards living in a way that our values don’t remain an aspirational list in our heads, but that they inform our everyday actions. What is crucial is that we work within our qualification and are entirely transparent with our clients when offering a coaching strategy and let them choose whether that feels right for them.
Is art therapy for me?
Art therapy can support us with a broad range of challenges and experiences as we find ways to creatively express our experiences in life, past or current, aim to better understand our personal values and patterns and find strategies of connecting and being with our emotions in a helpful and sustainable way.
Firstly: you don’t need to consider yourself artistic or an artist. You don’t need any experience in making art, drawing or painting. You might even share my own experience of being given some pieces of rather unfavourable feedback by an art teacher at school. If, like me, this made you stop doing creative stuff, it’s never too late to reconnect with your creativity!
And while no artistic knowledge is necessary, I find it helpful to write about some qualities that can help people get the most out of art therapy. Remember, we don’t need to be accomplished in all of these, just open to them…
You are open and curious, willing to try something new and experiment with materials or techniques you haven’t used before.
You are proactive and ready to participate – as with any form of therapy you will need to participate actively in our work together and be prepared that this might at times be hard. I believe in you as the expert in your life, and as such you will shape your own process of art therapy with my help and guidance.
You are willing to play and let your rational mind take a back seat every now and then.
You care about living a life that’s aligned with your values and are interested in exploring them further.
You desire to explore your emotional, behavioural and relational patterns with a view to make deliberate choices of how to be with them.
You are an abstract thinker – you often look for the bigger picture, the deeper meaning, patterns and connections. You are ok with things being a bit ambiguous until you find their meaning and significance for you. You are able to suspend a final interpretation, definitive analysis or the impulse to fully explain or label what your art making might be telling you. It’s important to remember that most of us use a mix of abstract and concrete thinking depending on the situation. I invite you to ponder whether abstract thinking feels comfortable and might be your main mode of thinking.
Is this you? Can you see yourself in this list? If yes, I believe art therapy is worth exploring.