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Self-awareness is a foundational element of both mental and spiritual health. At times we find we are just going through the motions of everyday life. When on autopilot, we are not always conscious of the choices we make, how we respond to others, or the negative thoughts that occupy our minds.
In real terms, this might mean praying without confidence or intention, hurting a colleague’s feelings, or abusing food or a substance to manage anxiety or sleeplessness. Choosing to look at what is underneath our thoughts, feelings, and actions requires courage and forms the basis for an authentic relationship with God, self, and others.
Fear can also drive us to hide our real selves, so we smile when we are sad or ignore a family member when angry. The self we often share with others may only be a small portion of who we really are. When we become well-practiced at sharing only our external mask we may lose touch with the fearfully, wonderfully made being created in God’s image (Psalm 139:14).
Art therapy is one tool that helps us gain insight into our personality, motivations, and behaviors. The focus is on the individual expressing his or her inner world. It is introspective. The art makes visible what is unseen or unacknowledged. Creativity can lead to greater self-awareness, helping us perceive the world in new ways, find hidden patterns, and make connections between seemingly unrelated experiences.
By engaging our imagination, we can learn to take risks, ignore lingering doubts, and face our fears. Creativity’s therapeutic value lies in its ability to bypass the patterns of intellectualization and rationalization that undermine healthy thinking and decision-making.
Art therapy encourages people to convey and understand emotions through artistic expression such as collage, painting, sculpting, or poetry. At Saint Luke Institute, this specialized therapy offers each client a permanent and tangible record of their experience. As a primarily non-verbal intervention, art therapy allows images to present themselves and open the door to thoughts, feelings, and memories previously unexpressed, thus opening a path to verbal expression. These visual or sensory images accessed through a creative process support the expression of suppressed experiences for which words are inadequate (Naumberg, 1987).
A range of materials are used for creative expression, but two mainstays are collage and mask making.
Collages create a picture from seemingly disparate published images. They are an introduction to art therapy and provide an opportunity for creative problem-solving by fully activating the logical and creative sides of the brain. The artist has control of the process with support from peers and the art therapist. This sense of control is important as a client becomes acclimated to residential treatment. Clients are often surprised when their selected imagery moves emotions or experiences from the unconscious to the conscious.
Mask making brings order to chaotic thoughts, feelings, and experiences and serves as a container for expression. Through the mask, the client artist acknowledges how he presents himself to others compared to how he feels on the inside. Masks are frequently shared with the primary therapist and often serve as a starting point for individual and group therapy sessions.
Clients often express an initial resistance to art therapy, as they may lack experience with painting or collage making and feel uncomfortable. Many clients protest, “I can’t draw,” or “I’m not an artist.” Gradually, this initial reluctance yields to an exploration of life experiences, such as parental alcoholism or divorce, and hurtful incidents, such as childhood bullying or peer rejection.
Throughout the art therapy process a client’s knowledge base increases as she shares the meaning behind her creative projects and receives both critical feedback and affirmation from peers. As clients begin to relate to each other’s experiences, closer bonds are formed within the group. In time, clients connect their reactions to current life situations and how these interactions relate to foundational life experiences.
As this awareness develops, clients become leaders in art and other therapy groups, serving as a role model to new members, thus perpetuating the circle of healing. The clinical team may recommend individual art therapy to support this deeper exploration of issues. Through group or individual art therapy many clients discover creativity as an essential tool for self-care. In preparing for discharge, clients formulate a Continuing Care Plan with their therapist that articulates several strategies and concrete actions for maintaining health after residential treatment. Ultimately, Saint Luke Institute clients are empowered to maintain their recovery and health using tools such as art, mindfulness, prayer, and 12-step programs.
Naumberg, M. (1987). Dynamically Oriented Art Therapy: Its Principles and Practices. Chicago, IL: Magnolia Street Publishers.
Nancy Parfitt Hondros, MA, ATR-BC, LGPAT, LGPC, is an art therapist at Saint Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland.
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