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Art as Therapy- A Self-Led Form of Healing

In a previous post on the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of psychotherapy, which has been widely used to treat depression, I said I would devote a series of future posts to introducing Self-led activities that enable you to be your own greatest healer. Forms of creative expression such as painting, drawing, writing, dance, or music are ideal mediums for expression of the Self. Meditation, yoga and other forms of physical expression are also Self-led. This post about visual art, also referred to as expressive art or art psychology, is the first post in the series.

In case you do not feel like reading my post on IFS, I will provide a brief introduction to some related terms that I use throughout this post. If you prefer to skip to the body of this post, click here.

The Self is the “real you.” If you are spiritually inclined, you may think of the Self (with a capital “S”) as your core personality, your essence or your soul. Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., founder of IFS, says that the Self is characterized by “calmness, curiosity, clarity, compassion, confidence, creativity, courage, and connectedness.” Any activity that supports your ability to tap into your Self and enables your parts to be heard will clear your personal path toward healing and recovery.

When we are born, all we are is “Self,” but as we live our lives and experience different types of loss, abuse, or any number of emotional traumas, we develop parts whose purpose is to protect us from ever entering situations that re-trigger the original source of that pain. As a result, each of us has an inner family of parts or sub-personalities that conflict with each other and cause suffering. Each of our parts has a voice and the goal of IFS is to be Self-led or rather for the Self to speak for or on behalf of each of those voices rather than from them.

One way to tell if you are engaging in a Self-led activity is if you lose track of time. I often need to set a timer when I write or paint because I can spend four hours on a project and feel like only fifteen minutes went by. That’s because I am engaging in an activity that feeds my soul. In contrast, fifteen minutes at my current day job feels like four hours.

Art is high on the list of Self-led activities and has long been recognized as a form of healing, particularly for people struggling with depression, post-traumatic stress and other mental health conditions. Art can be used as a tool to complement your journey of treatment and to help you maintain your gains.

Art is therapeutic whether you are creating or viewing it. If you don’t have the time to create art, surround yourself with beautiful images that bring you inner peace and clarity; however, by the time you reach the end of this post, I hope you will see how empowering and uplifting it can be to put your own mark on a blank canvas or sketch pad. You don’t need to be “artistically talented” to reap the benefits of the creative process. The very act of expressing your feelings visually has been shown to be incredibly therapeutic. Your art doesn’t need to be museum quality for it to have meaning and value to you and those you care about.

I have loved art ever since I was old enough to pick up a paintbrush. Art and writing bring me more joy than almost anything else.  Art is a key component of my self care toolbox to borrow a term from Kyri, one of our blog contributors who is also a visual artist. I am generally very extroverted, but there are times when I don’t feel like talking to anyone and I only want the company of my Self, some soothing music and my oil pastels.

We’ve all heard the saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” While this may sound cliché, it is very true for me. Art is a way of showing my feelings when telling them to someone is difficult. Even for a person who loves to write as much as I do, there are times when the English language is inadequate to articulate my inner world. When I am experiencing conflicting emotions that I don’t have words for, art is an ideal way to give a voice to the parts of me that need to be heard. Sometimes I already know what my parts have to say (i.e. I am angry, hurt, etc.) and I am able to quickly express that on a canvas. Other times, my parts surprise me with their wisdom and the product I end up with is very different from what I originally envisioned.

The best part about creating art is that there is no judgment. You can never be wrong. Unlike math where there is only one correct answer, art has no rules or formulas except that there are three primary colors. There is tremendous freedom in that. Most of my art is abstract for that reason. I relish the fact that art forces me to put my linear, analytical mind aside and accept that it’s okay to not know where I am going. I use art as a way to escape the rational trappings of my thoughts. Art reminds me that my destination will be more beautiful than I had planned if I embrace the uncertainty of all the colors in my journey. I am a person who plans out my calendar several weeks in advance and if I have an important meeting, I try to prepare for every possible outcome with data and citations. Art asks me to let go, embrace the unexpected, enjoy the process of Self-discovery and release my need to control the outcome of everything. Uncertainty can feel unsafe, but it is necessary for beauty to unfold.

There was a time when my OCD prevented me from doing art because I didn’t want to get my hands dirty from the paints. Now, I rejoice in mixing oil pastels with my fingers- my current medium of choice. The messier it is, the more satisfying. In other areas of my life, I like to keep things clean and orderly. But when I am doing art, suddenly it feels acceptable to let go and make a mess. There is something so liberating about giving myself permission to do that.

Another reason I prefer abstract art is that I believe it is easier for the viewer to find something within it that speaks to them, perhaps a meaning the artist did not think of when creating it. Each person views the same piece of art differently. Sometimes my own art work means something different to me a week later than it did when I created it.

At the same time, I am a perfectionist and my own worst critic. If I finish a painting that didn’t turn out the way I wanted and there is no way to “fix” it, I am tempted to throw it in the trash because I didn’t fulfill my own expectations. When this critical part of me emerges, I force myself to put my art away in a safe place and then look at it a few days later. After having some space from the painting, I usually like it. It seems like someone else should have made it and yet apparently I did. Sometimes we need space from our parts before we can look at them without judgment.

I don’t only make art when my parts are in conflict. I also make art when I am happy for the sole purpose of expressing my Self and the joy and privilege of simply being alive. Reminding myself of the beauty of life helps me remain grateful to be here, which gives me a buffer when hard times inevitably roll around. The act of practicing gratitude is another Self-led activity that can prevent depression. I will discuss gratitude in a later post.

If you are depressed, anxious or otherwise struggling, I encourage you to pick up some art supplies and start painting or drawing. Or buy some art to hang in your home that lifts your spirits. If art has helped you, feel free to e-mail me an image of your work and I will feature it in a new post (anonymously if you prefer).

Photo credit: Me!

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