Lying on the chaise lounge sofa, you can’t see the man behind you. Still, you can pinpoint his appearance to a tee. On a leather armchair in an off-white suit, one leg draped over the other, the remnants of his thin white hair leave exposed the spotted dome of his head. A cigar smokes languidly in the ashtray beside him. You listen to the scribbling of his pen on the notepad.
“So,” he asks. “Tell me about your mother.”
In popular imagination, this is the iconic image of a therapy session. It has been immortalized in film, literature and probably more than in any other medium, comic strips. The origin of this trope is without a doubt Sigmund Freud, the Austrian born father of psychoanalysis. He was a major proponent of what has come to be called the talking cure, a system in which a subject openly discusses their life and concerns with a therapist.
But this method is only effective if a subject fully discloses their thoughts and feelings. What if this person doesn’t feel like talking about their life? What if they are afraid too, or embarrassed? If there isn’t a willingness to speak, the talking cure can get nowhere.
Fortunately, spoken language isn’t the only way a person can work through psychological issues. It is becoming more and more apparent that artistic expression is an effective way for people to access and remedy those difficult aspects of their lives that are otherwise unaccessible. This methodology is called art therapy.
The American Art Therapy Association defines art therapy as “…a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.”
The process of artistic creation is used to sublimate negative emotions and bring them into the open. Its advantage over the talking cure is that subjects can express themselves in a less literal way than spoken language. This allows reflection of psychological issues without the self-consciousness associated with vocalization of one’s weaknesses to others. Through this method, a subject may be working through internal conflicts and not even fully realize it.
Consider, for instance, the work of Dr. David Gussak in the Florida State Prison system. Gussak worked many years with violent and aggressive people as an art therapist, and he found its methods to be incredibly useful in an environment where image and reputation are everything. He articulates this in his article “Art Behind Bars;” “There is an inherent mistrust for talking about one’s issues, as there is a valid fear of other prisoners taking advantage of their voiced ‘weaknesses.’ As a result, rigid defenses revealed through silence, lies and aggression, are put in place for survival.” In this setting, the talking cure would be useless. Artistic creation fills this void of communication between prisoner and therapist. “[Art therapy] promotes non-verbal communication, even while the inmate does not want to talk about his feelings and ideas which might leave him vulnerable…”
And the results look pretty good. According to controlled studies Gussak helped carry out, inmates that participated in art therapy programs demonstrated greater improvement in mood, socialization and problem solving skills than those that did not. Anecdotal evidence and case studies further support this trend. The personal expression the artistic process permitted seems to have been useful in working out inmate’s inner conflicts.
On top of all this, it turns out that negative emotions can actually be ideal for creativity. Some studies link deep thinking and innovation to sad moods, based on how our minds process information in such states. Not only is artistic creation a great way to sort out negative emotions; negative emotional states are ideal for the creative production of art. This is the positive feedback loop of art therapy.
But you don’t have to be incarcerated to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of making art. For that matter, you don’t necessarily even have to make anything. The act of simply listening to music is enough to decrease levels of stress hormones, lower anxiety and relieve depression. This is, of course, contingent on the type of music being listened to. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony may do a better job of relaxing you than, say, “New Direction” by Gorilla Biscuits. The truth of this statement is subject to personal taste, however.
The prisoners Gussak worked with primarily created visual pieces using paints, markers, pens and the like. Don’t feel limited to these mediums in any way. Dancing, singing, writing, film, carving, ice sculpturing, interpretive cat petting – all these expressive forms can allow the same sort of release the Florida prisoners found through their own artwork.
Another important thing to remember is that the artistic “quality” of the final product does not matter. This is explicitly directed to all those people who have told themselves their entire life, “But I can’t draw/dance/sing/anything I totally wish I could do.” For the purposes of art therapy, this is unimportant. It means nothing whether what you create is “good” or “bad” art. It is instead the process of artistic creation that provides a person with a system by which they can explore and express repressed ideas and emotions. By working to manipulate a piece of art, one is symbolically examining, molding, reforming and better understanding the subdued parts of oneself.
So don’t worry so much about painting like Michelangelo. Instead, focus more on channeling your inner Jackson Pollock. Trust your intuition and let go of that endless tendency to self-critique. You may be amazed at how easy it is to get lost in an art project.
If you want some ideas on where to get started, try this list of 100 different art therapy exercises you can do at home. And always remember; “Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.”
A native of Topanga Canyon (think of it like the back-country of LA), I have recently received a B.A. in English from the University of California Santa Barbara. I'm now working to advance my writing career between time spent bartending and surfing, finding inspiration in all the crazy people I encounter along the way. I love great literature, head-high waves, songwriting and talking to strangers. Check out my writing at www.danoallan.com and my original music at https://soundcloud.com/doallan.