Creative art therapy + systemic therapy
Both art therapy and systemic therapy are professional approaches for individuals and families encountering psychological challenges, who want to grow towards well-being. Your creations, your words and the thoughtful accompaniment of the therapist will allow you to express yourself, to feel heard and acknowledged, to discover and to reconstruct.
Creating = changing : art therapy
Fine arts materials and their touch are marvellous starting points: they can be soft or hard, dry or liquid, smooth or rough, colours, blacks, whites and many shades of grey. They will invite you to work on paper or make three-dimensional creations:
- With hard oil crayons Lucile draws her anger onto corrugated cardboard. She pushes hard, leaving deep traces, thus giving shape to repetitious conflicts. Through her creations and verbal exchanges with the therapist she elaborates and integrates her feelings. She starts to colour the ribbed surface, which makes a surprising sound. She enjoys it, and becomes calmer towards the end of the session. In the following session, she explores soft pastels. With her fingers, she mixes the coloured powder on the paper’s grainy surface, and a drawing appears.
Emotions and associations can emerge, and words or phrases can be added to the productions. We do not interpret. There is no judgment. A visual trace helps to exteriorize frustrations, traumas, and work towards solutions. One feels better, and, in this studio, every creation is the right thing. For further reference, a wide range of examples is described in the story library of the AATA.
Specific systemic tools help introduce change in a pragmatic way. They can open up blocked situations, leading towards realistic future projects. They allow transformation of depression, guilt and shame, addressing surprising repetitions. They make covert issues and trans-generational trauma accessible. One might want to contact the family member one hasn’t seen in years …
When a child, adolescent or adult is unhappy, the entire family is affected by it. When a person is perceived as the one who creates problems, we know that all family members suffer from it, and that the reason and the solution are both present within the family system itself. The AFT site has published client feedback called “messages of hope” on systemic family therapy.
Circular work is an efficient systemic tool that leads to fuller understanding of one another in family, sibling and couple therapy, as well as in individual therapy. Thinking in a circular way connects people and stimulates empathy, which is a strong therapeutic lever. When several people are stuck in a fight, every person subconsciously contributes to the conflict. It is revealing and useful to see – together – how the past has led the system to the actual dysfunction, and how one can reverse such a counter-productive cycle. Once the cycle has been identified, emotions expressed and comprehension gained, people can use all this energy in a positive way, and mobilize the strengths of the system.
- Evelyn and George complain that they’ve “lost their flame”, and the couple fights frequently. The therapist asks both partners to revisit their first encounter, and why they fell in love with each other. She asks her questions in a circular manner: “George, what do you think attracted Evelyn in you, why did she fall in love with you?”, and: “Evelyn, when you first met, what qualities of yours might have touched him, and made him fall for you?” Both partners revisit that exciting start of their love relationship. By imagining what the other person might have felt, they also put themselves “in the skin” of their partner. A few sessions later, George and Evelyn become aware of old personal wounds, and obtain understanding of their own reactions. They start to distinguish anger that is related to past traumatic experiences, which are usually based in one’s youth. They learn to see what belongs to whom and when, and by talking and thus healing their old scars, they can live more comfortably in the present. They start to go out more, as a couple, and with their friends.
The family genogramme pictures and expresses everyone’s place as well as the different qualities of relationships, within the nuclear family as well as the larger inter-generational family. This symbolization can be very useful for understanding difficulties which have often emerged after war, immigration, loss or trauma, leading to feelings of shame, guilt or exclusion of members who are “cut-off” from the family. Lines of repetitive trauma or substance abuse can be traced and understood within cultural, historical and social contexts. Unspoken family trauma can be “acted out” by children or grandchildren who are attracted by the “black holes” that exist around unspoken shame. In such cases we find transgenerational traumatization. Adults might fear talking about a family secret in the first instant, but experience shows that such unveiling usually quiets down the children, that the new knowledge has a calming and reassuring effect on them, as well as on the adults. Several genogrammes exist, like the imaginary genogramme, which is very useful for children.
The examples page presents other systemic tools, such as the “symbolic chair” and the “systemic shield“.
Systemic art therapy
This new method uses the tools of both approaches, thus stimulating the integration of new behaviour: through “saying“, and also through “doing“.
- Liz and Carl contacted me after their son Andrew suddenly left the family. In the past, these parents had been rather taken by several problems with their only son. Presently, after his departure, they suddenly find themselves back as a married couple. Andrew’s problems started when he was seven years old, and his leaving at 18 took place in an atmosphere of conflict. Liz no longer wants any contact with Andrew. She says she wants to get on with her life, and that she’s coming to the therapy for her husband, who feels devastated by the loss of his son, which he fears is definite. I propose to each parent to choose a sheet of paper, in the colour of their choice, and to subdivide it into four areas for four drawings. The drawings can be abstract or figurative, according to how they each feel. The first three will picture themselves at seven years old, at 18, and today. The fourth drawing, tomorrow, will be made another time. Liz chooses markers, Carl prefers the soft pastels. While working on the drawing of age seven, Liz remembers her strong relationship with her grandmother. She finds her emotions back when she realizes that her grandmother passed away when she was in elementary school. Carl talks about himself leaving his parents’ home at exactly 18 as well. The two following sessions are used to explore and draw the personages of their families of origin, and the different relationships between them. Repetitions, “cut-offs” of family members and premature losses emerge. Liz realizes why she tried to protect herself from the underlying pain of her son’s leaving, which awoke the non-integrated pain of the loss of others in the past. Towards the end of the therapy, they each make their fourth drawing of “tomorrow” on the sheets from the first session. Carl draws himself shaking hands with another person, and says that he’d like to get in touch with an old school comrade again. Together, the couple enlists in a pottery course in their neighbourhood, and Liz decides to get in touch with one of her brothers again. They feel more confident and more at ease with the idea of a possible future meeting with Andrew, when the moment comes.
This form of therapy can also be suitable for those who function above all “with their heads”. Denied or suppressed emotions can be rediscovered thanks to the detour and the expression that fine arts techniques can offer. Through this active approach, new knowledge, awareness and interactions are reinforced by “doing”, first in a playful way in the studio, and then through practical tasks to be realized in daily life.
Much in common
Systemic art therapy has much in common:
- with psychotherapy: with Evelyn and George, therapy also takes place through talking. We revisit their personal roles in their nuclear families and the survival mechanisms they created in their youths. Then we analyze which mechanisms are still useful, and which ones are blocking them today. Together, we determine the therapeutic goals, and I offer them a framework and assignments that are adapted to them as a couple.
- with coaching: in Frank’s case, a special educator who experiences a divorce, I highlight his qualities and the strong points he is showing in his creations and with words. We work efficiently. I do not propose long therapies when a brief therapy can do. Quite quickly, Frank succeeds in changing his perception of himself. In his case, increasing his self-confidence was enough to rediscover his energy and satisfaction at work.
- with working towards well-being: once Ann understood how to take possession of her personal space within the group, we rounded off the therapy with creations that allowed her to reduce her stress and increase her sense of harmony within herself and with the other participants.
- with nonviolent communication (NVC): a very useful method for couples and families who can have violent or angry fights, but also for those who have trouble expressing their needs amidst friends or colleagues. For Lucile, this method of communicating in clear steps demonstrates respect to oneself and to the other. By learning to listen and to voice concrete facts, by expressing one’s own feelings and needs without offending the other, and by seeing together what both parties need and want, one can considerably improve the quality of a relationship.
Confidentiality is an essential element of the therapy. For this reason, the names and situations in the examples on this site have been changed to guarantee the anonymity of patients and clients.