On how The Arts help us feel ‘all the feels’

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I had a request  yesterday, for a online magazine comment  about the efficacy of music in therapy. I declined the offer, not being a fully qualified and registered music therapist (for more info on this, see https://www.bamt.org/), but it got me thinking and considering how I feel about and make use music, art, drama and other creative avenues within therapy.

I am a huge believer in creativity. I deem our creativity to be part of the essence of our humanity. I believe that unlocking, channelling, making use of, and enjoying our ability to be creative is often the key to unblocking some of the issues that can hold us back in life. In my opinion, when the creativity can flow, so can the ‘qi’ – the lifeforce. I suppose that makes my approach to therapy a kind of ‘feng shui’ for the psyche 😉

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What is it about creativity and the arts that I find so exciting therapeutically? Most specifically, it is the way it expands our metaphorical vocabulary. By that, I mean the way it gives us access to a whole range of thoughts, feelings, emotions, experiences that are impossible to articulate.

Ever been stopped dead by a piece of music? Brought to tears by a scene in a film or play? Felt a rush of ‘emotion’ (for want of a better word) at a piece of art, or a poem? Those are the feelings I am talking about. For me, this little excerpt is a surefire short cut to that ‘feeling spectrum’;

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGsKzZtRwxw

It does it for me, every time! So many feelings that I can’t describe. All the feels.

Know what I’m talking about now? Thought so…

There is a theorist called Gendlin, who writes extensively about this sensation, and is often referred to in psychotherapeutic literature;

“Those who were successful in therapy came to an inner knowing which Gendlin called the “felt sense”, “a special kind of internal bodily awareness … a body-sense of meaning” (Gendlin, 1981: 10) which the conscious mind is initially unable to articulate. … That feeling is a felt sense.” (Embodied Situated Cognition /The Felt Sense – Embodiment Resources
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He is basically saying that for therapy to really be effective, to have really taken root within us and made real movement or change,  an inner part of us has to have been activated. A part of us that we can’t describe, can’t simply ‘go to’ on a whim when we choose. It is an ‘extra sensory’ part of us. It is a place which is close to intuition, a sixth sense kind of place, a hunch, but it goes way beyond that too, as it encompasses many other indescribable feelings, thoughts and emotions too. The only thing I can say is ‘you’ll know it when you feel it’ – and anyone who has had good, effective therapy will know what I mean by that (Jeeez, I am suddenly aware of the parallel that can be drawn between the way I am describing this feeling, and the way really good sexual feelings are often described – and I am purposely going to draw your attention to that and leave it there, because this really is an awakening that takes place on a similar level, when it happens properly!)

So, this hard to reach, seemingly readily inaccessible place needs to be approached somehow. And we, being humans, are all complete individuals with totally different internal roadmaps to this place.  Indeed, this place looks and feels very different to every one of us, and is usually stumbled upon by surprise as we have no idea what or where we are even looking for! So – for me – as the therapist, or ‘tour guide’ – a trip into the unknown is a good place to start, and we all have that doorway to the unknown available to us through art.
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So how do I help clients to access that? Empathy. I sit with them. I hold space for them. I try to enter into their world with them, feel their perception, get a real sense of who they are and then encourage them to gently push at that so that they can hold, savour and appreciate their uniqueness the way I do. I try to help them find their loves, their hates, their excitement and their disappointment, and if possible, I try to help them channel that into a place of their own creation. Cultural touchstones help us find commonality. The feeling of sharing that special place can encourage us to have confidence and affection for it, and with that comes a sense of knowing and enjoying ourselves. Once in that creative place, ‘flow’ can happen, (In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity ) and in the state of ‘flow’ healing can really happen. Who knows? That thing that is created could be epic, and might change the world. Equally, it might never leave our therapy room, and it doesn’t matter either way. It is all valid and important and life changing and valuable.

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I love the popular phrase ‘all the feels’, because to me, it captures something of that felt sense. When I feel a client’s feels, and I know that I have helped a client get in touch with their ‘feels’, I know that we have taken real steps towards self actualising, towards getting in touch with the authentic self, and that – to me – is what therapy is all about.

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On my feelings, and how I make use of them in therapy

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I have been reflecting  today, on an aspect I consider to be one of the most important parts of my job – my connection to my feelings.

In relevance to my therapeutic framework, my feelings are used as my connection to humanity, and are a part of the way I connect myself with my whole human experience – and hopefully, help my clients to do the same.

I have just come from a final session with a client with whom I had been working for a long time, and feel full of those emotions that endings can bring; happy for my client, that they were feeling ready to embark on the next chapter of their life – sad that I was not going to see them again – excited about what the future might bring for them, armed with their new knowledge of themselves  – proud of the work that we have accomplished together, and many other feelings besides.

At the end of our session I felt that I wanted to give my client a goodbye hug as we parted company. Now, I know that hugging a client is highly contentious issue in therapy. Boundaries (of every kind) are a big deal for us all, in life, and therapy is a place where this is often worked out. As such, as a therapist, I am always extremely aware and  respectful of them. Equally, though, I feel that warmth, empathy, and a sense of humanity are just as important to MY way of practising psychotherapy. I know that it is isn’t that way for every approach to therapy, and every therapist out there – many would see a hug as crossing a boundary too far – so i feel  that I want to explain my reasoning for this.

Firstly, I would like to clarify that I do not hug, or even want to hug, all my clients! It is absolutely NOT a staple part of therapy with me!  I am using this (well considered and deemed appropriate) action as an example of a feeling led intervention on my part. Because  what I do really do in ALL therapy,  is acknowledge and attend to my feelings towards and with my client throughout every part of the therapeutic process. If I have a hunch that my feeling is relevant, and that it would be productive for the therapy to express it, I do so. Once I have become aware of and made sense of it. I usually have a sense that if it is felt strongly enough to want to mention it – it is most likely to be relevant.

After all, one of the fundamental beliefs of psychotherapy is that the therapy room is a microcosm of the client’s world. That is to say that if it goes on the therapy room , it goes on in the client’s life. This principle guides me with my client throughout the entire therapeutic process. I use my feelings as a tool offering me an indescribable sensory glimpse into my client’s world; they can guide me with how the client feels, as well as giving me insight as to how the people around them probably feel towards them – often in a far more accurate way than straight-up verbalising does.

The trouble is, you see, that very thing that often brings us to therapy  – the ‘incongruence’ as Carl Rogers called it – is often a master of disguise. It takes our feelings and it tangles them up, it dresses them up in other things, it makes them hard for us to recognise and understand. It is often hard to talk about feelings, so hard that we get overwhelmed and don’t where to begin when asked about them. (I have very clear memories of my ‘bad old days’ – before I learned how to understand my feelings – simply dissolving into tears whenever my doctor or therapist asked me how I was. The tears were an uncontrolled indicator of how beseiged my poor brain was!)index

A massive part of my training as a therapist was me learning about my own feelings, how they impact on me and those around me, and where they have come from.  This helps me to separate my feelings from those of my client. A huge part of my job involves me and my client untangling and identifying their feelings. We pull them apart from out-dated defence mechanisms they have become welded to, prise them off misguided beliefs, tease them away from ancient narratives and only then we can start working out where they come from and how we can best deal with them. The knowledge I have of my own process with this is invaluable when trying to help my client effectively.

Freud’s initial concept of psychonanalysis was born of his observation of suppressed feelings leading to illness. It led to his ‘discovery’ of the unconscious mind – an idea that had not been considered before he suggested it. Early psychoanalysis was all about making the unconscious conscious, and that premise has not altered vastly over the years. (Sure, I would like to hope that modern therapists do more than that too, but really this constitutes the meat and bones of therapeutic work)

Feelings provide a pathway into the unconscious.They can set off a chain of bodily responses and events that we are quite unaware and out of control of.  Modern neuroscience has given us a a way of literally seeing  them lighting up brain scans -amazingly, we can actually watch the pathways brighten and pulse as the feelings are experienced. We can now see how much more there is going on within our astonishing bodies  than we may have previously been aware of.  What a gift! How Freud would have marvelled at that – although I’m sure that he would have noted that the scans reinforced ideas that he had already posited.

If we are clever, and develop our self-awareness well, we can follow our feelings and create a ‘map’ of where they lead us. Our brains are so magnificent and complex, and (most importantly) malleable, that we can then decide whether we want to continue following that map, or whether we want to try out a new route. This is often a good idea. After all, if the road map keeps leading us to a place we dont want to be in, why would we stay on the same route? Of course, its not always easy. A well trodden in pathway is often easier to take than a new unknown course.

So, back to the hug.

Sensing that perhaps it was something that they felt that they wanted too – and after asking them if it was ok – we hugged our farewell. My client seemed very relieved that I had suggested the hug, saying that it was what they had wanted but that they were unsure of protocol, and did not want to ‘break the rules’. It felt like a good way to end our work, and our hug spoke a thousand words that would have been very hard to say. I’m glad we hugged. (If therapy had been continuing, I would have been interested to explore their feelings surrounding ‘rules’, but thats another story, and tangent I cannot go to right now)so-many-feelings

That hug was full of  feelings that cannot be expressed verbally at the ending of a lengthy and productive piece of work. A long, intimate, intense (at times), relationship had been built. So much stuff had been felt, examined, considered, discussed, played with and understood. Lots more hadn’t been, couldn’t be – after all, we get way more feelings than we know what to do with. All the more reason, in my opinion, to act on the ones we do know what to do with  especially when we instinctively know exactly what to do with them. I just knew that a hug was right, on this occasion, and i took a leap and asked if that was a reciprocal feeling. Turns out it was. It spoke. It said way more than either I or the client could. Stuff that clearly needed to be said, otherwise we wouldn’t have both felt that we needed it. Did it add a new piece on to our ‘neural road maps’? Perhaps. Perhaps it underlined the biggest lesson therapy can possibly give any of us?

That we are human, and that our feelings are a huge part of what make us so, and that we have so many different ways of expressing and using those feelings. Why not make use of them? Paint with the whole palette, not just black and white.

Isn’t that an ultimately positive lesson to take from therapy? Isn’t the ‘incongruence’, the ‘sickness’, the unhappy or uncomfortable feelings that led us into therapy in the first instance, our body (which includes our mind, of course) reminding us that it needs to be used properly and as fully as can be, in order to work well?

I think so.