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 how therapy can make things move

Firstly, let me begin by explaining why I haven’t blogged recently. I have moved house, and have been experiencing all of the upheaval and stress and fun and drama and exhaustion that goes with it. That thing that they say about birth, death, weddings divorce and moving house; yes, yes, yes and yes! Never again (although i am quite sure I said that last time, too)

Anyway, the whole moving process has made me consider how I regard the space around me, and the stages I have had to go through to create the space I want and need. It has been stressful, at times chaotic, definitely cathartic and ultimately therapeutic – in many ways, reminiscent of the counselling process. It’s been a period of massive change.

I suppose it began with me having to make the decision to move house (kind of reluctantly, after finally facing the fact that I really needed to), and having gone through the whole dilemma of choice in where to move to, and the crisis of confidence as to whether I could summon enough strength to face the process. I knew it was going to be intense, tiring, stressful, but hopefully – worthwhile Sound a bit like the pre- therapy process? Reaching the decision to seek therapy, facing the choice in the type of therapy and therapist, embracing the idea that change is on the horizon, and wondering if it is going to be painful, if so – how painful? How long will it take? Can I cope? Can those around me cope too? Yep. The questions that I always ask my clients at the beginning; just how uncomfortable are you in your life, for you be ready to face being even more uncomfortable whilst we sort this stuff out? Are you realistic about the distress that it can involve? All felt applicable to this process.

So, aims and anxieties considered, it was time for the hard labour to begin. I had to pack.

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Piece by piece, I went through every single object in my (and my family’s) home and made decisions on whether or not I should bring these objects with me to my new place. Do I need them? Do I love them? Do I have space for them? Do I want to make space for them? The meat and bones of therapy; let us look at your life, at all the components of it? Do you need them? Do you love or even like them? Do you have space for them and do you want space for them? Are they enriching your existence in some way, or maybe – having once been useful, they are now a hindrance to you?.

I found that that breaking my packing down into rooms, areas, helped me feel that my task was more achievable. Sometimes a whole room was too much for me in one go. Sometimes I needed help. Other rooms seemed much tidier, and more straightforward for me to approach. The days that felt easiest were the days that I let friends and family come and help me, and I felt sure that they were the most enjoyable and productive. Regardless of how quickly or slowly I progressed, as anyone who was in my immediate circle at the time will tell you,  there were times I was emotional and upset, as I went through it all. Looking at objects from the past can trigger a lot of repressed and associated memories and feelings. Sound like the therapeutic journey, again? I think so.

Whilst going through this process, I had to keep check on myself. As someone who suffers with a chronic health condition, I had to make sure I wasn’t overdoing it. If I pushed myself too hard, regardless of any urgency or deadlines I felt were looming, I would set myself back further. I had to keep a tighter rein than ever on my self-care routine.  Although my long (sometimes arduous) ‘object review’ sometimes felt liberating and exciting, I had to occasionally stop myself from running too fast, knowing that slow and steady wins the race. I had to explain to those around me that I would have to work in my own time, at my own pace. I had to learn to lay down strict boundaries along the way, in order to keep myself well. It wasn’t always easy, but for the most part, once I explained my situation, most people understood and were compliant to my needs. By keeping people around me informed and sharing my process with them, they helped me to see when I was losing sight of my own wellbeing; something that is easily done. Also sound a bit like therapy?

I have a very dear friend, who has moved house many times, and is a bit of an expert at it. She has been there and gone through so many of the trials and tribulations that moving brings that she is not daunted by it – she is prepared for being unprepared, unafraid of being afraid and fully understands and embraces the idea that things rarely go to plan. She has helpful hints and tips that smooth the way for parts of it that she knows are sometimes riskier. She has label makers and the right knowledge of moving services, that give her the knowledge and tools to guide me when I want and need her to. Despite all this, I knew that at the end of the day, she could not move house for me. I had to do it myself, but she was there to help in whatever way she could. I found myself telling her again and again how much I appreciated her, and how valuable her help was to me, and how she should really start advertising her services as a professional moving assistant, as it is such a useful service to provide, and I knew I couldn’t have done it without her help. Her reply; “It’s always better when you’re not alone”. Just knowing she was there for me helped. She was definitely my ‘therapist’.

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Now here was the thing that I forgot about, and I am thankful for being reminded of. Once moving day happened – stressful and crazy as that was – and I had the slightly surreal feeling of seeing my little world all packed up in front of me and moved from one place to another, I found myself in my new place. It was an empty shell piled full of boxes. It had nothing familiar or comforting about it. In fact, I found that I didn’t even want to live in it for the first week or so. It was strange, new, smelled different, had different sounds and a different feeling in the air. I was upset – had I made the right decision after all?

I had to start from the beginning all over again. Walls, floors – from the ground up, it was scary and intimidating – another mammoth task ahead of me! I was just unpacking all the stuff I had so carefully considered and questioned, I was completely reframing where they sat. Did this still belong in the living room? Would it be better in the bed room, or maybe tucked away in a cupboard for now? Did I still want to look at it, with this new light, context?

Again – therapy. That feeling, when things change, when WE change, that maybe it was easier before? It was certainly more comfortable. It often is quite uncomfortable for quite a while, as one gets used to a new way of living, a new way of being. It is also uncomfortable for those around you, as they struggle with the changes in you, and the changes in the way they have to adjust to living with the newer grown version of you. Sometimes they adjust with you, sometimes they can’t cope with it. Change is always a struggle. It is never easy. But if it is a growth, as we work for in therapy, it is almost certainly worthwhile and worth suffering through it. Most people would agree that the most valuable things in life generally are.

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So, slowly, I am getting settled, fixing things up around this place so that they suit me, unpacking my old stuff into the new space, and taking the opportunity to introduce some new things too. Some of them are things I have been considering for a long time, feeling like now is the right time to introduce them. Others are more impulsive. Some have been mistakes and some have been brilliant, and have made my life so much better.  It has been a bit of trial and error, with varying degrees of success. I have learned new skills, and discarded old ways of doing things (note to self; upcycling can be fun and successful, just don’t ever try to rush it and paint over old paint without sanding and priming first! Understand your own limitations – sometimes it pays to get a professional in when it comes to laying floors! Etc…)

All in all, the process has been liberating, exciting, scary, uncomfortable, exhausting and very, very, creative. Therapeutic – even (!) It has taken me to a new place, hopefully a better one. One where I feel happy and comfortable – a space I want to live in.

To me, this mirrors the ultimate aims of therapy. We all have the power to create our own space around us (even if that is not a visible space that we place objects in, and decorate to our choosing) Although we may sometimes feel powerless and daunted, we can and do have a marked impact on the space around us. By looking at ourselves and how we feel and behave in our space, by noticing our processes, and make adjustments to the ways we use the space, we can have more control over the levels of that impact. We can trust our therapist to hold a safe space for us, whilst we chew over and contemplate how we want and need our everyday living space to be.

Therapists can support us whilst we go through this period of change. They can give us objectivity, comfort, ideas, insight – hopefully, a good therapist will see what we need and intuitively provide exactly whatever that is. Our needs might – probably will- change as that process goes on. At times it may feel that progress is fast and powerful, at other times slower and gentler, but it almost inevitable that change will happen. The willingness of our participation in it may vary, but one thing is certain – we never end up in the same place we started.

So here I am in my new space. Maybe I can help you find your new space too?