Lisa Mitchell

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art therapy invitation: explore how the past informs the present

Lisa Mitchell | Jun 6, 2013 | 2 comments


How to find flexibility instead of rigid rules and use past experiences in the healthiest way possible.

The past informs our present.  That’s just how it works.  A small child gets too close to the fire and learns that it is very hot.  A father sees aspects of himself in his son and is moved to tears.  A graduate walks across the stage to receive his diploma and feels pride for all of the schooling that has led him to this moment.  Everything we learn has a reference to the past.  Learning invites an addition of something new—a new overlay, of sorts, that augments all that came before.


Sometimes this sandwiching of past and present experience is very useful.  When I learn a new technique with art materials and then I combine the new technique with some old techniques, my art making experience is rich and exciting.  When parents learn how to regulate themselves more effectively in conversations, they have markedly different encounters with their teens, and become acutely aware of what they’ve been missing out on in years past.  When a middle schooler finally finds a group of friends with whom she can be herself, she understands why she’s been suffering for so long with those peers that she used to call friends.  Having the ability to reference the past and weave it into present experience deepens our learning, invites empathy or forgiveness, and encourages change.


Sometimes we end up using the past to formulate rigid rules about the present.  We tell ourselves we are better off never risking and end up confining our present experiences and restricting our learning.  The small child decides that fire is bad and avoids it all together.  The middle schooler decides she can only trust the friends she has and never ventures out to make new ones.  I decide that learning new techniques is the only way to be interested in my art making, and so I am forever overwhelming my creative palette and never feel settled enough to actually dive in to the process.


These rigid rules are the foundations of worry and anxiety.  They provide some safety, but because present experience is never 100% predictable the rules are always threatened.  When we learn that options rather than rigid rules are really the way to go; that flexibility and newness are really the name of the game; when maybes and we’ll see’s are more conducive to learning new things we are really able to utilize our past and present experiences in the best way possible.


I’ve been experimenting with art invitations that help clients explore their rigid rules from the past.  In this way, they’ve been able to articulate the unconscious (or over generalized) rules that are supporting their rigidity.  They’ve also been able to see concretely in their art, ways that these rules don’t actually apply.  So, yes, the art is providing them with a new way of weaving past and present.  And, is inviting them to rethink their approach to the present and shift away from worry and anxiety and toward curiosity and flexibility.


In one example, I was working with a client who had recently retired and was struggling with her rigid rule about her need to always strive for something better.  This had worked for her in her career as she had been very successful in her 30 years of corporate law.  When she retired, without the external structure that validated her striving and success, she felt lost and empty.  Her rigid rule that she had to stay on top and continually climb to greater heights of success had been a source of anxiety and worry, but she still subscribed to it, and it had bolstered her for many decades.


I asked her to find an image that represented her past—that sense of having to constantly climb and be on top of her game.  She picked an image of a woman at the very tip of a desert tree.  I asked her to find another image that represented her in the present—as a recently retired woman.  She chose an image of a woman smiling while cooking in her rustic kitchen.  We talked about the stories behind each image, and she explored memories that each image brought up.


Then, I asked her to combine the images—to find a way that the two images could exist together.  This was a way of inviting her to see how her life didn’t have to be one or the other—black and white.  I was asking her to find a way that they could inform one another.  Her corporate lawyer self AND her baking grandmother self all had a place in her current experience.


She cut the images into strips and wove them strategically.  The gramma’s face became a central image, and the climbing woman was in the background, but fairly predominant.  Interestingly, the desert floor from the past became an important foundational element in the picture.  My client’s ability to weave the past and the present into a compatibly flexible image was stunning.  She was able to see how much her past supported her present, and how much her present honored her past.  One couldn’t exist without the other.  This invited her to significantly soften the rule about having to strive and climb in her present, and instead to become more flexible in the way she judged her activities.  She went from a rule about striving and rewrote it to encourage her to always be striving to create—no matter the materials.


When we are asked to play with the in betweens instead of living on one end of the spectrum or the other, we are being creative.  When we are creative, we learn even more and embrace life and present experience in a whole new way.


You too can weave the past and the present to find flexibility and release yourself from anxiety producing rules.

Visit my Art Invitations page and see a full set of instructions!

2 responses to “art therapy invitation: explore how the past informs the present”

  1. christina says:


    Wonderful article! Wonderful acttivity! Question: Was she instructed to
    weave the two pictures of herself? or was she only given the task of combining the two images. I would like to do this for myself, and found myself struggling with how to combine the images.

    THank you!

    • admin says:

      Hi Christina,
      You could do it either way. I think where the struggle is, is where there is the potential for new discovery. So, finding a way to combine the images–whether that’s weaving or otherwise–would be the next step.
      I hope that helps!
      Best to you,

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