Lisa Mitchell

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Business advise from the end of a successful practice.

May 14, 2018 | 28 comments

 

We can learn from people at the end.

When people are at the end—end of life, end of a relationship, end of a long hard project—they have a unique viewpoint that can only be gained from having lived through it to the very end. I’ve always listened a bit harder to the folks who are generous enough to share their view from their last stop.  When we pay attention to their wisdom, we benefit. So, since I’m at the end of a successful private practice, I want to share something that only now, 2 weeks away from closing my doors, I have come to understand clearly. (If you missed my initial announcement, you can read more about my transition here and here.)

I didn’t come to this understanding all by myself.  As is often the case these days, the combination of art and writing helped me arrive at this beautiful conclusion.  I want to share it with you in hopes that it inspires you to build your work-life so that it feeds you, heals you, and sustains you. Just like mine did for decades. Read More… »

Wisdom from the trenches of transition: Ending a Series

Apr 5, 2018 | 25 comments

The other day, at coffee, Hannah reminded me that artists work in series.  She was talking about her own work—completing a couple of big commissions and her show at the Pence Gallery that I was about to see.  She was in-between projects and inspiration.  She knew it and was trying to tolerate the patience with oneself it requires to incubate the next thing—the next series.  She can feel it changing, but she doesn’t yet know how.

 

As a therapist, my art has been with clients and they’ve come in a series. For I really do believe that therapists are artists and therapy is an art form. Foster kids, families, juvenile sex offenders, teens, therapists…..each time I began a new job or focused my work on a specific population, I was starting a new series.

 

It all sounds really creative and full of flow.  From one job to another, one client population to the next.  Each series building on the last.  New learning, new excitement, a path of curiosity fulfilled.

 

That’s not how it feels.  As Hannah described her own struggles with allowing herself to incubate instead of forcing her next series to come, I had the flash of recognition in my own life.  I’m packing up my office, my home, everything I own, and moving across state lines.  This series has ended—the one that took me all over the country to train therapists to use art in their work, the one that allowed me to work with those difficult teens who spoke through their art like they’d never spoken to a therapist before, the one that brought me groups of passionate therapists who wanted to excavate their souls and share because their well-being depended on it.  I’m closing up shop.  And, like Hannah, I know I have to give room for the next thing to show up.  There’s another series out there for me, but there is no menu from which I can pick ‘what looks good tonight’.  It needs to incubate inside me.  I need to wait for the idea.

 

People ask me, “What are you going to do once you get moved?”  They want to hear about my next idea, my next endeavor, my next series.  They know I am a manifester.  I create things and invite people to participate and it is wonderful.  They want more from me.  They can’t wait.

 

When I can only answer, “I really don’t know.”  I feel my disappointment roll into theirs—and we are a ball of impatience together.

 

Artists don’t stop working when they are in between series.  Their creative mind is always searching and trying out and there’s even actual engagement in the work itself.  They still go to the studio and work.  Sometimes it is just to clean a brush, other times it is to rearrange the workspace.  To outsiders, we may look as if we are doing the same things as always.  We are still creating or seeing clients or writing.  On the inside we are wringing our hands, scrunching our hair from our head, pacing back and forth—waiting.

 

I’ve learned that when I’m incubating, I have to be nice to myself.  I used to obsess about new ideas.  I have old lists of possible groups or classes to teach.  I have half-baked art invitations.  Names and taglines for courses fill notebooks.  In the past, I established a disciplined approach that included an optimal routine for inspiration.  I had to wake early, take my dog for a long walk in nature, do yoga, take a shower, then sit on my bed and download the ideas that I had seemingly plucked out of the river on my walk that morning.  I could incubate and find inspiration about the clients I was going to see that day or classes that I wanted to teach or a blog post I was going to write. The routine was my creativity template.  It worked well then.  But now I see, I was actually in a series.  I had my overall endeavor so well dialed in, that I was in flow and all I needed to do was stay in.  It worked beautifully.  I loved most of it.  Sometimes I was even able to be nice to myself.

 

Now, I’m no longer in that routine.  I don’t need to be and don’t want to be.  I have completed that series, and am waiting for the next.  So when I walk my dog on the river my thoughts are blank and I listen to  the birdsong and the sound of my shoes on the dirt.  I still sit down to write, but not as often, and only to see if there is anything there yet.  It’s kinda like knocking on the door to see if anyone is home, even when you know they are on vacation.  That’s where being nice to myself comes in.  I reassure myself, “You don’t have to know where this sentence will take you.”  I try to relax my breathing and tell myself, “It will come. You don’t have to know, right now, sweetheart.”

 

My coach, Andrea Lee, used to tell me that once we find the stream, all we have to do is stay in the boat and follow it.  The work was in noticing the moment in which the current began to carry us.  I used to joke back and tell her that it felt like the work was in trusting that there was actually a stream like the one she described.  It took so much work to walk around on rocks and follow dead end paths all the while lugging the heavy boat in hopes to catch a whiff of the right waterway.  Now, I know there is that stream.  Actually, I know there are many streams.  But right now, in this transition from California to Washington, from a well developed career series to the unknown, I am floating on an inner tube in the middle of the ocean.

 

It’s not that bad really.  Maybe it’s not exactly an inner tube,  but more like a nice fishing boat with a bedroom below and a little art studio set up on deck.  Nevertheless, I’m floating.  It’s not a passive float, like I’m helpless or a victim of circumstance.  It’s an expectant, kind, midwife-y kind of float.  Where I’m looking for signs of going into labor.  I’m reading the horizon for clues.  I’m engaged, alive, happy—with only an occasional bout of hand wringing or hair scrunching.

 

Are you working on a series?  What is it and how are you keeping it going?

Or are you incubating like Hannah and I?  What can you do to allow this for yourself?  How do you tolerate the in-between?

 

Transition: The Ultimate Creative Challenge

Jan 21, 2018 | 84 comments

I’m facing my biggest creative project ever!

I’m moving.  As in, moving my whole life.  Not just to the office next door or to the house down the street (which is what I did 7 years ago).  I’m really and truly packing everything up and sending it across 2 state lines in stacked pods on a truck bed.  There’s a ferry ride at the end which involves breathing through the flood of bliss that always comes when I see the beauty of the Puget Sound.  And there will be the cedars and Douglas firs that wait for us.  They guard our property with ancient solidity. They are home to the eagles and the other birds I have yet to meet.  I’m aware that the isolation could wreak havoc on my relationship seeking psyche from which I’ve formed my therapist identity, but since a part of me already lives there, I’m certain this new life is what I want.

That’s right, my husband and I are packing up our lives here in Sacramento and moving to an island in the Puget Sound.  It sounds crazy and romantic and cliché.  We are those people.  Those people who have decided to get out of the bad air and the concrete and the cars and the speed of life as we know it and move to a farm.  The original idea came from our need to save my husband’s lungs (the Sacramento ozone is literally killing him).  Now, I’ve come to look at it as saving our hearts and our minds—our souls. Read More… »

Art in Therapy? What you call it matters!

Dec 20, 2017 | 3 comments

In a therapy session, the details are everything

To a therapist, just like an artist, the little details are everything.  When we sit with a client we track physiological responses, posture, eye contact, tone of voice, reactivity, activation, our own responses—the list is practically inexhaustible.  Most of us are naturals at this and are just putting our sensitivity to work.  I love the feeling of being highly present and attuned to my client.  I feel alive and curious and connected.

This particular detail is super important

One of the details that I like to pay particular attention to in an art therapy session, is how I refer to an art activity with my client.  The fields of art therapy and expressive arts therapy use various names to refer to the therapeutic application of art in a session.  The two most common terms are “Art Intervention” and “Art Directive”.  My clients and I are most familiar with the term I use, “Art Invitation”.  After a conversation with Shaun McNiff about my book, Creativity as Co-Therapist, I realized that the term “Art Invitation” was unique.  His enthusiasm for this term was wonderful and he joked that The Art Invitation should be the title of my next book!  I’d like to share with you some thoughts about each of these terms so that you can add “how you talk about an art activity” to your list of details to consider in a session.  There is a time and place for all three terms, for sure.  Giving careful consideration to the subtle (and not so subtle) differences is crucial. Read More… »

Becoming Yourself in Life and in Therapy: What Yalom Teaches Us Once Again

Nov 14, 2017 | 4 comments

Teaching therapists about relationship

Aside from what my clients have taught me, I’ve learned more about being a therapist from Irv Yalom than from anyone else. The teaching stories in his books are told with a voice of deep respect and real love for his clients and for the process.  He keeps close tabs on his internal processes and often shows up from behind the analyst’s veil to self-disclose in a deeply vulnerable way.  Yalom has guided me, through his books, to invent therapy anew for each client and to be courageous in this act.

While his newest, and self-proclaimed last book is a memoir– not a book of therapy stories–it is indeed a touching act of self-disclosure.  In Becoming Myself, he does for us, as he does for his clients.  He makes himself real.  This is a gift he’s given us. We get to see inside his family history, his mind as he developed radical new ways of teaching young therapists, and to hear his few life regrets and thoughts on dying. Read More… »

When Therapy Stalls Use ART!

Oct 29, 2017 | 1 comment

The key to good therapy

Clients have difficulties with parent-child relationships, spousal relationships, work relationships, internal relationships between aspects of self, relationships to depression or anxiety or trauma, relationships to personal or cultural history….the list is long.  There is one relationship that often gets left off of the list.  The therapeutic relationship.  The very relationship that is the vehicle for working through the other relationship.  It is also the one that we seldom explicitly address in sessions.  Sure, we focus on establishing and maintaining rapport.  Sure, we diligently sort through countertransference issues.  Sure, we gauge our own experience of connection or presence. However, Scott Miller’s research points to a big problem. Our assessment about the therapeutic relationship is often incorrect.  He says, “If we think we know and we aren’t checking with our clients, then we probably don’t know.”  This is not only problematic when things aren’t going well in therapy.  Even when things are going well, clients still report greater satisfaction when they are allowed to provide their input on what they like and what they don’t.  But, with our field’s over-emphasis on technique, seldom do we spend time asking our clients about their experience of the therapist client relationship.  This is so important that I designed an entire online course about it.   Read More… »

Writing from the Art

Oct 22, 2017 | 13 comments

What I learned at a week-long writing retreat

 

It’s been a 6 days since my return from a week-long writing retreat with Laura Davis in Bolinas, CA.  I gathered with 20 other brave writers to face grief, uncertainty, and transition and to share our words that captured the raw experience of our pain and struggle.  The week was profound in many ways.  I want to share some of my experience here, with you, because I think it could be inspiring and useful for all therapists.

Here are my two big take-aways, plus one smaller one.

 

ONE

Writing from the Art

On the registration questionnaire for the retreat, in response to the question, “What do you hope to work on during the retreat?”  I responded, “I want to use the time to explore the relationship between my art and my writing.  I want time and space to do this.  I want to discover what it is about the two creative acts, joined together as one, that is so profound.”  This wasn’t a typical response, so Laura called me up and asked me to explain.  I told her about my latest therapist retreats and how powerful this integration of art and writing was for the participants.  I told her about the individual sessions with clients and how when I had started to bring writing into session (in addition to the art) I felt like I was on another plane with clients.  That what came out of those sessions was more intimate, deeper, more from a place of truth—realness—wholeness than I’d ever witnessed when just one modality was with us.  And, I told Laura, I felt I needed to do it more—for myself—not just facilitating it for others. I wanted to know the relationship between my writing and my art from the inside out.  She got excited for me and couldn’t wait for me to share my experience.

So, every day at the retreat, in addition to writing for 7 hours a day, I painted.  I took my sketch pad with my Golden acrylics to the bench overlooking the ocean or to the front porch of the Commonweal building or on my makeshift table made from my suitcase in my room.  And I painted.  Each painting had a direct relationship to my writing.  I linked together a series.  Painting, writing about the painting, writing about my writing, painting in response to my writing, painting in response to a sand tray, writing about the painting in response to the sand tray…..each prompt led to another related creative response.  I wove and integrated while I followed the breadcrumbs which led me further along this knowing:  When I plug into my creative expressions and let them relate to one another as collective guides in an intentional way, I get to a place I could never have predicted.

Read More… »

How to Find MOTIVATION for Art and Creative Expression

Aug 24, 2017 | 2 comments

 

What’s the number one question I hear from clients?

It’s not, “What’s wrong with me?” or “Can you help me?” or even, “Will things get better?”.

The number one question I hear from clients is, “How can I get myself motivated?”

Art therapy sessions are full of colorful expression.  Sometimes clients paint, sometimes they write, sometimes they assemble mixed media into meaningful collages.  No matter what kind of creativity my clients use to heal in session, the experience of creative expression in a safe therapeutic environment leaves them with the sense that more art would be a good thing.

In fact, research supports this.   Tamlin Connor (2016) found that subjects who were creative on one day experienced more flourishing and positive emotions like energy, enthusiasm, and excitement the next day.  Connor’s research concluded that engaging in small daily acts of creativity may influence overall well-being rather than simply making us feel good in the moment.

In session, as part of my role of therapist, I supply the motivation for my clients to create.  I carefully craft invitations that both peak my clients’ curiosity and feel manageable or safe enough.  If my client is unable to begin, I supply the gentle compassion that is a carefully calibrated on-ramp to their creative activity.  I’m a cheerleader, a coach, a nurturer, and a space holder.  It might not look like much from the outside, but clients feel it and are enormously appreciative.  And, like I said, they end the session by asking, “How can I find the motivation to make art at home?  It just doesn’t feel the same as it does here in session?”

A few clients should NOT be making art alone.  For these folks, emotional safety is a very tricky issue.  Their art can trigger them to dissociate or become overwhelmed with despair or hopelessness.  It is not a matter of motivation for these clients.  Their defense against these states is wise and protective.  I tell these clients that they should not force it.  They should not judge themselves.  They can find other ways to use their hands to safely create—like handwork (knitting, crochet, embroidery) or gardening.

For those clients that art making is not a trigger and is a safe, healthy activity, I recommend they do more.  And, I let them know that discipline is NOT the whole answer.  Instead, I have a 5 step motivation recipe.

I’d like to share it here for both therapists and clients—we could all use more art and creative expression in our lives.

If you lack motivation, here’s what to do.

Motivation to make art requires the following:

Care:  You must be caring for and about yourself.  This means basic self-care like rest, nutrition, and hygiene.  Understand that self-care is always a work in progress—not something to perfect.  If it is not something you are working on, it will be very hard to find motivation to make art.

Curiosity: You are hardwired for curiosity.  The brain seeks novelty and this fuels your search for things that spark your interest. Many clients are numb to the sensation of curiosity.  They need help identifying what it feels like when they become interested in something new.

Courage: You don’t need much—but there is a leap that art asks us to take.  When clients go from blank page to a mark on the page I acknowledge it as courage.  Practice and recognition boosts courage to do this leap over and over again.

Compassion: Creating a criticism free zone around art making can be achieved through a commitment to self-compassion.

Here are the 5 steps to motivation that I teach my clients:

  1. Make a pros and cons list. What are the costs of NOT making art? What is the worst that can happen? What do I stand to gain? Etc.
  2. Learn to recognize curiosity. “No’s” feel flat and unresponsive. “Yes’” have fireworks.  “Maybe’s have sparklers.”  Rather than ask, “WHY am I curious?” just do #3.
  3. Just do it for 2 minutes. Tell yourself you only have to start and nothing more. Renew this every day instead of committing to a long term regimen.
  4. Slather on encouragement—even if you have to say it out loud and don’t really believe it. Use positive statements that affirm your start. Acknowledge the feelings that you have surrounding art making.  Exercise empathy and compassion for those feelings.
  5. Celebrate! Notice your act of creative expression as a beneficial experience. Be your own best cheerleader.

 

When I teach these steps to clients in session, they can apply them outside of session when it is time to approach their art making.  It is exciting to hear the benefits that clients report as a result of implementing these steps and using the recipe.

I hope this recipe helps you and your clients to find the motivation to create over and over again!

 

Source: Conner, Tamlin. “Everyday creativity as a path to flourishing”,Journal of Positive Psychology, Nov. 2016 (online),www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2016.1257049?scroll=top&needAccess=true&journalCode=rpos20

 

This is how clients really change.

Aug 3, 2017 | 2 comments

Sometimes it appears that change happens overnight.  Like there is a flip of a switch and in an instant Winter has turned to Spring.  Or a client’s outlook makes a 180 and turns from unshakable despair to undeniable hope.  Or the moment appears when anger dissolves and acceptance arrives and you blink wildly because you didn’t expect it and you still don’t know what you did to help your client get there.  But change isn’t really a lightning bolt of transformation.  It is a slow process that requires space and time and sustained effort.

Creativity is the basis for change.

When we look at the idea of change in clients, we have to give considerable credit to creativity. Creativity allows us and our clients to see new possibilities. When we think creatively, we unhook from what is already known and only then can we cultivate novel ideas. Creativity is what feeds a different story, a different experience, a different sense of self.

Poet Mary Oliver explains what creativity needs in her book, Upstream. “Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”

Creative thinking is part of our brain’s default mode network.  In order to light up this part of our brain, we need to step away from the information overload and noise of our daily modern lives.  Engaging creatively requires carving space in our sessions for imagining, daydreaming, or just waiting to see what comes in the silence.

So, you see change requires creativity and creativity requires space.  If we want to help clients change, we need to create space.  Space to create.  Space to think creativity.  Space to see new possibilities.

Do you create enough space for change?

I have been watching for opportunities to create more space for my clients.  It’s a really beautiful shift for me as a therapist.  It slows things down.  It invites me to collaborate from a more creative space.  And, I’m seeing some exciting and magical things happen.

Space during session:

If we go to fast, talk too much, implement a jam packed agenda we are not creating space during session.  We need to allow for silent moments and spontaneous discoveries.

How to create space during session:

  • Invite art making.  Each time a client faces a blank piece of paper or canvas, they are literally experiencing space.  Some clients find this very challenging.  The anxiety of the unknown or the “how to do it right” floods in.  If we enter the space with them and gently invite ideas, possibilities,  and reassurance we are creating space in session.
  • Invite further exploration with art.  When a client finishes their art making in session, I have found that this is a crucial moment. It is tempting to dive into discussion or explanation.  Our clients want to make contact with us and their art—to try to understand it.  But, if we create space here—in this already ripe with creativity moment—we are suspending linear thinking and inviting even more creativity.  I like to ask, “Is there anything more your art needs?”  Or I often say, “Let’s just sit with your art for a moment and feel into it a bit.”

Space for imaginative linkage between session and day-to-day life:

When a client has a new insight in session, it is not enough to simply acknowledge this novel experience.  We need to help our clients link the newness to their day-to-day lives.  We can do this by inviting them to use their creativity and imagine what the changes will look like.

How to create linkage:

  • Ask the client to imagine the new insight or skill in a variety of situations.  This can feel repetitive and slow, but it is so very helpful.  You are literally asking a client to create space in their day-to-day lives for the new skill.  If they are able to rehearse it happening in a variety of circumstances with their imagination, it is more likely to happen.
  • Ask questions instead of inform.  For example, you’ve been working with a young client to develop assertiveness and he’s been able to represent assertiveness in his art and with physical movement during session.  He’s embraced the new skill well.  Rather than inform him how this new experience could change his relationships with peers, ask an open ended question.  “How do you think this assertiveness stuff is going to impact your daily life?”  When you ask that question, you are once again, creating space for his imagination to swoop in and link his session experience to his day-to-day life experience.

Space in real life:

We need to help clients find space in their lives for change.  Creative space 50 minutes a week is great, but carving out space in daily life is a challenge that needs support.

How to create space in real life:

  • Recommend a get-away.  Summer camps, retreats, a new club are all environments that create literal space from daily life. When clients get the chance to interact with new people in new environments, they have greater permission to be different from their “back at home” selves.   I’ve had several teens return from their summer camp experiences with amazing reports.  Prior to their camp weeks, we focused on reviewing the new skills they’d acquired in therapy that they’d like to be aware of at camp.  Because the context was so different and they were free from the relationships at home that didn’t give them space to change, they had space and time to experience themselves differently.
  • Identify a specific time and space.  I’ve been asking clients to identify a time and space during their week when they could reliably allow their brains to relax into default network mode.  This might involve art making, but it doesn’t have to.  Many of my clients use the last few minutes of the day, right before they fall asleep, to imagine a video of themselves painting a relaxed, safe, or soothing canvas.

 

Our offices are havens of space in a crowded world.  When we see the role of space as it relates to creativity and change we have the privileged position of providing unique opportunities for our clients.

[Video] Use Color to Boost Your Mood

Jun 16, 2017 | 6 comments

 

Color can be a powerful resource for resilience and happiness.  When you access your resource color, you boost your mood and brighten your well-being.  These kinds of activities are vital for therapists and clients alike.  Rather than spending session after session slogging through dysfunction and what’s gone wrong, why not spend a session (or two or three or four) activating resources?

Here’s a fun activity to start with.

Use Color to Boost Your Mood:  Access Your Resource Palette

1. Pick a color you love and write about it.  Write for 5-10 solid minutes in a brainstorm, free form fashion.  Write about why you love it, what it reminds you of, the qualities of the color.

Here’s an excerpt from my yellow art activity:

   “I love yellow.  I love the blinding sun light that sneaks through my closed eyelids and warms the inside of my brain.  I love yellow’s fresh lemon zest and how it wakes me up even when I’m slogged and far away.  I love yellow with its hope and promised reminder that signals the inevitability of morning, a new day, a fresh start. Yellow pierces through darkness and floods it with light.  It tingles and tells me I’ve alive.”

2. Glue collage papers in various tones and hues of your color onto a heavy piece of paper.  Do this spontaneously and randomly.  You don’t need a plan.  Just working with the color is the art.

3. Add paint of various tones and hues of your color.  Again, let this morph as it wants to.  You don’t need to know what it is going to look like in the end.  You just need to stay with the color and your celebration of that color. Let dry.

4. Using other drawing materials like oil pastels, water soluble crayons, permanent markers, colored pencils add to your painting.  Adopt a playful attitude and just get curious about what you’d like to add with these materials.  Spend a moment sitting with your completed art.

5. Now write some more.  Take 5-10 minutes to write about your painting using the stem sentence, “The color __________ boosts my mood because____________________.”  Let the ideas emerge spontaneously, write what comes to mind.

Here’s an excerpt from my yellow art activity:

  “Yellow boosts my mood because it has an energy all its own.  It wants to radiate and be set free to spin.  If you let it, it will grow and reach and permeate places still dark.  It wants to dance.  Yellow boosts my mood because it is playful and wants me to jump in and giggle.  It is simultaneously warming and invigorating—like the lemon zest in a tangy cocktail invented for a special summer occasion.  It’s celebratory, but not in a way that asks for fanfare.  Just in its yellowness—it can’t help but say, “Yes, yay, yippee. For me, the spinning is the finishing touch. (Watch the video to see for yourself!)  When I close my eyes and watch yellow spin—playful rays shooting outward, growing itself into more light—it makes me smile and feel all the possibility in the world.”

 

I hope you try this Boost Your Mood With Color art activity.  I’ve found that the combination of resource based art activities and writing is incredibly powerful.  Share it with your client!  Let us know how it goes!

If you are interested in a very special opportunity to experience the powerfully healing combination of writing and art you might want to join me in my Sacramento studio for Artspace starting in September 2017.  We will be practicing and refining “Collab—Art—wrITE” which is the process of cultivating a relationship between painting and prose.  When you cultivate the art-write relationship your creative expression has the kind of depth and breadth that inspires great healing and inspiration.

 

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