Lisa Mitchell

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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.

Bring writing into an art therapy session and be amazed

Apr 20, 2017 | 1 comment

The combination of writing and art in a session is more powerful than either activity alone. 

I’m an art therapist, and I use art in therapy.  Art making is an experience that my clients rely on to make sense out of that which is not easily translated into words.  I “speak” art and teach my clients to do the same.  Art is powerful and so very transformative.  It’s what I’ve used as a healing modality for the last 20 years.

As a result of my writing adventure in Bali with Laura Davis, I realized how invaluable writing can be as a healing experience. The power of the written word is not unfamiliar to me.  I am faithful to my journal.  I sort through thoughts and new ideas with my keyboard.  I sometimes write letters to figure out what it is I truly want to say. Writing is important to my ability to understand and communicate.  But in Bali, I connected with the experience of writing in a new way.  Writing became, for me, another creative process that, when shared with others, is a vehicle for meaningful connection. 

Since I’ve returned from Bali, I’ve been inspired to bring writing into my work with clients.  What I’ve discovered is profound.   When I integrate writing into an art therapy session, my clients’ find that their creative expressions (both the writing and the art) have greater impact.  The writing solidifies the art.  The art informs and inspires the writing.  There is a reciprocal relationship between the expressive word and the non-verbal art.  It’s as if the writing voice allows those thoughts that can’t quite be uttered out loud to appear on the page. Which then paves the way for sharing those very quiet and personal thoughts to be shared.

I have also been incredibly moved by the writing and art integration my Artspace Therapists’ Group is doing.  The deepening that writing invites makes such a difference.  It’s like adding that all important bass line to a jazz piece.  The tune was great, but with the steady driving bass, it becomes rich and compelling.  Something really worth listening to.

Here are some ways to integrate writing and art into session:


Do you ever let your snow globe settle?

Dec 22, 2016 | 10 comments

Art Therapy Invitation for Therapists and Their Clients

During the holidays is the perfect time to purchase snow globes.

Other times of year, they are hard to find. Pick a couple up the next time you are out shopping and bring it back to your office.  Use it, or the following art invitation to ask the questions:

Do you pause and ponder often enough?

Do you teach your clients to pause and ponder too?


When I asked a group of therapists to do this art invitation, it was pretty extraordinary.  They were mixed in terms of years of experience, and yet they were closely joined in the collaborative creative rhythm with which I was inviting them to engage.

As I invited them to make collages that depicted their expectations of themselves as therapists, I was imagining a snow globe newly shaken.  The flurry of magazines and scissors–their hands searching and sorting.  The mess was an amoebic mass that ebbed and flowed from the middle of the art table.

As their collage became complete, and I invited them to settle in and reflect.  The scissors stilled, the paper ripping ceased, and the silence of newly fallen snow prevailed.  The quieting was serene, and the pondering was deep. Read More… »

The power of holding art in your hands.

Oct 27, 2016 | 8 comments

Hope Filled Postcard Art Exchanged


I got HOPE in the mail and I held it in my hands!

I signed up for Gretchen Miller’s Creative Deed Art Challenge thinking it was a fun idea to be a part of a postcard exchange.  The theme was HOPE which made it feel comfy and cozy.  I made three postcards, infused them with HOPE, and addressed them to Australia, Maryland, and Iowa.  It felt good.  I liked thinking about my hope-filled art cruising around the country and finally landing in someone’s appreciative hand.  I enjoyed following the Facebook images of the others’ who were creating postcards and gifting their hope to the world.  I thought to myself, “This exchange thing is wonderful.  I want to do more.”

Then I started receiving postcard gifts of my own in the mail.  Through the mail slot–real paper, real art, from real people popped through and landed on the floor with such grace and beauty.  To my delicious surprise, the very same people to whom I’d gifted a hope postcard had made and sent me one of their postcards.  We were now linked.  Joined in our endeavor to spread hopefilled art and in our appreciation of one another’s wish to connect in this way.  When I first received each one I traced the texture and line with my fingers and truly honored the handcraftedness of the postcard.  I have carried the three cards with me in my planner and feel buoyed by their presence in my daily schedule. Read More… »

What the Balinese do for anxiety.

Aug 18, 2016 | 7 comments

My 2 week writing retreat in Bali with Laura Davis was an adventure, a vacation, and a profound education. I’m certain I will have many things to share as my experience becomes more integrated. But one big take away from Bali cries out to be told, honored, and even implemented here in the States.

The Balinese practice Bali Hinduism which is a unique mix of Hinduism and Buddhism. They bring strong beliefs in animism and naturism to their daily practices and make it a priority to relate to all things and beings as one. The Balinese are stunningly beautiful people. Their faces aren’t pinched with worry. Their attention isn’t a mile ahead or on what’s next. They are engaged in the moment and their wrinkles are smile lines and crows’ feet mixed with the evidence of living in nature—fully, every day. Yes, the Balinese have struggles. I heard stories of domestic violence, gambling addiction, conflict between tradition and contemporary values, and inhumane treatment of the mentally ill. But, their daily offerings practice gives me ideas about what’s missing in our culture when it comes to coping with anxiety. Read More… »

4 Visual Journaling Page Ideas for Clarity and Inspiration

Jul 14, 2016 | 2 comments


Over the next 4 weeks, my aim is to provide you with inspiring ideas that will get you started with the process of reflecting on your experience of being a therapist. I’m going to be sharing 4 different ideas for you to use in an altered book journal. On the heels of my recent Make-Inar, I am excited to bring more ways for therapists to explore and express creatively.

What is visual journaling for therapists?

Visual journaling for therapists is a way of seeing your work and your clients through fresh eyes. It helps you concertize the intense and intangible experience of working as a therapist into images that reveals– beyond words–what transpires with a client. It’s a way of releasing, assimilating, and sorting all of the wonderful complexities of your work.

For me, it’s a life line. When I make post session art I feel calm, present, and curious. My doubts or frustration often give way to insights and patience. When I give myself the space to explore and express—beyond words—I feel I am a better therapist.

You might call visual journaling self-care, but I think it is even more. I would call it a colorful form of self-consultation.

Whatever you would like to call it—self-consultation, self-care, sanity checking—I invite you to try it. Each week for the next 4 weeks, I will share a visual journaling idea with you to try. I hope you get inspired and start your own visual journaling pages. May these ideas bring clarity and inspiration to the valuable work you do in the world. Read More… »

Preschoolers can teach us what we need to remember about therapy.

May 5, 2016 | 89 comments

Art is an experience. Make it one and it will come to life


When did art go from being an experience to a thing?

When you were a preschooler, art was a world.  It was an essential act.  It was something you did because you were enthralled with your hands’ ability to create marks and your body’s ability to move.  You didn’t think about what your art would look like.  You certainly didn’t linger at your completed painting and analyze it or find things that were wrong with it.  Instead, you just finished up and moved on—much of the time not even giving your art a second thought.

As a preschooler your art was an experience.  No one taught you to have the experience.  No one had to tell you to move your hand in a certain way.  You knew how.  You did it.  You loved it.

But when art became a thing, a product that could be good or bad, a piece of paper that reflected self-worth, a competition of success or failure—the experience was forgotten to all but a few lucky ones.  And, instead of delighting in our process we shifted to mastery of our thing. (Or maybe we just abandoned the entire endeavor because we figured we didn’t have a chance in the world to make a good thing.)  A canvas, a drawing, a sculpture with criteria like balance and composition and proportion.  The thing became the focus and the experience was forgotten.

I mourn this transition from experience to thing for myself, for my kids, for my clients and students.  It’s not fair.  It’s a loss that we shouldn’t need to recover from. It’s a loss that we don’t have to accept. Read More… »

3 things our hands can teach us about psychological well-being.

Apr 7, 2016 | 11 comments


Our handscan teach usabout mistakes. (2)

When we use our hands to create, we activate a feel good part of our brain. 

We also learn to:

1. Be inspired by our mistakes.

2. Fail gracefully.

3. Welcome imperfections.

Our hands have been crucial to our survival and growth as a species.  Throughout time we’ve made things with our hands. Not just ornamental things. We’ve made real tools necessary to live and thrive.  In Lifting Depression (Basic Books, 2010), Dr. Kelly Lambert describes our brains’ “effort driven reward circuit”.  She says that the use of our hands activates this part of our brain.  The more we keep this reward circuit activated, the greater our sense of psychological well-being.Our hands activate a surprisingly large part of our brain. The brain real estate our hand activity occupies is disproportionate in size—it’s larger than what our legs or back require.  It’s pretty amazing– using your thumb requires more cortical activity than moving your back. But it makes sense. Read More… »

A therapist’s grief is unique. How to cope like an artist.

Mar 25, 2016 | 4 comments

How therapists can cope with saying goodbye to clientsThe game in my head that help me cope with the goodbyes.

Sometimes I play an imagination game in my head.  I visualize as many former clients’ faces as I can.  Then I think up their stories.  I replay my favorite moments with them in session.  I walk myself through the relationships.  Deep, intensely emotional relationships. And then I imagine little red threads reaching across time—20 years ago, 10 years ago, even last year—still connecting me and my clients.  Still attached.  Still loving them.

Sometimes I play another game in my head.  I walk myself down a long hallway—brightly lit, white walls—a gallery of sorts.  I gaze at paintings that are stunningly beautiful.  Paintings that show those clients’ faces in their most memorable expressions.  Pain, vulnerability, hope, pure joy.  I get to glimpse the knowing that the client and I embraced.  I get to feel the bond that we forged as a result of hour after hour of listening, attending, loving.

I use my imagination to keep a connection with the hundreds of clients I’ve loved because the alternative is too painful.  The alternative is to grieve.  The alternative is to despair at the loss of all of these powerful, life changing relationships.  The alternative is to create and destroy, bond and detach, to forget.


How to bring a therapy session to life

Mar 2, 2016 | 1 comment



How to bring a therapy session to life.As an introvert with strong opinions I’ve never really liked working on group projects.  In high school I cringed when we had a group assignment because it meant that I’d either end up doing all the work or be highly annoyed with the amount of time the group wasted on discussion.  It’s no surprise that I’ve been happy to be a solo-practitioner in a private practice.  My projects have been fluid and responsive to my inspirations and the only person who has suffered from my sometimes unreasonable expectations is myself.

I used to believe that it was just easier to do things myself.  This way, I could count on things getting done.  I could rely on myself to follow through.  I protected myself from disappointment.  I did do great things with this approach.

But, it’s only in the last several years that I’ve revisited the group project idea and experimented with a new approach. This has led me to experience a new way of collaborating where interconnectedness is undeniably preferable to isolation or independence. It has influenced how I work with clients, how I relate to workshop participants, and how I proceed with any new project.

My coach, Andrea J. Lee, has a saying, “Anything worth creating is worth creating in community.”  When she first told me this I had no idea what she meant.  Now I do.  I have figured out two things.

  • Our art can be born in isolation, but it comes to life when it is shared. A painter can paint a beautiful landscape in the privacy of her own studio, but until it is viewed by others’ eyes, it is simply a painting in waiting. A screen play can be written by a brilliant writer, but it needs actors to take it from being words on a page to becoming an animated and touching story.
  • Most art is bigger than its maker. Art needs a community in which it can thrive. Actually, art deserves a community.  NOT turning it over to a community in which it can flourish, denies the art of its beauty, importance, and potential.


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