Lisa Mitchell

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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… »

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.

 

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:

Read More… »

Do you really SEE your clients? Or are you just LOOKing?

Mar 16, 2017 | 3 comments

“We do a lot of looking: We look through lenses, telescopes, televisions…Our looking is perfected every day—but we SEE less and less.  Never has it been more urgent to speak of SEEING.”  Frederick Franck

Frederick Franck wrote these lines in his handwritten book, The Zen of Seeing, dated 1973.  I have the page dog-eared and these words underlined.  They were important 4 decades ago and they are important now.

It turns out, there is a huge difference between LOOKING and SEEING.

Looking is for survival and coping.  It is a quick glance to assess the situation, to size up what’s in front of us.  It works for triage and fast decisions.  To figure out whether the stick on the trail is actually a snake or the stranger really only wants directions.  As we come to rely on our looking skills for these kinds of situations, we start to think looking can be used for all kinds of other situations.

We end up looking at art or people or clients and making fast decisions that rob us of the experience of SEEING.  We label good or bad and any other label we think fits.  And, sometimes, once we LOOK and LABEL, we stick to our conclusion like it’s fact rather than SEEING anew every single time.  When we SEE each time we encounter art or people or clients we have a chance to refine our ideas, our conclusions, and even our own sense of experience in the world.

If you are doing a lot of looking, you could be missing out.  Your clients might be missing out, too. Read More… »

3 Art Therapy Activities to Boost Resilience

Feb 21, 2017 | 3 comments

Art therapy activities that link a negative experience with a beneficial experience boost resilience and make it easier to recover from difficulties.  Here are three art therapy activities in a step-by-step video designed to provide this kind of helpful linkage experience.

I’ve had some fun being creative and coming up with new ways to use art in session to help clients use beneficial experiences to boost resilience (especially in relationship to painful or difficult experiences).  With the research that neuroscience provides, we now understand the importance of creating mismatch experience to assist clients in overcoming trauma.  We also understand the necessity of nurturing, enriching, and absorbing beneficial experiences so that our neuropathways are primed with good feeling options.

Here is the step-by-step video I made to demonstrate the three activities.  And, yes, I tried to use Dollar Store materials because I don’t think art and art therapy should require that we have a fully stocked studio!

Read More… »

My favorite art therapy activity yet! Growing the Good

Feb 8, 2017 | 13 comments

Combine art therapy, writing, and positive neuroplasticity and you get a wonderful art therapy activity that is particularly relevant for our time.

The stress and fear entering my office every day have increased exponentially.  The worry on my clients’ faces has tightened its grip.  The overwhelm I hear from the therapists I teach has reached an all-time high.  We are being inundated with negativity that has an intensity like I’ve never experienced in the 25 years I’ve been a therapist.  How to cope?  How to keep from going under?

Over here in my little corner of the world, I’m making every effort to Grow the Good.  After taking Rick Hanson’s Positive Neuroplasticity Training last year, I feel committed to the endeavor of finding ways to integrate his work with art therapy.  I used to dismiss positivity stuff—like it was some Pollyanna view and nothing more than a temporary band-aid that redirected thought in an unrealistic way.  Well, the neuroscience research that Rick Hanson presents is very compelling. And my clinical experience with Growing the Good has been profound.

I made a video of my most favorite art therapy activity that uses Positive Neuroplasticity concepts and adds in a good amount of embodied experience to ground the learning.  Read More… »

Forcing creativity? It won’t work for long.

Feb 2, 2017 | 4 comments

Last year was a year of putting my work out into the world.  I lectured in 25 different cities across the US, I taught five 4-week online programs and co-hosted a 2 day online creativity festival.  I launched my book and celebrated with 80 colleagues.  I wrote 35 blog posts and more emails than I can count.  2016 was a year of taking my creative harvest and sharing it with thousands of people.  I loved it.  And I learned from it.

Let creativity lead

In a 4 hour long, heartfelt conversation with my friend, Shelley, yesterday, I heard myself saying, “I don’t want to force anything right now.  I don’t want to squeeze a blog post out just because I know I can.  I don’t want to white knuckle anything. I’m done leading my creativity.  This year I want my creativity to lead me.”  She teared up a teensy bit and put her hand to her heart.  It resonated with her and we decided to hold each other in this intention.  And so, we closed our computers and put down our pens.  Rather than pound out the details for the retreat we were planning, we just talked.  We talked in swirls and ideas and metaphors and personal experiences.  It was time for lunch and I asked, “So what should we do?”  Shelley said, “Well, I think we need to just keep talking.  Shall we set aside time to do that regularly?”  I agreed, “Yup, we just need to keep talking, but how about we just let the talking part emerge out of just being together.”  It felt perfect.  It is perfect.

I’ve always struggled with Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese.  I adore it.  But the first lines have baffled me….

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.

It sounds good.  Like there’s an invitation there that’s delicious.  But formerly, doing what my soft body loves has repelled me with images of eating multiple cartons of Ben and Jerry’s while binge watching Grey’s Anatomy.  And, that has felt self-indulgent, non-productive, without a sense of purpose or passion.  Not even creative.

Now, this year, this moment in my life, I get it.  I understand in my bones that Mary Oliver is inviting us to stop striving and white knuckling and squeezing out that barely baked piece of art.  It is an invitation to allow creativity to take the lead and guide us to discovering new ideas that fuel our work.

If it wants to make something, it will

One of the projects on my calendar this year is to produce and co-host Create Fest, the 2nd annual creativity festival for mental health professionals.  It’s a huge undertaking and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it without white knuckling.  So I hesitated.  I put it off.  Then a little spark of curiosity led me to ask Rick Hanson to be a guest speaker.  He said yes and was very supportive of the Create Fest mission to inspire therapists to do creative experiential work.  And then I asked myself, “Who else do I really want to talk with?” Which led to interviews with some of my most favorite authors!  And with this sense of ease, Create Fest is shaping into a beautiful creative collection of conversations and inspiration that I can’t wait to share.

So many times, in the creative process, we make the mistake of beginning with only the end in mind.  A painting to hang above the couch, a memoir about childhood, an online program that will sell, a therapeutic technique that will teach a specific skill.  We drive the creative process as if it is a navigable train and we miss the richness of the experience.  When I was writing my book, Creativity as Co-Therapist, I was the most disciplined I have ever known myself to be.  I forced myself to hermit one weekend a month and do nothing but write.  It was excruciating at times.  I’m proud of what I created, but there is a part of me that wonders if that was the best way to let that piece of work emerge.  If I had been nicer to myself, or on a looser timeline, or with a softer touch—I wonder what my creativity could have led me to.

I have another writing project now that has emerged in the most organic and beautiful way.  My mother and I are collaborating and we are writing what we call Mother/Daughter Perspectives.  Our writing endeavor is a way for her and me to share the process of our evolving relationship and history.  We now have a list of shared events and moments.  Each week we choose one of those moments and write from our hearts about our memories, our experiences, and our perspectives.  When we share these every week the phone line vibrates with truth and intensity and so much possibility.  We don’t know where this writing endeavor will take us—it is the leader, really.  What I do know is that I want to follow it to see where it goes.

I think we need to consciously plant seeds for our creative process to thrive.  Last year I harvested—maybe even clear cut.  This year, the seeds are showing up in surprising places.  I’ve fed my creativity with new information and experiences because that’s what nourishes the soil for new ideas to grow. I plan to share more about what I’ve been doing to plant those seeds in future posts.  But for now, I hope you consider this.

In order to create, artists need to fertilize and plant seeds.  And therapists, are, in fact artists.

What could you stop white knuckling?  What creative endeavor could you allow to take the lead?

I’d love to have you join me in the ease of unfolding.

(And stay tuned for Create Fest 2017—because it is becoming something wonderful!)

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