Lisa Mitchell

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Business advise from the end of a successful practice.

May 14, 2018 | 29 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… »

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:

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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