Lisa Mitchell

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Do you rush your clients? Do they rush you?

Lisa Mitchell | Jun 29, 2016 | 9 comments

do you rush your clientsIn his book, Art and Soul (Charles Thomas, 2004), art therapist, Bruce Moon recounts the story of a twenty something year old client named Carly. Newly out of residential treatment, she tells him of her emptiness and how she’d like to feel again. They have an initial session in which Carly draws a picture of a box surrounded by mist. Bruce guides her in a dialogue with the image she drew which puts Carly in touch with feelings she doesn’t want to feel. She abruptly tells Bruce that she doesn’t think he can help and leaves.

Months later she calls Bruce and tells him she’s ready to work with him. In that next session and many sessions after, they work together on building a canvas. They start with framing wood frame and cut the proper angles to make squared corners. They stretch the canvas and staple it just so. Carly gets impatient. She asks, “Can’t we just go buy a canvas and get started painting?” Bruce tells her that she could, but not in her work with him.

He goes on to explain, “If you buy a prestretched, pregessoed canvas, you’re cutting yourself off from the process. You might as well buy a pre-painted, sofa-sized painting.” Carly likes this and laughs.

This is a poignant story on many levels.

What stands out for me is the wonderful shared experience that Carly and Bruce had together. She was able to be in the relationship without being judged and simultaneously be guided and encouraged to master something with her own hands. She was encouraged to take her time, to allow herself the grace of building something important from the ground up, and all the while, Bruce was patient and engaged. Over time, Carly was able to explore more of herself and her feelings through the experience of making art. But it is not lost on me that the therapeutic relationship and the relationship that Carly forged between herself and her art was the foundation for this exploration.

Building a canvas from scratch is quite an endeavor. Carly thought it was a waste of time at first. Bruce knew better. He didn’t want her to skip any steps. He wanted to build from the ground up—both painting-wise and relationship-wise.
Indeed—this is altogether wise—from no matter what angle you look.

And yet, how many times do we as therapist forget this foundational approach?

How often do you skip the building of the canvas and get right to the painting? There may even be times when you skip the painting altogether, never quite connecting with your client, and, instead, just tell them what to go do?

It’s so understandable, that we, just like Carly, want to get to the end already. We want our clients to leave our offices with the insights or the instructions or the nitty gritty gems that will help them change or move on or get it together or heal. We want it to feel like we are doing something, and so we rush the foundation. We don’t spend time and we forget to focus, to really focus, on what is proven to be the foundation upon which all effective therapeutic technique is applied.

Art requires a substrate. It is not built on thin air. Painters require canvas or paper. Writers require paper. Weavers require weft threads. Cooks require pans. Dancers require bodies.

Therapists require a therapeutic relationship.

Bruce Moon’s story about Carly captures this truth and shows us the necessity of building a substrate in all art forms—including therapy.

When you consider yourself an artist and therapy your art form, the invitation to build your substrate is rich and beautiful.

How you build that foundational therapeutic relationship is unique and individualized for both you and your client. It starts with who you are as a person and as a therapist—at your very core.

It’s an exciting thing to explore.

We’ll be diving into that process at my upcoming free make-inar. It’s a free webinar called “What Matters in Psychotherapy” where I’ll be guiding you through a hands on art experience where you get to explore who you are as a therapist and how that supports your therapeutic relationships.

To join me click here to sign up for details. 

9 responses to “Do you rush your clients? Do they rush you?”

  1. Pam Blamey says:

    I remember Bruce Moon’s books being very helpful when I was studying Art Therapy. I’m thinking about substrates for storytelling in therapy – the story, voice (mine and the client’s), materials for responding to the story…
    I’d love to hear from others who use story in art therapy.

    • Lisa Mitchell says:

      Pam, storytelling substrates–that’s such a wonderful concept. I immediately think of book making. I often have clients create a book to tell the story of something we are working on. The books are sometimes simple–watercolor pages with text that I print from my computer after they have dictated the narrative to me. Sometimes they are complex–collage images and mixed media that depict the part of the story that relates to that page.
      I also think about the “story” that we reflect back to our clients when they are done with their art making. In the beginning dialogue with a client–the “story” is about the art (rather than the meaning of the art)–so the substrate becomes the color, line and texture.
      I’d love to hear more of your thoughts and uses of story. Thank you for the invite to muse more on substrates!

      • Janet McLeod says:

        I have recently started work with a new agency that funds “Brief Therapy” – 5 or 6 session. I am finding it challenging to allow the time it takes for the story to unfold.
        I recall working with one client where we had the luxury of time. I remember being a little frustrated but also curious as my client took months to prepare and organise images for an altered book. In the end her recovery was remarkable and so were her beautiful books that told her story. It was a great learning experience for me and taught me to trust the process and that sometimes it needs time. She needed that time, that is what it took. For her the preparation was just as important as the amazing books she eventually created.

        • Lisa Mitchell says:

          This is a beautiful story, Janet. Thank you! So we can think of the substrate in this case as actually being the collecting or the preparation. Nice way to look at it. I like this because it emphasized process. And, in brief therapy it is very hard not to focus on product.

  2. Vikki Ziskin says:

    I would love to say I don’t rush my clients, and sometimes that would be true. In the world of EAP, I very often will cut to the chase with a lot of summarizing that maybe would be better left for the client. Hmmmm….
    Yes Pam, I love to incorporate story in many ways into the art therapy process, both to clarify and to move through.

    • Lisa Mitchell says:

      Hi Dear Vikki,
      Yes, indeed, when we know we have limited time we “cut to the chase”. Not sure that would automatically be rushing. But, probably something to think about and pay attention to. I think it is important to differentiate between the urgency to get results (save time and money) and the rush to learn/change.
      This makes me think of times I’ve tried to learn a new musical instrument. I never have because I tend to go through the Beginner’s Book in an hour. I can already read music–so I just try to teach my hands where to go and what to do–QUICKLY. If I could slow myself down enough to learn one basic song, the skill would generalize to other, more advanced songs.
      I think, with our clients, this slowing down is the same.
      Love to you!

  3. What can we say to clients who come to us ‘expecting’ immediate answers and changes? I have often been confronted with clients who are impatient with the process and have the expectation that I (the therapist) am being paid to ‘fix’ their problems.

    Thank you in advance for the response!


    Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, LPC, LMFT

    • Lisa Mitchell says:

      Hi Kathy,
      This is an important question. What I like to do is talk about the clear scientific research that we have that informs us about successful therapy. I tell them that there is nothing I can do alone and research has shown that over and over again. And, I give them the key to success–our therapeutic relationship. If they relate and engage and connect the likelihood of success in therapy is very good. Clients often feel very empowered when we talk about this. And, they take on a level of responsibility that is crucial to change. Then, when a client gets impatient we can take on that issue together rather than having it be my sole responsibility.
      I’d love to hear how that lands with you, Kathy.

  4. I love this, Lisa! I have often responded to impatient clients by telling them I cannot ‘fix’ their problems but am available to facilitate them in recognizing what keeps them stuck and to provide them with tools they can integrate into their lives that will allow them to reach their goals. I also remind clients that this (personal growth, reflection, learning, taking ownership, change) is a life-long process and that we are on a journey to consistently self evolve.

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