The Power of Art Therapy in the Treatment of Eating Disorders
By Shannon Bradley, ATR-BC, LCAT | January 1, 2014
She comes to the table saying “I can’t draw.” The critical inner voice is alive and well! I respond, “that’s ok, there are lots of ways to create. Being creative requires experimentation, curiosity, and practicing non-judgment (that can be the hardest part, but it’s a practice.) There are as many ways to create as there are human beings; you can’t do it wrong because it’s an expression of you. You made art when you were a kid, right? Then it didn’t matter what it looked like, it mattered what it felt like. It felt joyful and empowering. We’re going to try to rediscover those feelings. Along the way, we’ll tackle serious subjects, but you’ll be cultivating a new way to handle them.”
In an art therapy session client/therapist relationship is key. There must be safety which allows the client to risk sharing her fears and vulnerabilities. Together we examine the images with curiosity. What was the overall feeling during it’s creation, and afterwards when looking at it? Is there anything the image or characters in the image need? Are there words to describe what’s revealed and how do they relate to the client? As important as curiosity about the image is mindfulness of the process: noticing material choices, feelings evoked by the tactile process, self-critical thoughts, fear of commitment or “messing up”, difficulty with certain emotions. The process of art-making frequently reflects one’s struggles in life. It’s an opportunity to discover, and practice changing patterns.
By the end of the session the critical voice is still there, but a more positive voice is also emerging. “I don’t like that part because it’s too dark.” (We explore darkness; the client’s beliefs and fears.) “I do like the part that was fluid and spontaneous. That part feels good!” One of the most powerful things about the process is that the client is making discoveries about herself. She’s getting to know her strengths, ways of taking care of herself, as well as the sticky places that hold her back. Slowly but surely she begins to cultivate and value all parts of herself, instead of remaining shrouded in a tiny, perfected vision of whom she is supposed to be.