Many times my art therapy clients will tell me that they are feeling low. When I ask if they know why, they frequently respond, “I don’t know.”
If they elaborate further, it’s usually to add a sigh of frustration and voice some shame about feeling bad, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
They question the validity of how they are feeling. It’s as if they think there is no cause and therefore something is just wrong with them for feeling low.
When a person doesn’t know why they’re feeling so low, it is usually a sign to me that MANY things are contributing to how they feel.
Sometimes, there are so many things happening at once that it can be difficult to discern what is contributing to how we feel. Furthermore, if we’re already feeling low, more things adding to that feeling are barely perceived.
The first thing I do with clients in this state is typically give them space to air out their feelings. We dive into art that allows them to express their feeling state. I move right to this level because they’ve typically been ruminating in their head, and I want to bring them into the present and out of their thinking mind.
I do this typically with abstract watercolor, where they express how they are feeling with color, line and shape. Depending on the client, I might have them use clay so they can get really physical and shape and contort and grapple with the clay.
As they do this, it’s like it opens up access points to the malaise they are feeling.
They inevitably start talking about some of the things going on in their life. They typically don’t mention these things initially because they feel bad that they feel bad. It’s a common reframe: they’re upset that they’re upset.
So instead of letting themselves feel and admit that this supposedly “minor” thing is impacting them, they repress it and end up feeling even worse.
My hope is to bring these things to the surface and give them space to be explored without judgment.
As we begin this process, usually more and more comes pouring out. From an upsetting conversation with a coworker to a slight from a partner to overall frustration with an aspect of the government.
I want it all out.
For then we’re able to see that there is A LOT contributing to how the person feels.
To edge the process along, I ask clients to identify the unmet needs behind their feelings. For example, maybe they were upset by their conversation with their coworker because their need for understanding was not meant. Maybe they’re frustrated with the government because their need for safety, security, and trust are not met.
Through identifying the unmet needs, an individual is able to see WHY their emotions are present. It validates how they feel and erases shame.
The more we do this, the more that comes pouring out.
Typically, this process of exploration is enough to help a person begin to not feel so low.
There’s no advice. No problem solving. Simply letting a person be and explore what is present. Only if a person wants to explore strategies and techniques to address situations do we move to that level.
If you’d like to try a similar process on your own, you can make your own watercolor painting. You could also do the same with markers or any other medium of your choice. Your only goal is to express and capture how you are feeling.
If working in a visual format is intimidating, you can make what I call a “rage page.” This is where you fill an entire page with all of the thoughts in your mind. This is another way to give space to what is present.
You can then begin to examine what topics and feelings came up. You can explore what unmet needs were behind some of those feelings. You can see a list of needs here to give you ideas (https://www.cnvc.org/training/resource/needs-inventory).
If after this process you find you are craving solutions, you can brainstorm different solutions. So that you do not become frustrated, you can also make categories of “things in your control” and “things outside of your control.” Another option is to make a list of “things I know how to solve” and “things I don’t.” You can then counsel or brainstorm with another trusted person about your list of things you don’t.
Whether you choose to develop strategies or not, this process should help you to identify some of the reasons you feel low.
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