Interactions With Vicarious Trauma: The Healer's Search for Absolution by Jennifer Harwood, LCSW, LCAC
After 30 years of working in the field of behavioral health in various capacities, I’m owning the fact that I have dealt with vicarious trauma and PTSD related issues for many years. While I can joke and discount many of the encounters I’ve had through the years as “part of the job,” I wasn’t counting on was the physical and emotional toll the job really had on me. Had I heard some of these stories from others, I wouldn’t hesitate to be concerned at the symptoms and events; but for me, I could handle anything. After a while, I had to discard my cape and realize I was not a superhero with powers to deflect the toxins that had been thrown my way. As much as I dove in and stayed in the trenches to help people overcome their disturbances, I had to pull myself out of those same trenches to find my own healing.
So, what is vicarious trauma, clinician burnout, compassion fatigue? Vicarious trauma occurs when we have been exposed to, experienced, witnessed, or listened to other’s experiences of traumatic material, usually over a period of time. When someone shares their traumatic stories with us in such a way that we can visually experience it with them, we are at risk of activating our own trauma responses. This leads to what some refer to as “burnout”, but what I call vicarious trauma. It is being personally traumatized through the eyes of someone else. Vicarious trauma has a host of signs and symptoms, such as disconnection and/or depersonalization, lack of energy, social withdrawal or isolation, cynicism, despair and hopelessness, sleep and appetite disturbances, disrupted frame of reference, such as an inability to trust our own decisions, minimization, hyper-vigilance, self-loathing, emotional numbness, feeling overwhelmed, intense rage or bouts of crying, anxiety, nightmares, resentments towards others, including clients, feeling unsafe, poor self-care, concentration problems, and feelings of being on an emotional rollercoaster. This list could go on and sounds in large part like the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. They are indeed trauma reactions, even if we did not directly witness the trauma, and have been a large piece of my life for quite a while now. I’ve worked to gain an understanding of my own vicarious trauma reactions and feel lead to share this with others. We are not “burned out clinicians” who need to retire; on the contrary, we are wounded healers who understand some things so intensely. Our clients are actually in the best hands they can be in, when we are well ourselves.
When the whole of your work is to help others bear the weight of their souls, the pressure of their pasts, and the anguish of their current situations, it bears on us in a profound way. We dissociate from our emotions just enough to show compassions and empathy but be still able to cut off from those feelings in order to help clients heal. We may find ourselves subject to this pendulating force regardless of the situation, including in our own personal lives.
I have come to believe in the practice of self-care. For me, it’s more than just compassion and healing – it’s survival. When I am in a spiral of negative cause and effects related to the vicarious trauma I’ve witnessed, the replay of my own demons, or a combination of the dark side of the world in which we live, I have to have the escape, the outlet, the life that still exists. Expressions of art, music, prose, or meaningful conversations help me to share that emotional wound. When I write, my soul unburdens itself without fear of judgement, accusations, or denial. What I have inside me needs to be expressed from a place of non-judgement or I will not allow it to purge, and, not purging those feelings is disastrous. It can mean the shutting down of emotional regulation, the disregard for others and myself in a variety of areas, and a general sense of mistrust with the world around me. I need to have light in the times of darkness, for if the cold dampness is allowed to fester, the beauty within is left to ruin. Expression is my escape from the center of my mind which I so desperately need at times. Without the escape, I become tainted and ineffective as a clinician and as a person. And so, my hope in writing about this is that this act of self-expression and owning my experiences with vicarious trauma will help others find an outlet to express their own feelings and experiences. What is left alone too long no longer serves any purpose, except to destroy.
And so, this writing comes from a state of necessity. I am now noticing that the depth of the pain of what I hear all day has had a tremendous effect on me over the course of 30 years, and I’m sure other clinicians feel this way as well. By sharing this experience, I hope we are all able to find the core piece of ourselves that was what started our paths on this journey again. The times of wanting to cancel clients and take the day off, sleep disturbances, experiences with hyper-vigilance and intrusive thoughts were creeping in again like a familiar, but terrifying, old friend. The ghosts of those past mentors, clients, clinicians, and eras had been overtaking each other until I no longer heard the words which needed now be spoken, to me or others. When I can no longer distinguish between clinical appropriateness, my own bias, therapeutic boundaries, and personal fears, it’s time to pull back the reigns and allow some healing to occur. So, as I offer these perspectives to my colleagues, I should also note how very personal this is for me. My life’s work in the field of behavioral health has taken different avenues, but I have never lost my desire to be a guide to those who may need a light. By shedding light on this issue, I hope to find my own light source again in a way that it no longer burns down quite so far. This is how I make amends with my own past mistakes and come to a place of true trauma-informed care, that starts, inevitably, with me.
"How am I to know the good side from the bad?"
"You will know, when you are calm. At peace, passive."
―Luke Skywalker and Yoda (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back)
There’s a running joke in my family: “Jamie, what do you do?” My brother first asked it when I moved back from Europe and worked several part time jobs during graduate school. I gigged in coffeehouses for tips, taught a little guitar, picked up some writing and research work, served as a substitute teacher, and I coached speech and debate. Over fifteen years later, I can still get that question. My stepson once asked me, “Jamie, how many jobs do you have? I count eight. Or is it nine?”
Yes, my primary vocation is as a trauma therapist. Yet this work enables me to also work as an educator/trainer, author, advocate, media producer of educational content, mentor of others and leader of a training organization. My interest in holistic healing also drives me to work as an expressive arts therapist, musician, dancer, yoga teacher, and reiki master. And while collectively that’s many roles and numerous tasks, they all fuse together in helping me to realize my ultimate vocational purpose—to facilitate transformative experiences for myself and others. At least that’s the line I’ve been testing out in the press bio. Yet if I’m keeping it very real and true to my pop culture nerdiness, I vocationally identify as a Jedi knight. Or perhaps even a Jedi master…
This connection struck me so potently during my second viewing of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker over the holiday season. So as to not give away too much for those who haven’t seen the film, let’s just say that the heroine of this generation, Rey, kicks some major ass. And these feats come after her training takes her to a new level of depth and thorough exploration of her own dark side. I am a Jedi knight because I fight for the good of humanity that is represented by the light side of the force. My mission is to paint light in this world, and by doing so, illuminate people’s ability to connect with the light of their own true nature. I also teach people not to be afraid of their shadows—the dark side of the force that may lure them or even take root within them. I can do this work because I’ve met my dark side face-to-face and I am fervently committed to deepening my training.
The Force as we call it in the fictional Star Wars canon is very real indeed. Call it reiki (the movement of life force energy), chi, prana, shakti, nefesh, universal alignment, or the Holy Spirit. You can even see it as the enthusiasm that is generated when people come together for a common cause. We’ve witnessed that collective power manifest for the dark side (e.g., hate groups of various brands) or for the light side of the force (e.g., charities and advocacy organizations, mutual help movements). We are called to be in attunement with and to work with the life force that dances through us every day. Our training—combined with our motivation—decides where the energy will flow.
There’s a yogic teaching which states that energy follows attention. So where we place our mind and our efforts, there our life force will flow. In the tradition I study, we teach that eventually a conscious crossover happens. With enough training and patterning, attention follows energy. In other words, the force will guide us. I’ve lived through many crossover experiences where my attention could have been pulled either way. Yet enough training in the light side of things has made it more likely that the light will triumph. That’s why I am sober. That’s why—despite my difficulties—I’m living the most adaptive life that I can. And that’s why I relish helping others connect with their light.
Master Yoda is my true role model and teacher as a clinical professional. During my doctoral studies I reconnected with the Star Wars films as an adult and thought, “Why aren’t they teaching Jedi in graduate techniques courses?” Indeed, it’s the same frustration that I voice about why our graduate training doesn’t involve the vast wisdom of yoga (not to be confused with Yoda, yet the similarity is revealing) and Eastern philosophy.
I advised many clients in recovery over the years that they could use Yoda, or the Force itself, as their Higher Power. Yoda’s famous teaching, “Do or do not, there is no try,” explains why daily practice and routines allow me to dust off and clear my ego enough to connect with the light side of the force. I have a Yoda statue on my altar and puja table at home where I keep other spiritual pictures and statues. That’s how much his archetypal wisdom feeds me, clearly inspired by Star Wars creator George Lucas’ penchant for Joseph Campbell. Yoda’s teaching that “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering” is the perfect blend of Buddha and 12-step teaching on resentment that I need reminded of on the regular. When I think of Yoda imparting this wisdom to Anakin Skywalker before he became Darth Vader, I’m reminded that I do and will always have the potential to turn. For the Force is one—it’s not separate and it’s all encompassing. It’s the ultimate polarity. How I practice and choose to heal determines where my energy will flow and how it will serve me… and the world.
As Rey proudly declares in The Rise of Skywalker during her fiercest battle, “I am all the Jedi.” She is my beacon for realizing the healing possibilities of oneness. So today, and I hope that for all the days of this life, to remain a Jedi knight. My sweet friend James, who geeks out with me about many things, recently called me a Jedi master, and this may have been the greatest compliment I ever received. He challenged me to look at all of the areas in my own life in which I have gained mastery and I’m grateful that today I can see it, even as I train for a greater sense of mastery over the perils of my ego and the lure of the dark side. Moreover, in this life I live I am privileged to be a mentor, teacher, and guide for others in their quest to be led from the darkness to the light. If those thing make me a master, I accept.
May I do Yoda proud in my vocation.
So as my brother might ask, “What do you do?” Share in the comments here in the blog or wherever this gets shared on social media. Go to your favorite movies, books, or art sources for meaningful metaphor or allegory. Let’s investigate the marvelous interplay of how people are living their purpose out there in the world. Or, if you believe you have not yet tapped into this purpose, how would you like to identify?
Have fun and go with it…
Photo Credit: Christina Dine
I have lived the expressive arts since I was born. In my childhood home we had very few rules. At any given time, you would find one sister painting a mural on the wall while another sister was playing the mandolin and making cheese in her closet. Mom would be making our fringe vest in the breakfast nook and another sister would be making jam… all before taking the bus to meet my big sister’s guru for chanting. Don’t forget to drink the sassafras tea my mom had brood... got to keep the immune system strong. I remember my first journal was a Virginia Slims blank book that I got for free by collecting my mom’s cigarette cartons and sending them in to the company for the prize of a lovely maroon book with a fancy woman on the cover. I would write the story of my life deep into the night while my sister hurled shoes at my bed so I would turn off my flashlight. My mother never put a border around what our souls wanted to do. There were no boundaries….no walls and no safety. Our creative expression was respected and indulged. It was simply our way of life. I would invite friends over for sleep overs by candlelight, makeovers and Mickey Mouse club. This was all pure joy in the middle of inner-city Cleveland nestled between drug deals and frozen pipes... the magic of pure no holds barred self-expression was my sanctuary.
The highlight of junior high was playing Tina Turner and singing Proud Mary, swinging my hard pressed hair, dancing wildly and rolling on the river. Expressing myself through music, writing, dance and potion making saved me from the pain of poverty, sexual assault, and eczema. When I went to college, I wanted to be a dance therapist. Not because I was a trained dancer but because dancing saved my life. As a child I would put on the Motown Christmas album and spin around until I was so dizzy with joy that it did not matter that we had no gas or lights or food in the refrigerator. As a teen I would leave work at McDonalds at 2:30 am and go out dancing until sunrise…6:30am when the club closed. It was called night flight and the rhythm would fly me to another world. I did not know at the time that I was putting myself in a trance. I simply knew that moving my body to the pulsing beat made me feel joy: I could breathe, I could do life as it showed up. So of course, I would want to dance my way through college. The catch was that they had no such major at my school. I settled on psychology as my major and fit in all the other treasures I wanted to learn and experience outside of my formal academic training.
My challenge academically and professionally was always the quandary of how do I blend my love of dance, therapy, service, travel, metaphysics, health, teaching, healing arts into some professional identity? Eclectic is how I had described myself. Holistic became a term I began using 20 years ago when I participated in a Crone/Sage ceremony (Initiation into the Wisdom years of a Woman) for a friend’s 60th birthday. The facilitator of the circle was a holistic psychologist and she embodied the sacred expressive arts. I began to see the blending of my worlds. Yet, the practicality of blending all of these aspects of myself into my daily professional life remained somewhat of a challenge.
It was 2011, I remember getting the call from Dr. Tanya Edwards at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative Medicine. “I hear you are a wonderful hypnotherapist,” she said…come join us. At the time I had not heard of Dr. Edwards so I thought it was a friend from Cleveland pranking me. I would receive 5 more messages like that before calling her back. It was not until I saw her on the Dr. Oz show that I realized this woman was real, not a prank and we looked like we could be cousins! When I returned her call she simply said, “I have been waiting for your call.” I asked did she need me to send my resume and she simply said, “I know everything about you I need to know. Come do what you do.” Perhaps I stopped breathing for a moment when she said these words because doing what I do, in the way I do it had always been a challenge in most therapeutic work settings. Dr. Tanya Edwards told me that she did not bring me to Cleveland Clinic to work with individual patients but for the creative ability and spirit I carry. “You are a Goddess High Priestess….do what you do.” Well I simply thought I had dropped into the 5th dimension of some other universe. Dr. Edwards became my dear sister friend mentor and beloved colleague. I had the pleasure of training and working with her until her death in March of 2014. My use of creativity in my work is a way of also honoring her light and life. Dr. Edwards helped me stoke the flames of my creativity and to share it with a larger audience.
When I received that initial call from Dr. Edwards I was on leave from my tenured position as a Professor of Counselor Education. I was worn out. The Chair of my Department was chronically displeased with me and would lobby against my promotion at the University. He would tell me that I was too creative and relational, and he needed someone who was methodical and organized. I was not that person. I am the one who tries every key on the key ring until I see a crack in the door… a glimmer of light shining through the darkness. Essentially, as a therapist (and a human) I have always believed in using a variety of tools to unlock the emotions hidden within a person’s heart and soul. This is how I taught, and this is how I live. Don’t do yoga they would say. Why are you meditating with your students they would say. It’s a hazard to burn that oil or hypnosis opens the door to the devil they would say. What are you doing with bubbles in your practicum class…Turn your music down...are you drumming again? Did I see you and your client hugging a tree? Creativity has been the foundation of the therapeutic process for me. The fluidity of expression is my elixir.
The expressive arts therapist certification program has given me the long-awaited structure, scaffolding, philosophy and supportive community to truly be the creative holistic practitioner that I am. I have been lovingly challenged to stretch myself far beyond my comfort. This journey has given me a firm foundation to gather the broad palette of my services under an umbrella with a solid base. When asked what my work with bees has to do with therapy and healing….I say it is a part of expressive arts therapy and certainly it is. My journey into the certification process has given me the empirical support to relay to others the methods of my practice. I was born an expressive arts therapist because it is a part of my indigenous, tribal nature. This is how my ancestors healed. This is what we do naturally and some academic and heart wise people were able to observe and research these healing ways and put it into a form. Growing up my father would always tell me not to let people know what I really do because no one would believe I had an education. He felt that my true way of practicing therapy was not legitimate because it was not a part of mainstream culture. Working roots or someone getting the Holy Ghost through sound and movement, shaking, rocking, tapping, clapping, wailing all a part of healing. Don’t tell he would say. I always know who is open to working in this way…don’t worry Dad.
My father is no longer concerned. When I began working at The Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative Medicine, he said he wished he had taken hypnotherapy serious years ago. We now drum together, do yoga and sound healing together. He is open and the closet door is wide open. All of the expressive arts healing modalities are on the table for use and exploration. In my certification journey I have gathered courage to sing in public, I have begun to use paints and not fear the blank page as much. I have gathered my napkins and old envelopes and published my first book of poetry. I have fallen into the arms of an amazing community of expressive artist and healers. I have danced more in public and shared a specific therapeutic dance within the African American community as a healing ritual for the 400 years of trauma caused by slavery. I am more intentional and clearer about using movement to heal generational trauma. Freeing my creativity and exercising new ways of self-expression has inspired more creativity and courage to go to the edge of my creative desires. All the doors are open to me and the key is in my hand. The Expressive Arts Community is a circle of healers I am forever grateful to be a part of. Ase, Amen, Amin.
In her recent work, Process Not Perfection, Dr. Jamie Marich described the “call and response” technique in several different modalities. So, this article is in response to the call of her article “The Popular Kid Complex.”
“I am not enough” has been an ongoing target for me in EMDR. You name it, I never felt like enough. Whether it was sports, music, friendships, I was good, but I was always 2nd. I can’t think of a time I was “the best.” And yes, everything has been a competition to me. I did not know how to play as a child, only compete. As a child I felt like I had friends as long as others were not around, but if others were around, I quickly felt invisible. I thought these feelings would go away as an adult. But, the popular kid complex lives on in all its glory, constantly wondering when someone is going to realize I am “not enough” to be in my field or doing anything else and shame me for even trying.
While completing step 9 in my 12 step program, I received a glimpse of a new idea. Maybe, just maybe, we all have quirks, fears, and our own damage and we are all doing the best we can. Being equals was a new concept. For example, I always thought I had to have the gift of speech or I was not smart enough because I compared myself to my brothers. I then realized I don’t want to be a speaker like my brother and that speaking is not my forte. I prefer the one-on-one contact with others and maybe this is my gift and my Higher Power’s will.
Jamie writes, “My meat suit and all its programming can get the best of me. In the language of recovery, I can still get in my own way.” I once heard a stat in recovery that every alcoholic (or addict) directly affects 54 people as a result of their addiction. As I read Jamie’s article I thought of this stat and my math brain took off. Yes, maybe Brene Brown quoting “The Man in the Arena” encouraged me to further my training, but Jamie have you thought of your stats? In my EMDR training there were 25 clinicians that work in community mental health. We average 150 clients on our caseloads. If we all average that number, 3,750 clients have been introduced to EMDR from that 1 training. You hold how many trainings a year? Then you have a large team doing their own trainings in either EMDR or Dancing Mindfulness. At this rate I estimate Institute of Creative Mindfulness will affect 500,000 clients just this year. This does not count book sales and advanced trainings. Who is the popular kid?
This breakdown can be done by all of us with our own stats when we are feeling like we are “not enough.” For me these numbers did not save my sanity or alter my clinical practice, but the examples my Higher Power has put in my path. We never know who is watching our example. Jamie speaking her truth, Rachel extending the invitation to come to retreat, Jennifer helping me to not take myself so seriously, and Mary always offering a positive word of encouragement. Watching Rhonda and her husband dance like the world disappeared also influenced my desire to let go. Peyton, Lexi, and Michelle dancing, painting, and confidence in their convictions and Adam continuing my training in EMDR. Yes, we are all the “popular kid” to someone and yes we are healers. Anyone that is “in the arena” inspires a “unique expression of Divine flow.”
Feelings are not facts. When those times arise that we feel what we do is not making a difference or we are “not enough”, maybe we would benefit by stepping back and looking at the big picture and thank those that have touched our own journeys. Maybe I should take my own advice.
Metaphors are conventionally regarded as literary devices: they are the weightier cousin to the simple analogy. Whereas the humble analogy claims, “Sally is like a brick wall in the face of adversity,” the metaphor boldly states, “Sally is a brick wall in the face of adversity.” Often the difference is described in terms of the literal veracity: the analogy is literally true, while the metaphor is not. It is not literally the case that “Sally” is made of brick and erected as a permanent barrier. But the omission of an explicit simile gives the metaphor more punch as it drives home its point.
Metaphors have gained popularity in some academic circles as we continue to rethink the function and constitution of cognition. Lakoff and Johnson first kicked off talk about conceptual metaphors only to have Slingerland, Wu and others join the bandwagon in the last 30 years. The basic premise of these discussions is that metaphors are not strictly literary devices, but in fact have their roots in sensory-motor experience: Sensory-motor “schemas” organize our concrete experiences. These are primary metaphors that can then be mapped onto hazier concepts, providing them with greater structure. For example, I understand the concept ‘life’ by mapping onto it structural elements of the concrete somatic experience I’ve had of ‘taking a journey.’ The source metaphor of ‘taking a journey’ helps me understand ‘life’ in terms of arriving at a destination, planning an itinerary, enjoying the ride, and so on. The somatic nature of metaphors means that conceptual knowledge is dependent upon physical experience.
So where literal language is descriptive and unambiguous, metaphoric language is much more open ended. It invites us to draw on our experiences to fill in the blanks and understand life as taking a journey in a way that is more personally meaningful. Moreover, it affords us the opportunity to reorganize a lived experience in new ways. My understanding of ‘journey’ is changing as I continue to encounter new ways of traveling through space and so too does my idea of ‘life’ as I continue to correlate it with the journey metaphor.
As an aspiring academic I found the power of metaphoric thinking to effect personal change and self-transformation utterly fascinating. I spent a lot of years trying to unravel implications of the idea that enlightenment of some sort required us to bypass or at least reduce the reliance on intellectual or literalist thinking, instead allowing the mind to wander through metaphoric correlations that help open us up in new ways. And yet, I’m not sure that I ever once allowed myself to reconstitute my own narrative in this way.
I have had many literal identities: academic, wife, employee. These literal identifiers organized my life in a way that allowed me to set and achieve goals making me master of my own destiny. Then, as so often is the case, things changed, and large swaths of my identity began to cleave. Frankly it wasn’t until I felt stripped of all those literal identifiers, and consequently stripped of my identity, that I began to approach and interpret my life in the metaphoric terms that had so deeply fascinated me for all those years.
The first metaphor for understanding myself happened quite by accident. I did not intentionally set out to change the narrative of my life based on the academic scholarship surrounding conceptual metaphors. I never sat down and asked myself, “in what ways are you an animal?” But I became an animal. Little by little I had been letting go of the old ideas about propriety and what constituted “good behavior”. I began to eat with soil from the garden and paint still on my hands. The sustenance was important as I pushed back into painting at break neck speed. The propriety of a knife and fork was not. I was voracious in the way I consumed different artistic mediums, crashing through my artwork. I began to identify with the creaturely existence described by John Dewey in Art as Experience, and when someone began waxing about their spirit animal I could not wrap my head around any animal that I resonated with. Instead I scrawled out, “I am my own goddam spirit animal.” For the first time in a long time, I felt alive and natural and connected without pretense to my environment.
As I mapped my life through an animalistic lens, I honed my ability to listen to my instincts. Animal reflexes are flexible and adaptable in response to the changing world around us. As animals, we aren’t tied to plans or strategies, but rather focus on following the instincts that make us aware of our needs in a particular moment or time. This kind of authenticity in reflexes led me to the another metaphor: the pirate.
Pirates, as a dear friend once told me, take what they want. They are not tied down or overly concerned with what others think of them. They roll with the tides striking out when the opportunity presents itself and scrappily surviving in times of scarcity. We pirates choose authenticity, survival, and camaraderie with our shipmates over civility any day.
The third metaphor came after sharing a photo of a batch of jam I had been making in my prized copper jam pot. A friend commented on it referring to my pot as a “cauldron.” Cauldrons, I realized, are vessels for alchemical transformations. What other way could one refer to the molecular reorganization of water, sugar, pectin, and acid that results in the magic of jam? As I carried on house hunting, without much thought I told my realtor, “I’d just like to live in a house where a witch might live.” Witches lives in crumbling homes, perhaps covered in creeping ivy – both decaying back into and rising up from the earth – at the edge of civilized society and in commune with nature. We witches witness passing seasons, the cycles of life and death, and transformation of all things. Living among the witchy merely means creating a space for both decay and growth, death and rebirth, and dancing with the transformations these cycles bring. It means we are live creatures, alchemically transforming past experiences into magical and at times unpredictable possibilities.
These metaphors began by resonating with something that was already occurring in my life. A voracious appetite for expressive arts, a swashbuckling attitude to follow my gut, and an instinct for the power of transformation in a cauldron. They were rooted in concrete lived experiences. But they also helped me to understand myself in new ways. These metaphors reorganized my narrative and facilitated greater change still by opening up new ways to understand what I had lived through and what I was moving towards. Allowing myself to conceptually play with metaphors has helped me to let go of old ideas that no longer work for me while remaining open ended in terms of where I am going and the person I am growing into. Replacement of one metaphor for another offers a fresh perspective in understanding my own identity rather than the catastrophic loss of who I am as held tight to literalist idea of who I was supposed to be. And so for now, I will carry on with a broom stick over my shoulder, rather than focusing on the letters at the end of my name. Because I have never heard of letters and titles giving anyone the power to fly.
Expressive Arts is a beautiful process of coming home to oneself. We often spend a lifetime detached from our bodies and others-replacing connections with fallacies of social media and text message. It’s easy to scroll for hours, send a quick text, developing a habit of nonchalant routine. But is that really connection? Some say yes. They are able to check in with family all over the world or they need to check out after a long day, but that is not connection with self or with others. We’ve developed a nasty habit of leaving ourselves without coming back to self. It is anything that allows someone express who they are, their experience, giving a voice to the voiceless (i.e. believed to be unheard or experiences stuck in the emotional part of the brain that does not have access to language in the thinking portion of the brain).
Coming home to self and providing a voice to our emotions and experiences that get shoved aside with disconnection, allows the individual to settle into their own skin. They’re able to figure out what it’s like to build a home with self and the meaning of connecting to life around them. For me, Expressive Arts as provided a way for me to communicate what my home, my body, needed to spring clean to feel safe.
For me, the best part of Expressive Art Therapy is the aftermath, when the supplies are strewed about the space and smudges of paint, pastel, and glitter are left behind. There is always a different light that shines brightly in my clients’ eyes. A sense of fresh air that I’m able to sit with. The aftermath is a complete flip from when I start working with clients, because what is this going to accomplish? I can’t tell you how many times I get eye rolls or eyebrow raise when I begin pulling out crafting supplies in session.
The aftermath of Expressive Arts processing is different from the excitement in the middle of the process and the middle of their treatment continuum. Once the world of Expressive Arts is introduced, the craving to express, the desire to be heard, seen, healed, takes a front seat. It’s the lit match blossoming to life, of insight settling in for the ride. It’s the self-permission to express leaking out onto the page.
I promise you when someone is in process, it is mesmerizing. It is awe-inspiring to watch someone learn to trust themselves enough, and you enough, to express themselves. It is awe-inspiring to sit back after a session with paint smudges, charcoals, cut paper littered about, and seeing that person, that client running with ideas (regardless if it’s merely an upturn of one corner of their mouth, staring at their piece, or rushing to share what they noticed in excitement). It is wonderful when you’re able to experience this yourself. Sitting back from my pieces and taking in the message conveyed in writing or imagery. There’s nothing quite like it.
When I’m cleaning up after a client and groups, I can’t help but smile at the charcoal coating a chair or paper debris on the floor. They made a mess. They made a mess, even thought they were previously asking permission to move, worried about staying in the lines, asking to use paint. They made a mess. They let themselves make a mess, to put their hands in paint, fold and tear paper, to express everything they’ve kept inside. They let themselves try something new and permission to sit with self and explore. In a world where we’re told what to do and stay in the lines, to disconnect and move on, the best thing we can do for ourselves and those we work with is to step outside our comfort zones and greet the unfamiliarity of imperfections, emotions, and to provide a space for expression in all its formats.
The inclusion of culinary arts in Dr. Jamie Marich’s newest book Process Not Perfection was alluring to me. Particularly, as she included it under the tantalizing header of “Nourishment” as it relates to “manifesting” oneself through expressive arts. So, when I was asked to contribute a piece on culinary arts, I was like a kid in a candy shop. I had big plans for canning my latest batch of apple butter and whipping up a batch of tangelo clove marmalade. I am a preserves devotee. The entire process is magic to me: the alchemical transformation of ingredients that results in something greater than the sum of its parts, in my lovely copper jam pot, nay cauldron, is pure magic. I had fanciful dreams of waxing quixotically about the poetic process of mindfulness based culinary practices that increase flexibility and adaptability in a way that nourishes the soul. So, I set out to batch my preserves, like a kitchen witch with my metaphorical pointed hat perched upon my head, and the desire to go deep with some sugar.
By now you may have guessed that this weekend’s canning plans did not result in the whimsical witchy magic potion experience I had imagined at the outset, but rather quickly moved from the delicious “nourishment” category all the way back to the I’d-rather-not-be-here “distress based tolerance” category.
Apples went in the pot Friday evening. I cranked that bad boy up hoping to expedite the process and finish that night. No such luck as they still cooked too slowly. No problem! I’ll just slow it down and finish in the morning! Saturday morning resulted in a two-hour call (a delightful one, but one which would put me just another few hours behind). No big deal! A pro such as myself is certainly capable of conducting magic on the fly! Yet immediately on the heels of that call a pal showed up for a cup of coffee and to pick up a few jars of jam. Still feeling like a casual boss, I spent some time catching up and sent him on his way as my folks pulled in the driveway. “Let’s grab lunch!” they quipped. The panic began to set it. In the 5 minutes between calls and guests, I had begun zesting my tangelos. With the full knowledge that that is a flipping 48-hour process, I headed to an anxiety-ridden lunch, in which my head was exclusively focused on my damned preserves. Upon returning, I ran into the house, finished dissecting a crap ton of tangelos and got the suckers boiling. In a full-on panic now, I flipped on the power burner and filled up the canning pot. While waiting for that SOB to boil up I feverishly washed my jars and filled up a 5-gallon bucket with 25lbs of sugar. You can see where this is going, but I’ll just say the process involved a hammer and leave your imaginations to fill out the rest. The cans went down in the boiler, with apple butter splattered along the wall and after having the rack crash, I somehow retrieved them with only minor burns to my fingers. Somewhere in the midst of all of this, my carbon monoxide detector went off.
This is how the sausage, or jam as the case may be, gets made. The process is always magical in retrospect. From further down the road I can look back at my life and see how painful confluence of events has led to me existing in a satiating place of contentment. I can and do wax poetically about the beauty in overcoming the inherent challenges that exist in life having already moved through them. Beauty and magic are much easier to appreciate when we’ve made it to the other side of painful transformations.
In order to make jam, we are required to employ the right configuration of ingredients and processes in order to break apart the water, sugar, acid and pectin at the molecular level. We must add enough heat to fundamentally dissolve the old molecular bonds, boiling them at near scorching temperatures. The change here occurs under immense pressure. It’s only after that breakdown, that each component begins to re-bond in a new way, and the mixture begins to gel and transform into something completely new and so satiating.
Growth hasn’t always been a product of adding heat and pressure in my life. I’ve grown a great deal through joy and communion with other artists and soul searchers. But in my own life I have found that fundamental self-transformational change has most often come after the application of high heat and intense pressure, and that molecular breakdown and reconfiguration of the molecules that make up my soul has been necessary for reconstituting myself in the most delicious and satisfying ways.
So, with my pointed hat slightly askew, and my witch’s brew splattered all over the damned kitchen, I commence to sweep up the sugar coating the floor and clean up the sticky spots on my counter, and finally bask in the fruits of my labor. The process is painful sometimes, and the beauty of it isn’t always apparent in the midst of it all. The products of all that work, however, can be so damned sweet. For the record, the apple butter is delicious.
Simple Apple Butter
6 lbs of apples
3 ½ c. white sugar
½ c. Apple Cider Vinegar
1 tbsp Ground Cinnamon
½ tsp Ground Cloves
Core apples, leaving on peel and add all ingredients to cast iron pot on medium-low head, or crock pot if you’re feeling lazy. Use an immersion blender to blend once apples are soft and let simmer with the lid off until liquid reduces by half. Ladle into clean 4oz jars and can in water bath canner or just eat that stuff. Makes about 12 4oz jars.
When I started in the a 12-step programs I was immediately taught the history of AA and the incredible “coincidences” that transpired to bring the co-founders together, along with the pieces of the puzzle to finally find a solution to alcoholism. I was taught that Roland Hazard was one of those pieces. He spent a year studying with and being treated by Dr. Carl Jung in England before returning to New York and influencing Ebby Thatcher who was a childhood friend of Bill Wilson. As a result of Carl Jung explaining to Roland that he was a hopeless alcoholic who needed a “vital, spiritual experience,” another piece of the puzzle was put in place.
When I started my master’s program to get my clinical social work license, there were endless research papers required for the program. I repeatedly saw Carl Jung’s name as a reference. More specifically, they were quotes from his Red Book. So, I I therefore asked my husband for the book for Christmas and he surprised me and bought 3 different books about or from Carl Jung.
In Carl Jung’s book Memories, Dreams, and Reflections there is a chapter named “Confrontation with the Unconscious.” The name immediately drew me in, because having have been trained in EMDR, which addresses our unconscious and the trauma that is stored in the body. I was determined to become the best therapist I could be, but also knew I had my own healing to finish. I felt resistance from within to dig deeper. One day while praying on the resistance, I saw this book Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, sitting on the shelf and immediately turned to the chapter about the unconscious. In the chapter, Carl Jung discussed facing his own internal struggles with his subconscious. He stated:
“The dreams, however, could not help me over my feeling of disorientation. On the contrary, I lived as if under constant inner pressure. At times this became so strong that I suspected there was some psychic disturbance in myself. Therefore, I twice went over all the details of my entire life, with particular attention to childhood memories; for I thought there might be something in my past which I could not see and which might possibly be the cause of the disturbance.” (p. 173)
He went on to discuss a memory from when he was 10 or 11 years old, stating, and stated “to my astonishment, this memory was accompanied by a great deal of emotion.” I related to the memories that still hold emotional charge. I still am run by so many of my fears developed in childhood. The work I did in the recovery programs had brought me so far and I was living life like I had never experienced before. I had also developed a relationship with God, as I understood God, but my internal world needed more help. I firmly believe my God brought me to EMDR and the Institute of Creative Mindfulness to further my healing and to use my experience to hopefully help others find the same healing. I knew even reading this chapter in Carl Jung’s book was led by that Higher Power. The last line in this chapter that convinced me I needed to do EMDR myself was when Jung discussed his own resistance to looking at his negative emotions and what it was costing him to look at them. He felt he had no choice, but to go deeper and stated, “A cogent motive for my making the attempt was the conviction that I could not expect of my patients something I did not dare to do myself.” (p. 178) I felt my path was paralleling his in some way, and I “had no choice”, but to continue this journey.
Soon after starting my own EMDR sessions, I went to a weekend retreat to learn about expressive arts. We learned to used paints, pastels, dance, writing, poetry, and yoga to encourage the healing and express what our parts inside needed to say. If Jung was not describing dissociated parts, I don’t know what he could have been describing. Jung stated,
“The essential thing is to differentiate oneself from these unconscious contents by personifying them, and at the same time to bring them into relationship with consciousness. That is the technique for stripping them of their power. It is not too difficult to personify them, as they always possess a certain degree of autonomy, a separate identity of their own. Their autonomy is a most uncomfortable thing to reconcile oneself to, and yet the very fact that the unconscious presents itself in that way gives us the best means of handling it.” (pg. 187).
When I returned came home from the retreat, I returned to Jung’s writings because I remembered he had discussed using his imagination to play. He also used yoga to ground himself:. “I was frequently so wrought up that I had to do certain yoga exercises in order to hold my emotions in check.” He used this exercise to calm himself and then he would go back into the emotions. This is just like we do while reprocessing in EMDR. Again, recognizing the parallel to our paths brought me comfort that I am not on this journey alone. Yes, in 1914, they did not call it EMDR or Expressive Arts Therapy, but even then the solution was the same.
I have still not found comfort in painting or drawing, but I enjoy reading, writing, and singing. All of me becomes one when I am listening, feeling, playing, or experiencing music. This is my comfort, my joy, and my journey. I am about to attend another retreat to learn more about myself and take another step towards healing. My internal world has always made me feel separate or alone, but knowing a great mind like Jung followed this journey and my new friends at ICM, I am no longer separate and I can celebrate my “weirdness."
For years I was scared to buy paint. One of my college roommates was an art major, and it captivated me to watch her paint. She had the capacity to create such beautiful, museum-quality pieces with her amazing talent. I loved to watch her work her magic! To this day I am proud to have several of her pieces and prints in my home, as I’m reminded of those beautiful memories of watching her in-the-zone.
Like many people I’ve worked with through the years, my barrier to painting and to most visual art came from a sense of “I can’t do it,” or “I’m not good enough.” I never seemed to have this issue with music, dance, theater, or writing where there was at least some evidence of my competence, usually in the form of compliments or accolades received. I never had a problem calling myself a writer, for instance, winning many awards throughout middle school and high school. And then came the books…
But to call myself a visual artist? To call myself a painter? Hell no! After watching my roommate work, I still felt you had to have a special artist license to even buy paint…
There is one visual form I felt reasonably comfortably approaching: collage. Born out of my love for making travel scrapbooks, collaging spoke to me because there didn’t seem to be competence involved. And I very much enjoyed the process of taking scraps and allowing them to develop into something meaningful when put together. As I began working with my own expressive arts mentor Christine Valters Paintner, I began to get braver about working with visual arts. Sure, I’d long kept some basic drawing materials in the office for my clients and out at Dancing Mindfulness retreats. Yet when I began working with Christine and realizing just how much Dancing Mindfulness as a program connected with the all-of-the-above nature of the expressive arts, I got braver about exploring my edge as an expressive artist.
I continued with collage and ventured into working with pastels and markers. I quickly found that visual arts had even more to teach me because I didn’t approach them with any kind of expectation about the quality of the product. There’s something to be said about being the worst kid in art class who was never chosen for any shows. Because competence was never my focus in visual art, I was naturally more open to just enjoying it, to being in process, and learning from what making just for fun revealed.
I credit crossing the paint threshold to my ex-husband after he saw how much I liked coloring and pastels. When I was going through an especially rough patch in the Fall of 2016, he bought me a paint-by-numbers kit. Although initially skeptical, I soon found that I enjoyed it even more than coloring books. There was something soothing and containing about having lines in which to work, yet my hand responded to the sensation of moving paint along a canvas. I loved everything about it; the colors, the smells, and yes, even the feeling of accomplishment when I saw the final product. There was some leftover paint and while at my local craft store on a run for some other supplies, I bought a small canvas and decided to use the leftover pain to express something original. I painted a mandala and it spoke to me very much.
I continued with this process for the next few months—finishing paint-by-numbers kits and then using the leftover paint to create something original. After a couple rounds of this process, I got brave enough to order some of my own paint off of Amazon and continue with my explorations. I approached it as something fun to do, something that let me play with color and texture and sensation and not be bound by the shackles of outcome.
A few months into this journey is where the painting that graces the cover of my latest book Process Not Perfection: Expressive Arts Solutions for Trauma Recovery revealed itself to me. And in this revelation came what is perhaps the greatest lesson that I ever received about the power of process: be open to where the unexpected, even the failures, may guide you. A pleasant surprise may blossom when you shed these expectations.
I laid down a foundation in gauche, the first time I ever experimented with this unique form closely related to watercolor. I also played around with using some shimmery paints that you can apply with a spray bottle. I liked the mystical ocean of color that was coming into existence! Then the idea came to me—paint a Hand of Fatima! This blue magic would certainly be an ideal backdrop for this symbol I’d come to adore. I printed out a copy of the hand online to follow. This unique pattern, sometimes referred to as a Hand of Hamhsa, seemed relatively easy to copy or trace, even for someone as unskilled as I. When I looked at the lopsided result of my attempt to paint the hand in white acrylic with a fine brush, I was disheartened.
“See, I ruined my cool blue background,” I huffed in frustration.
In the spirit of process, I rolled with that frustration, angrily ripping away a paper towel and I just started rubbing. I hoped that enough of it would come off so that I might be able to salvage some of the base. What emerged was the cool, rather mystical white outline of a flower that you now see on the cover of the book.
“Wow, the hand now looks like a cloud, or a flower,” I said.
I noticed that my raging by paper towel maneuver also made some very interesting patterns on the canvas that I just began filling in with gold… and then with green. And then as I noticed the flower take shape, I finished off the core image with some of the pinkish-magenta that now composes the flower itself.
I stood back in amazement, declaring, “I did that! It’s beautiful!”
And it was totally an accident, the fruit of staying in process and not being fixated on outcome.
From the moment I began writing Process Not Perfection, I knew that this image would be my book’s cover. For being in the process that birthed this painting is when I truly fell in love with the magic of expressive arts. I adore how the practices of expressive arts therapy invite me into a focus on process rather than perfection, and I am so grateful to be surrounded by a community of other expressive artists who inspire me to carry this lesson into all areas of my life.
To the process, my friends! And to the inevitable magic that will unfold from living a life in process…
Ancient philosophers talked about the good life.
The good life is a sort of craft – the Greeks used the word techne. A call from and response to the world around us, requiring adaptation and contextual awareness. The blacksmith, for example, carefully integrates understanding of his material’s malleability, the temperature of his fire, and the resistance of his anvil in hammering out metal goods. Crafts, nay arts, are doings. These aren’t things that are thought about in the abstract. They require the thoughtful and active integration of material conditions in one’s world in order to produce an put forth or express a product. Likewise, the good life, is an active process in which one’s life is carefully crafted like a work of art.
But somewhere along the way philosophers began talking about what it means to live morally - searching for the correct set of rules or principles to which ones’ behavior or internal compass must conform. Kant is most famous for this with his categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” It’s a rather wordy command, that suggests that we ought to take no actions that give rise to logical contradictions. For example, the notion that “stealing is acceptable” is immoral, since stealing wouldn’t be possible in a world where everyone was stealing from everyone all of the time – it would result in a logical contradiction. Ergo, stealing is morally wrong. What is wrong is always wrong and what is good is always good. We can determine right and wrong, good and bad without any reference to the conditions in which a person lives.
Understanding morality this way is certainly a tidy way to look at the world. But humans are full of contradictions. For example, in one moment I might desire your approval, while in the next I could care less of what you think of me. Some might even say that the contradictory nature of our desires and thoughts are the distinguishing feature of what it means to be human. It is certainly one of the things that makes human beings such fascinating creatures. Humans grow, change, and adapt. We look back on the past in light of new experiences and rethink what those past events mean to us. We look into the future with the baggage of past experiences coloring what we see in front of us. We very often have our minds made up only to let all our old ideas go in the face of a new feeling, experience, or idea, and reform our minds again and again over the courses our lives. Very often we are confronted with experiences thrust upon us by conditions outside of our control, and we are forced to grow and adapt to accommodate these changes.
If we suppose that a “good” life can be understood in moral terms – that is right and wrong – we run the risk of losing what it means to be human at all. Because as much pain as there might exist in growth and change, there is also a great deal of beauty.
Over the course of my life I’ve had the privilege of mentoring and coaching a number of women through life challenges. Of watching them crawl through suffering, wash out their wounds, and trudge along. Inevitably, I find a moment in which we are sitting across the table from one another laughing about something completely inconsequential. And there she is. A fully realized human being, flourishing in her own right. It’s like a dance, an artform, to watch another person begin to integrate the pieces of their lives and reorganize their own narrative moving from tragic victim to laughing friend. It’s a dance that invites us to participate ourselves, reconsidering our own stories and rewriting our own endings.
Living morally is living abstractly – divorced from the world in ivory towers determining what is right and wrong for everyone. Living beautifully, crafting a good life, is done in concert with the world in which we live and each another, taking the time to integrate life lessons, and opening our hearts to grow. To rewrite our own unique stories and invite others to do the same.
Institute for creative mindfulness
Our work and our mission is to redefine therapy and our conversations are about the art and practice of healing. Blog launched in May 2018 by Dr. Jamie Marich, affiliates, and friends.