Tag Archives: group therapy

Drawing out emotion

I’ve spent 3 interesting days in Bristol sketching in an urban sketching workshop that has stirred me into writing, as well as drawing! Back in 2014 when I signed up for my first urban sketchers workshop in Oxford, I wrote about the challenge of learning new things and teaching styles. This Bristol workshop was led by the same three instructors (Isabel Carmona, Victor Swasky and Miguel Herranz) so it inevitably prompted memories. Since 2014, I’ve done quite a bit of sketching and they have run a lot of courses, so we meet again older and wiser! (?)

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The other big difference was the project, for having written about ‘what’s the point’ of urban sketching, here was something with a clear purpose; we were sketching at Elm Tree Farm, run by the Brandon Trust, to showcase their work with vulnerable adults. Len Grant, also a participant of the 2014 Oxford workshop, was there with his expertise, having sketched for a number of projects in Bolton, to inspire us to engage with people whilst drawing. So a group of 15 friendly and interesting sketchers swarmed over the farm, talking with whoever they could find and sketching away like mad.

One of the interesting themes was finding a balance in drawing between information and emotion. At first glance this sounded like don’t put too much ‘stuff’ in your drawing, and let rip with colour, but of course nothing is that “black and white”.

It’s not that easy to convey emotion; emotion is slippery and subjective. Where I see panic, you might see excitement, for example. Between despair and joy there are many subtleties, and expressing them challenges everyone’s preferred style. Emotions find their way between line and colour in ways that are frankly, mysterious.

How emotion is expressed varies too. I am used to, comfortable with, reading emotion from small gestures and expressions and exploring what is going on. I don’t see that the person who shouts or cries has any greater capacity to feel than the person who sits tight lipped and rigid. Expressed emotion and experienced emotion are not necessarily the same thing: We can feel something powerfully and hold it in our hearts. It will probably change if and when we share it – but the silent version can be as big a disturbance as any screaming, fighting, shouting, weeping outpouring. There are some beautiful paintings by Vilhelm Hammershoi that, for me, make this so apparent.

Somewhere there is an elusive balance between containment and expression. Either ends of the spectrum give us difficulties in relating to others. We can be drowned by, or starved of feeling in a relationship, and much of group therapy is involved in discovering a rewarding mixture where there is mutuality; learning to both contain and express emotion in ways that acknowledge the other; learning to communicate how we feel without dominating or controlling.

How this translates into drawing is very much work-in-progress! I would love to finding a balance in sketching between the explicit and the implied, giving enough to enable the viewer to fly off in their imagination and make their own story.

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This relates to a style that I really enjoy – a composition of small frames, each giving a glimpse of the overall scene. I think it plays into my ideas about multiple versions, fragmentary glimpses, paradoxes, the multidimensional selves that are so apparent in groups.

It’s a style of sketching that seems to me playful, and so much fun that it verges on the ‘not really sketching but messing about’ boundary. Interestingly the other thing I drew that  felt similarly playful  was a map. Here I am trying to draw all the pieces together to make sense of the whole – there are so many links between sketching and psychotherapy!

 

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Conducting the group

 

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The large group is a particular species in group analytic terms, and personally I have shied away from it. But last weekend I was one of 850 people singing in the park in Bath, raising money for WaterAid – a completely new venture for me and definitely a sign that changing environments has a profound effect!

I’ve not done anything like this before, and I was amazed at the difference the conductor could make to the singing. We had 5 different singer/songwriters conducting their own songs so it was a good opportunity to contrast and compare. All were smiley and encouraging, but……

What is the ‘but’ ? At one stage I felt that the conductor was frustrated that we weren’t performing ‘her song’ quite as she wished, and in response I felt I didn’t like the song very much. It’s that childhood experience of encountering a teacher who is disappointed in you, and feeling that you are not good at whatever subject they are teaching. Chemistry, for example.

One conductor I felt seemed tired somewhere deep in herself, beneath the warm and nurturing surface, and I felt concerned, a little anxious, whereas there were others who seemed calm, alive and very much in dialogue with this unwieldy gang of 850. This of course may turn out to be all about me and my projections! However, as a great believer in unconscious communication, I’m not going to dismiss it, especially as it reminded me so much of group facilitating.

Calling it ‘conducting’ has gone out of fashion in some circles, but in my supervision I often find it such a helpful word. In the choir, the conductor at different moments emphasised, drew out, calmed down, provoked, encouraged the different voices so that together they created a rich and balanced sound. The parallel is clear I think! Add to that their ability to be personable – to incorporate their skills, techniques, talents with their own unique style and identity – and you have a great facilitator!

Of course, the relationship between choir member and a conductor that you meet once or twice is very different from that that develops between a therapy group member and the facilitator. Expectations, commitments, the long-term revealing and working with rational patterns – all very different, but there is some common ground, I believe. Few group facilitators are waving their arms, swaying, clapping, and pointing; but the ways in which they use their voice, body, facial expressions, the way they communicate warmth, displeasure, approval, enjoyment, frustration – these all very much part of conducting a therapy group.

My brief experience at the weekend as a group member reminded me how powerful this could be. I felt quite differently with each conductor. At best I felt open, light hearted, alive and enjoying the task. I would describe this as being contained- clear boundaries, clear signals, and challenged – let’s try that again – within a relationship that felt mutually creative. There was familiar ambiguity about control and authority. I was being told what to do by someone who I felt was fully aware that I could choose to wander off whenever I wanted. Power sharing ! However bossy I might be as a group facilitator, I know I have absolutely no power other than that given me by a fragile consensus in the group.

I started off writing about an experience that felt like new territory and have ended back on familiar ground. Being able to hold together the old and the new seems like a good way to proceed, and not only in psychotherapy.

Fresh eyes and new perspectives

Urban sketching has taken off since last July’s course in Oxford.  Firstly, there has been another 3 day Urban Sketchers workshop based in Coventry, and secondly two of us have organised SketchCoventry, a monthly group that does just what it’s name says.

Although I’ve lived here for over 15 years, I’ve never felt particularly attached to Coventry, so when Jo Roberts and I were working on the ‘home’ project, I was very clear that Coventry was just a place that by chance I had ended up in and no more.

The 3-day workshop was all about perspectives, and it attracted quite a few sketchers who had never been to Coventry, as well as some locals like myself. We began in the Old Cathedral, abandoning any attempt at a classic perspective, which was such a liberating way to begin!

 

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Other challenges included drawing without looking at the paper – the basis for this sketch of the cafe at The Herbert Art Gallery.

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We tried a fish eye lens perspective, which was really difficult for me, as well as wrestling with the more familiar vanishing point version.

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All the while I could hear other perspectives on Coventry itself from my fellow sketchers. Their reactions were very surprising! I expected them to rave about the market, Coventry’s jewel in the crown, but their appreciation of some other aspects came as a shock. My favourite comment came from a Danish woman who described the city as a “fascinating blend of the brutal and mediaeval”!

Seeing the familiar and disregarded through the eyes of others made me appreciate the city in a way that I hadn’t managed before. It’s like taking someone you’ve known for ages to a party and discovering that other people find them new and exciting. We can think that we know someone so well that there is nothing that they can say or do that will surprise us. We are sure we have exhausted all the possibilities, which can be comforting but inevitably dull. Then some one else is introduced into the picture and we realise that, after all, there were things we didn’t know or hadn’t seen.

Put a new member into a therapy group and listen in amazement as some long standing member talks about an aspect of their life that you have never heard of! Watch them shine or shrink and marvel at their transformation! Beware of thinking that you know someone ‘through and through’, whether this is you partner, parent, child – or even long-term client! Other people bring fresh perspectives that challenge our own limited vision.

We put people and places into boxes and are boxed up ourselves. Being able to open them, see round the corners, re-evaluate, is central to psychotherapy . Sketching too is a great way to re-engage with the familiar. It requires us to look at what is there rather than assume we already know what it looks like. And just in case we get too complacent about our new vision, a glance at all the other sketchbooks reinforces that there is always more to see.sketchcoventry 7 - pm drawings

 

PS. There are more sketches making their way onto the Urban Sketching page – I haven’t found a way to post blogs on both pages yet!

 

Safety in numbers? Sketching with the group.

There’s been a lot happening on the urban sketching scene since I last wrote. Inspired by the Oxford workshop, we have set up a small group who have met 4 times now to ‘SketchCoventry’. We are lucky to have an excellent art gallery, The Herbert, where we meet up, and it looks as if there may well be an Urban Sketchers workshop here in Coventry next April! This is timed to coincide with the exhibition Recording Britain that is touring the country and which I caught up with last year in Sheffield. It feels good to be involved in such a fascinating project, and amazing to think that it has all come about thanks to three of us pushing at some doors and finding that they opened!

We are a small group so far, but that feels fine to me. We meet up for coffee, decide where we are drawing and sometimes split into smaller groups; then we join up for lunch to look at the sketches. In the afternoon there is another foray, followed by more refreshments and more learning from each other’s drawings. It is very flexible and friendly, with ex-Oxford workshop sketchers making the effort to come from London, Shrewsbury and Banbury. Last 12 Months - 21

The Herbert Gallery was having a WW1 ‘family day (!) so there were lots of children clutching huge tissue paper poppies that they had made.

Sketching out in public is still a challenge, but is transformed by the group effect. I don’t feel nearly so conspicuous or vulnerable when there are two or three people drawing nearby. We give each other a sense of security and confidence; it seems that as a group we are far less likely to be interrupted or criticised than on our own. I wonder whether this is objectively the case or is something that, like a placebo, just makes us feel good.Sketch Cov2

We huddled together on the sofas in ‘Fargo Village’ to draw one of the vintage clothes stall.

The idea that there is ‘safety in numbers’ is set against a range of fears about the dangers of groups and I can see this good group/ bad group split in my therapy group too. The good version brings mutual understanding and support; the other side is the capacity to cut deep, to ignore, reject and challenge. This all reminded me of an article that I wrote for Therapy Today some time ago, and when I checked it out, this is what I found –

“Joining a group is rarely an emotionally neutral event. It holds both a promise and a threat. Depending on the sort of group, it may promise learning, companionship, support, relationship, and intimacy, for example. But it also contains a threat – of isolation, humiliation, lack of autonomy, domination, dependence, and attack. The relative force of ‘promise’ or ‘threat’ is shaped by the particular nature of the group itself, and by our previous experiences of group life.”

As far as SketchCoventry goes, there is a lot of promise and very little threat. Having said that I recognise how anxious any newcomers are about the quality of their own sketches – just like I was in Oxford last summer. The possibility of humiliation feels real, even though it is far more likely to be some internal critical voice of our own than anyone in the group. This I am sure connects with our previous, probably early, experiences in groups. It’s hard to find anyone who does not have a tale of being humiliated at school, for example…. and as for the family, that’s a whole other story brewing up for the next post!

The more you know …

This is a new stage for me. I’ve got 3 of my paintings hanging in Gallery 150 in Leamington, and have been to my first ever private view. Imagine you are 6 years old, and have had your picture chosen to go on the classroom wall for parent’s evening. That’s my feeling about it, but my fellow exhibitors seem to be more grown up, weary even; I suspect that this is a fleeting excitement, so I’m making the most of it. 20140513_204733-001

They pictures look different in the gallery. In my ‘art room’ they were the only paintings in an unruly landscape of clutter, whereas in the gallery they are surrounded by others, and have to hold their ground in the exhibition as a whole. So it seems that just like people, paintings are shaped by their context! The transformation that takes place when someone I have worked with in one-to-one therapy joins a group is always surprising, even though by now I know it is inevitable. I see them in a different light, and discover new angles and perspectives which hopefully they appreciate also. I hadn’t paid attention to the analogous process going on in galleries and exhibitions.

In fact, I’ve never given much thought at all to ‘curating’ until now, when I discover that there is a whole academic discipline complete with MSc’s and PhD’s, international organisations, research and so forth! Once you walk through the door labelled ‘sketching’ you discover its Tardis- like qualities. It leads into drawing, painting, sculpture, galleries, artists’ societies, workshops, courses, curating ….There is a whole universe, fully inhabited and busily working away, which existed outside of my awareness. I find that both exciting and daunting – it’s easy to assume that you know your environment, when in fact what you know is only the smallest fraction of what is going on!

Here comes the link again with group therapy. What you know is only the smallest part of a very complex environment. New group facilitators say to me ‘I can’t understand what is going on in the group ’, expecting me to have sussed it out – after all, I’ve been running groups for SO long!

I do spend a lot of energy ‘trying to understand’. There is both the process of trying to ‘fit the pieces’ together, and of discovering pieces that you never knew existed. That’s the free associative, imaginative type of understanding that I find can be so rich and rewarding. However, the most important thing to understand is that the ideas we have are always limited and partial. There is always more.

 

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These are small, 9″ x 12″ acrylic paintings, titled ‘LEAVING’  and numbered 1-3 in an arbitrary sequence. Leaving   3 Arrange them as you will, and create your own stories around them!Leaving    1

When and whether to give up

This post has taken a long time coming. I’ve been pulled in different directions, between the continuing struggle with portraits, and the challenge of line drawing without any shading. But In my heart there is a clear favourite. I have been working with oil paints for the first time, trying to paint a child’s portrait from an old family photograph. I have worked on it for months, rubbing out, repainting, going over and over it to try to correct the faults and bring it to life. It has consumed hours of my time but was only a partial success, as you can see.photo Then one afternoon I just gave up on it and rubbed the face out completely.

At what point do you decide to stop working at something? This is an important question, both personally, and professionally. How do I decide whether or not I am banging my head against a brick wall, or knowing the importance of  hope, just rolling with the frustrations? I have a lot of experience in working for years with particular people, and I know that genuine change is piecemeal and takes far longer than our culture thinks it should. At the same time, I work with a service that offers very brief, time limited counselling,  and  I recognise that even in this micro format, psychotherapy can make a positive impact. In this context, it is necessary to make quick judgements about which clients will benefit from the limited resources available; despite the misgivings and failures, I see this as a valuable skill for therapists to have.

In my own group I am free from the external pressure, but am still trying to make judgements about what works best for the group and its members. Years ago, there was a group member who had sat in the group for a very long time, and despite sporadic periods of talking, was largely a silent participant – or passenger. The language is important.  He showed no signs of movement within the group, or in his life outside, despite all our efforts. I reached a point where I put him under a lot of pressure to interact differently in the group …. and he never came back. This was someone who had been a part of the group for years and years, and it had a huge impact, especially on me. I had talked it through with supervisors and colleagues, had tried a range of alternatives before reaching this point – but even though I could justify my actions, I never felt good about what happened. It has stayed with me throughout my professional career. Giving up is not a comfortable choice.

So what about the painting?

The problem, I thought, must lie in the original drawing. I didn’t understand the face well enough, so needed literally to go back to the drawing board. I’m more familiar with drawing, unlike oil painting, and I can play around with the marks more readily. So I produced this, which isn’t going to get ripped up and put in the bin. photo-1

The same approach works in the group. If we can’t get to where we think we want to go by one route, then let’s rethink. Is there another way? Or are we heading in the wrong direction? And just as in the drawing, often we have to go back to the beginning. Where are the roots of the distortion, the discomfort? Let’s see if we can move forwards by understanding more about the basic structures that have shaped someone’s life, the bones that the flesh sits upon.

This sort of understanding does not come easily. There is no psychodynamic formulation that can simply be applied. All of it is hard won, just as in the portrait, for even though I might have grasped something, will it enable me to paint it again without repeating all the same mistakes? We will see!