Tag Archives: psychotherapy

Less is more – or could be.

Painting is not something I am comfortable with, so this term’s project to produce a landscape has not been easy. Having to work on something over a period of weeks is another challenge – when it comes to paint I have an even shorter concentration span than usual. Of course, like most things that challenge us, it has produced some unexpected and interesting results.

I started with an imaginary landscape called ‘The Dreamboat’ that had an estuary, promontories, two boats, and maybe a light house.  It is still ‘The Dreamboat’, but this is what it is currently looking like. The light house was first to go, followed by one boat. Then some rocks appeared in the foreground, and the other boat vanished. Now the rocks have gone too. I’ve painted the sea over and over again, gradually discovering that I can reinvent the scene almost endlessly as I try to convey a mood or atmosphere. The subtleties of tone become increasingly significant as the features are painted out. DSCN0446-001

Less is more even when painting, I have discovered. Gradually taking away the obvious landmarks and recognisable features opens up another way of communicating. It makes me think about silence. In psychotherapy, silence is significant, and even noisier in group therapy than in individual work. I must have spent a lot of hours sitting in groups where no-one is speaking. We look around, gaze the floor, stare at the ceiling, glance at the clock and examine each other’s shoes.  Read a few episodes of The Wednesday Group and you will see the importance of footwear in group psychotherapy!

At some point someone (probably me) asks what is happening in the silence and we might struggle to put the thoughts we have been having into words. Sometimes it is the tone of the silence that is important. How does it feel, what sort of atmosphere, what does it convey? Then we are into the same territory as landscape painting, I think.  Often we end up talking about an image – someone will try to describe how they have experienced the silence in visual imagery, and we share our reactions to this imaginary scene or landscape.

How do you convey the subtleties of experience in words or images?  We are not all poets or painters, and words can be clumsy and crude, just as images too can be clichéd and lifeless. Taking away the easy phrases or formulaic images might leave us with a seemingly empty canvas or silent space.  It might, however, spark the realisation that under the surface of life there is more going on than we thought.

Advertisements

Imagination and psychotherapy: Drawing things out

Drawing from the imagination has always been a favourite activity of mine, but because of my skills deficit it usually ends up as some abstract doodle. Now I’m being challenged to take it further, and the results are surprising. 20130502_145822 The task in the drawing class was to use this collection of dried cordyline leaves  as a basis for some imaginative work using charcoal.

After an hour or so of various attempts, largely in the form of landscapes and ponds, this picture emerged. It seemed to draw itself, very quickly in the last thirty minutes of the class and it took me by surprise. It’s not my usual stuff at all, and I felt quite moved by it.the wig

Later it made me think about the phrase ‘drawing out’. In the conversations that make up psychotherapy, we are often drawing things out; trying to see more clearly that which has been obscured, buried, denied. Sometimes what emerges is painful and shocking, but not always. There moments when what emerges is surprising and beautiful. We can think of this as revealing something already present but hidden, or as I would want to claim, as a more creative process. In the conversation, a new possibility or image is co-created by client and therapist.  It is a drawn from the interplay of memory, intuition, experiences – and imagination.

The relationship between psychotherapy and imagination has engaged many theorists and practitioners for years. All of the writers that were influential in my development as a psychotherapist find a significant place for it – Marion Milner, Stephen Mitchell, Bob Hobson, and Winnicott, of course, are just a few that spring to mind immediately.

I think of empathy and imagination as different but related. The capacity to tune in to another’s emotional state seems partly hard wired into our neurological systems, although we could all cite examples of people who seem to have missed out on this particular piece of wiring!  But imagination takes us beyond this. When I am trying to grasp, intellectually and emotionally, the other’s reality, I am not only tuning in to ‘what is there’, but translating it into language. I use visual imagery a lot, sharing with clients the image that comes to my mind in the attempt to understand them. Sometimes it doesn’t speak to them, and is discarded. At other times the image seems to capture something significant for them, and enables them to see their own experience in a subtly different way.

This can be very powerful in group settings, where one person’s image can serve to draw out others that complement or animate each other in surprising and refreshing ways. Drawing together, whether with charcoal or with pictures in the mind,  can bring us to some unexpected and stimulating places. Imagination  is fundamental to the task of doing things differently. We can together imagine all sorts of scenarios and emotions that go beyond those familiar rehearsed experiences that often bring people into therapy in the first place. Without this creative element, we could only draw the same picture over and over again.

Linking how you draw and the books that you read.

I’ve had some interesting feedback about the possible links between the books we like to read and how we draw. At my drawing class, struggling with the still life, I asked my two neighbours what sort of things they liked to read, and I could immediately see the connections. The careful and sensible collection of pots seemed to fit nicely with ‘Call the Midwife’, and a bold splat of shapes with ‘I’m dyslexic –  I only read magazine articles’. You may be sceptical – of course we all hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see. But I also asked Neil, the tutor, and it’s not too hard to join up his current reading – Haruki Murakami, magic realism – to these paintings, is it?

Then I visited one of my favourite blogs, ‘A Sketch for the Day’, and asked the artist what sort of books he read. He quite reasonably asked me to guess:  I see his sketches as very contained but full of narrative so, I went for short stories – and was right!

I was completely defeated by Norman Ackroyd though. I watched a BBC programme about him going out in a boat to sketch the northern most rocks off the Scottish coat – fantastic forms and tones, along with a great sense of space and wilderness.  Watching him at work translating these sketches into a copper plate etching, it was impossible to imagine that he ever picked up a book as he was so entirely engrossed in the landscape that he was recreating in the studio.

It’s important to challenge simple theories and connections, anyway.  They generate poor art, bad writing and threadbare therapy. Lives are far too complex, multidimensional, messy and unpredictable to describe in terms of simple links. One of my favourite psychoanalytic writers, the late Stephen Mitchell, talked about our lives as works of art.   I don’t have the direct quote, as I lost all of my books in a house fire 18 months ago, and haven’t replaced everything. But I described it like this in my own writing

Every stimulus or experience is fashioned and organised into a subjective world by an active organism. A self is created like any work of art, from the interplay between an imaginative process and available material such as relationships and contexts. The materials offer potential and constraints that the process must work with, but the product is more than the materials.

Chris

The colourful therapist

It’s been a good week for drawing, and for meeting other sketchers. I’ve seen some very impressive painters too, but I’m at the stage where colour  seems a step too far – or so I tell myself. But then look at this, from the latest episode of The Wednesday Group. Doodling on the iPad is never colourless. Somehow in my mind this is completely different from the drawing that I do. Is this dissociation?  Pencil split off from iPad?

Stevie's volcano of anger

Stevie’s volcano of anger

I had another interesting conversation this week with a poet and writer, talking about styles of writing, and the sorts of books we prefer. I ‘m not very patient with descriptive, carefully crafted prose unless it can carry me along with an energetic story line. I want to know what happens next, rather than how sensuously the voile curtains are catching the breeze through the open French windows…. if you see what I mean. Is this somehow related to my focus on line rather than colour?

Maybe this plays out in the therapy room in my search for a coherent narrative, and a degree of impatience with the colour? I wonder what the colour consists of in this case. It isn’t the same as detail, because those are often fascinating. It’s very hard for the beginner to draw hands and feet, but unless you get them right, the figure never looks real. That carries over into therapy. There are certain details that jar, or don’t make sense, that have to be looked at much more closely. There are key areas that you have to work at repeatedly in order to begin to grasp the whole figure.

So what could colour mean in this context? And what makes a colourful psychotherapist? In our attempt not to overwhelm or impose upon the other person in the room, do we end up as 50 shades of grey? (That would make a great sketch, incidentally!)  I’m going to ask Phillipa Perry – she stands out for me as a potentially colourful psychotherapist. Anyone else you can suggest?

Chris

Listening to the radio … or not!

I don’t listen to the radio very much, and one of the reasons is about to unfold. A few weeks ago, after a young woman had taken her own life, there was a lot of discussion about the legal process in rape cases, and whether or not it should change. It is something that rightly stirs up strong feelings, and I tuned into a programme that advertised itself as discussing the complexities involved. Perhaps that’s what it became after 10 minutes, but I was too annoyed to listen for that long. It turned out to be one of those ‘discussions’ which was nothing to do with dialogue and a lot to do with dominance – winners and losers.  No –one was interested in other people’s perspectives, but just wanted to prove their own point, repeatedly….. like a political ‘debate’ where one side of the House shouts at each other.

When I finally get to be in charge, things are going to be different. Every primary school is going to teach children how to resolve conflicts through words. All those existing under funded projects to teach conflict resolution are going to become mandatory, and we are going to learn at last that listening and being listened to can produce healthier and more effective solutions to many of our current dilemmas. And the media is going to light the way with wonderful examples of intelligent conversations where people think together, and work out how to manage differences.

In the meantime, it makes me very appreciative of the psychotherapy world, where at least some of the time people are struggling hard to genuinely listen to others, even when their ideas and opinions are different.  Group therapy[i] in particular offers an opportunity to get beyond the adversarial and into genuine dialogue. The formula may be very simple: each party has the opportunity to be heard, uninterrupted. Those who are listening discuss their understanding of the points of view, and what they think might be going on, whilst the ‘protagonists’ listen. Then everyone talks together about what they have understood from the conversations so far. What usually happens is that the ‘third parties’ can say things that enable the protagonists to soften and begin to listen: they can both support them and challenge them. When the whole group then join together in conversation, something has shifted. Once it becomes possible that “I” could be wrong rather than “You” have to be, then we are really talking!

Of course it doesn’t always have a happy ending, and it may be revisited over and again. But the rewards are worth waiting for and worth working towards.


[i] Interestingly, Group Therapy FM is one radio programme that I do listen to, because it manages at times to do exactly that!