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  • What is Art Therapy? (A Conversational Blog)

    What is Art Therapy? (A Conversational Blog)

    While the concept of art therapy has been around since the 1950’s, it is still a rather less well-known therapeutic modality with plenty of myths and misconceptions. 

    According to the American Art Therapy Association (2017), “Art therapy is an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.”

    But what does that really mean?

    For me, it boils down to learning to interact with our innate creativity in a way that helps us move through our stuff. When I explain art therapy to clients, I usually express that while the art itself is important, it’s the process that many people forget to see. The process of art making, or the “creative process,” is the thing that, when observed, is able to illuminate many of the road blocks in our lives that may be hidden underneath the surface. For example, one of the first responses I receive when I introduce art therapy is, “Well, I’m not good at art,” to which I follow with, “I don’t know what that means,” and we both have a laugh. But this is where the process starts. Let’s take a look at why a person is setting an expectation for themselves. Are they afraid of making a mistake? Does it feel too child-like? Do they not know where to start? Are they afraid of what may come out? Now, where else in their lives do we see that? Can we use this process of art making, of just beginning to think about moving to the edge of our comfort zone, to challenge some of the beliefs and mis- or preconceptions we may have about ourselves that may no longer serve us. And on the other side of that, what kind of things are they good at, that they find less of a struggle with? Are they confident in one material over another? Are they willing to take a risk and make mistakes? Again, where else in their lives can we see that and celebrate the strengths as well as work on the things that are less helpful.

    What I love about art therapy is that we can work on so many things at the same time in a way that feels a lot like play. Understandably, it can feel very silly and child-like to experiment with new materials. To that I ask, what’s wrong with that? As children, we learn and grow through play. As we grow up, those processes don’t go away, we simply are trained out of that skill in favor of more structured and practical knowledge (See Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk: Do Schools Kill Creativity? for a deeper dive on this). But that doesn’t mean that learning through play and creativity stop working. When we engage with ourselves and our experiences through art making, we can imitate actual experiences and work on changes in the creative process that will generalize to the world outside of the art work. We can challenge things like perfectionism and problem-solving and build skills to sit with discomfort that directly translates to life. 

    It takes a lot of courage to try something different, especially if you are holding on to messages that tell you that you’re not good enough or creative enough or artistic enough. But why are you holding on to those messages? Why not start challenging those beliefs and reconnect with your innate creativity? 


    Sarah A. Mueller, MA, LPC, ATR

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