Creative therapies can nurture resilience in a client. When used to heal individuals it can be an impactful tool in moving clients along in the therapeutic process. My passion is working with clients who are experiencing relational trauma, especially those traumas that are created by intimacy issues, infidelity and/or sex/love addicted spouses.
Resilience is a key component to an emotionally balanced, healthy lifestyle and sometimes, through childhood neglect and abuse, many of us were unable to have opportunities to practice the skill of resilience in childhood. If a client’s childhood was unstable and unsafe, resilience skills could not flourish due to incoherence of left and right brain assimilation. According to the American Psychological Association, “resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.” It is our ability to “bounce back” from difficult experiences. We all have the ability to be resilient but trauma reactivity gets in the way of us using it as often as we can.
How do we tap into our clients’ natural stores of resilience? How do we help clients mine it and use it? One way I help is through an ongoing picture/story that is created. I often, while hearing their stories of trauma and survival, think of clients as super heroes helping themselves as an action figure. I state that one of their super powers is resilience. It could be fashioned into a lasso, a sword, magic hands, magnified heart, etc. I share this superhero vision with them when appropriate in their journey (once quite a bit of safety has been established or once sufficient therapeutic alliance is created) and a client can begin to imagine her own version of what this looks like and she draws/paints or sculpts a rendition while in my presence. Art therapy is remarkable in its ability to allow the client to create space for play and learning about themselves, while providing unspoken clues of what is needed to best help and support their journey. Art, when used as part of the experiential therapies, helps us do that better while reminding our clients that play and learning are connected in our brains. When completed, clients will often take pictures of their creations, using this as a reminder of their power. We get to add to that picture with more superpowers along the way. “Super Powers” such as: Safety, Truth, Passion, Clarity, Wisdom and Courage are some that usually are added. This right-brain-focused activity (creative/art therapy activity) helps create brain change that is healing and the clients have created a "different" or enlarged vision of themselves in a playful, non-threatening and really non- triggering way.
This superhero persona then becomes part of our clients’ narratives and they can dream and act in a comic strip or a story, practicing doing things differently in a safe place until they can use it (live it) somewhere in their lives.
Questions you can ask as you utilize this therapeutic technique are:
How would your super-woman handle this scenario?
What would your superhero tell you in this situation?
The ability to playfully engage in practicing the superhero’s strengths in the world creates an opening for it to actually happen. It brings up the best of our inner child strength, that magic power of trusting in many possibilities, with the propelling power of believing in our dreams. I believe resilience, joy and passion are connected.. Along the journey of healing, the client can, hopefully, engage in meaningful self discovery, which gives them (and us - thank goodness!) markers and glimpses about their true self/higher self, the self THEY want to be, not the self everyone else wants them to be.
What will your costume look like?
How will you protect yourself from villains?
What will you use to activate your resilience?
What other superpowers do you have?
Will they be activated with a lasso, bow and arrow, wand?
Is the costume infused with any magic?
If we, as therapists, are present enough with them, we can take the clues and shine lights on them – bringing them to our clients’ conscious, aware mind. Anything that has to do with action that comes from that true self is inspiring and gives them motivation to move forward… sometimes in tiny steps and sometimes in great leaps and bounds. This is resilience in action!
I have included pictures of this creative therapy tool being used by a partner of a sex addict over time. (Note: Photos were added with permission from the client for educational purposes.) This client, “Fran” had become stuck and alienated from her true self because she was living a life full of PTSD symptoms enhanced by her husbands porn addiction and his extra marital affairs. She didn’t even recognize herself by the time she asked me for help. She was diagnosed with depression and complex-PTSD. In the first year of her treatment, she created many superhero personas to engage as she worked toward feeling better.
These pictures are Sandtray depictions of her superhero narratives. Remember, you can just offer markers and paper to create this opportunity for a client. At our center, we are lucky enough to have an art room and a Sandtray room so that clients have a choice about how they create their superhero story.
In the first one, you see a standard bearer (her superhero was named “First in Line”) readying herself to climb up and over her community/family/self beliefs with her superpowers in the standard that carries endless amounts of "energy" and "courage". Her goal was to get to the rainbow and the treasure: endless hope and endless riches. The only direction from me was, "Let us see what ‘First In Line’ looks like today."
Toward the end of her therapy, she created a new superhero persona and created this Sandtray: It shows Fran as Wonder Woman, elevated and with her arms as wide open as she could extend them, addressing her attributes (her superpowers) of Intellect, Sense of Humor (and Peace and Honor… she just didn't know that yet), and Tenacity. When she combined her three superpowers she became Powerful and Competent. This image became her grounding and empowering force and she used it in her daily life. She has since gone on to create a fulfilling business that feeds her passion and wisdom and is rarely touched by PTSD symptomology or depression symptoms.
I hope this post will challenge your creative superhero in how you do therapy with your own clients. The more passionate and creative we are, the more we can help nurture those aspects in them. Helping them recognize and practice the resilience within them will help to create sustained mental health growth and progress.
Sharon Rinearson, LCSW, Certified clinical Partners specialist-candidate, and a certified clinical trauma professional has extensive experience treating individuals, couples, and families with mental health disorders, including those associated with addiction and the trauma reactions created from living with an addict. She has many certifications in play therapy, sandtray and sandplay therapies and is an innovative experiential therapist. Sharon is the co-founder and Director of Clinical Services of CORE Behavioral Healthcare
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