When Words Don’t Speak

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“What does psychological health mean to you?”

Words empty of meaning veil the elusive truth. Neither the speaker nor the listener can penetrate the protective defense. The sometimes unbearable truth may lie latent and out of reach. As psychotherapists, we don’t read minds, but we can suspend logical, sequential thought to enter into a space of non-linear attunement. Picking up on subtle, nonverbal expressions and the language of symbols, we may free the truth imprisoned in the shadow. Art is a valuable medium for accessing the “unknown thought” in illness and in health.

In circumstances of childhood trauma, unbearable experiences are locked away. Children whose feelings and perceptions were denied do not develop language for their subjective experiences. Art and expressive therapies provide a medium for symbolic expression from which client and therapist can co-construct meaning, and, in turn, develop language for experience. Art can also be the salve that helps one cope with normal adversity.

Art is beautiful. Like poetry, music, good fiction or a good movie, we resonate with the artist’s subjective expression. There is no right or wrong. You like it or you don’t. It stands in contrast to the scholarly science of psychology which relies on linear thinking and scientific inquiry. Observation leads to questions as we try to understand phenomena in our human experience. Then we are taught to formulate hypotheses, select sound research methods to test the hypotheses, analyze the data, and report the results. Building blocks aligned on the solid foundation of empirical discovery become the structures for our work as science practitioners. But, psychology is both science and art.

The practitioner side of psychology is like any art form. We learn the craft, then suspend the rules to find our own unique style. Psychotherapy can very much be a creative process, and books have been written on the art of psychotherapy. The immersion into the client’s subjective world draws on the intuitive and divergent thought processes of the right hemisphere. And, the exquisite attunement of being in the timeless space of shared subjectivity is both intimate and beautiful.

I never considered myself artistic growing up, although I did win the camp art contest when I was eight years old. Needing an elective in grade 12, I hesitantly picked Art. The teacher was surprisingly encouraging, though I continued to see myself as rather stiff and unoriginal. Like many other adolescents going straight on to university without a clear sense of identity or passion, picking a major seemed arbitrary. Remembering the encouragement from my former teacher, I chose Art, which became my passion. It also became the language for my own unformed words.

Art, in any form, symbolizes thought and emotions. Giving form to inchoate feelings shifts the inner experience and externalizes it. The images become forms that communicate with others and bring us into community. We are not alone. This is important for all people, yet even more for people who are suffering. There is still stigma surrounding mental disorders, and the seriously mentally ill are still marginalized. Yet, all people face challenges with varying levels of coping skills and social supports. Creative expression can be both an expressive outlet and a link to community that helps us cope with life’s challenges.

Psychology is both science and art. The balance between convergent and divergent thinking enriches both the science and the art of psychology. Art and expressive therapies enhance our psychotherapy tool box, and the coping tool box of the artist, particularly for people whose life experiences have robbed them of language for their inner experiences. Without the ability to communicate inner realities, people often exist in depriving emotional isolation despite their apparent relationships.

Psychological health means functioning optimally in work, play and relationships, as well as, resilience in coping with emerging challenges. We are delighted to have this forum to showcase talented young artists who have inspired us with their creativity and depth of character in their visual art pieces and their written explanations linking art to mental health. We welcome a “Piece of [their] Mind”.

Marilyn Chotem, Ed.D., R.Psych.

Dr. Marilyn Chotem has been practicing psychology in BC since 1979. She has worked in addictions, community mental health, eating disorders, a hospital psychiatric unit, and has had a private practice on the North Shore since 1992. www.marilynchotem.com

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